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Neighborhood Design Center Brings Ideas to Life

Walker Evans Walker Evans Neighborhood Design Center Brings Ideas to Life
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If you follow urban development projects and announcements in Central Ohio, chances are you’ve seen the work of the Neighborhood Design Center in action. Formed nearly 30 years ago, this non-profit entity is a collaborative effort between the City of Columbus and The Ohio State University to provide affordable development design services for local neighborhood and business association groups.

We recently stopped by the Neighborhood Design Center to speak with Al Berthold, Executive Director, Cheryl Huffman, Director of Landscape and Urban Design and Landscape Architects Katie O’Lone and Jennifer Saunier.

Walker Evans: Can you give us the brief overview of what exactly the Neighborhood Design Center is?

Al Berthold: The NDC was originally chartered as a 501c3 in 1982, so we’ll be 30 years old in 2012. It was originally created as a joint venture between the City of Columbus and OSU to provide design services in the Short North area. That was an area that the city was very interested in stimulating redevelopment and retail redevelopment. From there it grew to having two offices: one in Franklinton and one on Parsons Avenue. Those were consolidated a few years ago into one office on East Main Street, and the services offered were broadened to include other corridors that are similar to Short North. Those corridors include Broad Street in the Hilltop and Franklinton, Main Street, Long Street, Mt Vernon, Parsons, Livingston, pieces of Cleveland Avenue, generally in Greater Linden and a small fragment of Old North Columbus.

The City of Columbus provides about half of our funding, the other half comes from paid projects that we take on. Franklin County is one of our main clients. We also do a fair amount of visioning work in the township. Our projects range from facade improvements to landscape architecture. We call our projects “visionings”. We are currently located across the street from OSU and have students working with us from OSU, CCAD and the University of Cincinnati.

WE: With the focus on “visionings” and not actual tangible projects, do you find it challenging to convey or display exactly what you do to the general public?

AB: Ideas have great value. People ask us to help them and then begin to think about things based on the thoughts that our students have. Those things may not necessarily end up being implemented… but our work is still there in that germ of an idea that kind of just rolls around. In some cases it gets built and in other cases some other actions are taken, based on whatever that idea changes into.

One example of that would be the Rickenbacker House. There was a lot of interest on the City’s part and various other individuals to do something with Eddie Rickenbacker’s house, which was located on Livingston Avenue. The Neighborhood Design Center was part of that dialogue, and was on the side of convincing the powers that be to leave the house where it was rather than move it to some sort of semi-historical village type concept southeast of Downtown. We were involved in doing various planning concepts around that house. Ultimately, the house was redone; and it is on the National Registry as a significant structure. There is also an adjacent house that is about the same scale; it looks very cute next to the Rickenbacker house and we have subsequently redone the exterior of that as we did the Rickenbacker house. There is a large building behind it that is intended to be a community center for the neighborhood.

Cheryl Huffman: Even though the built outcomes are really rewarding for us to see, I think the most important product that we put out are the planning, visioning and urban design documents. That’s the true incubator here. Without that we don’t have a community consensus or a leader to pick that up and move it along. I think that’s the most important product of the whole process. But we also have other built works that haven’t been mentioned.

AB: Somehow when you get the ball rolling in a community, you don’t have to necessarily be there when it reaches its logical conclusion. We have done some work in Newark, Ohio. That was a lot of dialogue. We had a grant to do a part of Newark that was similar to our East Main Street… in fact it is Main Street in Newark. That led to another project of a downtown visioning piece. That led to another project about exploring avenues to take bikeways through the city of Newark. Newark has some wonderful bike trails that bring bikers to the edge of town but nothing in to town. So we did many different designs of how bikes could work around town. We analyzed the value of those and now the city is embarking on a grant program from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to implement bike trails through Newark and in to Newark. So that little idea from two or three years ago is now going to be implemented shortly.

CH: Many of the grant applications asks if you have a plan and if it’s been adopted by your City Council, and they also ask for letters of support. In this process we help initiate that.

AB: A lot of our corridors are represented by business organizations including the Franklinton Board of Trade, the Parsons Avenue Merchants Association, the Greater Linden Association, etc. The Parsons Avenue Merchants Association felt that the neighborhood entry from the area from around Children’s Hospital was not appropriately announced. In conjunction with our services, we provided some design ideas, Children’s Hospital donated a small corner of a large garage for a site for a sculpture or something that commemorates famous people from the Southside. This was just finished and will be implemented this year. We are going to be hanging donor plaques in the Spring once they get all of their small donors accumulated.

CH: This was a really long term project though. Four years in the making.

AB: One of the more interesting things that we’ve been involved with is the Mile on High. It’s a coordination with the Downtown SID and Department of Development who is very interested in getting the word out about what a great place Downtown Columbus is and what kind of great opportunities exist. We are being funded now for our second year with this program. Really to work with Cleve Ricksecker and his people to create an online accessible database for properties downtown. We’re going to augment that on a monthly or bimonthly basis with snapshots of buildings that have a lot of potential for those potentials and suggest ways that those buildings could be reused. The best one right now is the Budget Rent-A-Car on Third and Long. I believe that their lease is expiring soon and I’m not sure that they’re going to renew. It’s a one story building with a parking lot in an area that has a lot of housing in it. There are a lot of re-use ideas for that space. Cleve and I talked about looking at that as maybe a Farmer’s Market and create an extension of the type of thing going on in Pearl Alley. But with a bigger scale and with some indoor space for the winter.

WE: Are there any other little concepts like that that are in the very early idea stages?

AB: Wall Street is probably our biggest new idea concept right now.

We have also done some things for the Franklinton Board of Trade. Franklinton is trying to be known as an arts district, as many areas are, but with their own kind of interesting twist. We came up with some unified sign programs. We called this the Frame Project.

We’ve done a very similar program in Linden where we actually went out with the Linden Business Association and identified various people that would be interested in doing something to the exterior of their buildings and we had a Saturday session where they all came in and we matched one with four or five designers and on the spot we created some different ideas of what could be done to their facades. And as part of that program, city staff were there and went into great detail about four or five different loan or grant programs that the city has available to stimulate outdoor renovation.

So those two, The Frame Program taking a group of buildings, or The Side by Side Program taking an assortment of buildings is something we believe that we are going to take to each of the various neighborhoods and see if we can implement a program like that. So instead of doing one by one which is a little bit vicarious, we do them in bundles, with with individual owners or bundles of contiguous property owners. I think this creates in everyone’s mind, the opportunity of specialness. Every community or corridor needs something that’s special and we hear that all of the time.

WE: Franklinton is an interesting case study because of the neighborhood alignment along Broad Street, which is very wide and very fast through the middle of that area. Does the Neighborhood Design Center make recommendations on infrastructure improvements that the City of Columbus would then implement?

CH: We’ve been talking about that a lot lately.

AB: As a partner of the City, we try to maintain our independence of thought from some of the things that go on in the city. Some of which are not necessarily applauded by the local community. There was an issue in the Hilltop about parking and the traffic department’s desire to create bike lanes and figure out other places to put cars, etc. It was not well received by the local businesses. We were asked by the Department of Development, which is the department that funds us, to try to solve some of these issues. Parking seems very simple, but actually it became quite complicated. Part of this process was a door by door interview with every business in that area. And that was very interesting. After two community public sessions the City decided to go a different course in the most concentrated portion of the businesses in Broad St and reroute the bike path to make accommodations for parking which all of the businesses felt was very important. I think that’s a victory for the City and we didn’t get too ruffled by other portions of the city. They got what they wanted which was a bike lane/bus lane going east on Broad Street with maintained parking. And on the west side of Broad Street parking was maintained there. So win win for everybody.

WE: The discussion here on Columbus Underground about the bike lanes on the west side was quite involved and a sometimes heated discussion between biking advocates, business owners and residents, which raises a question about the Neighborhood Design Center – how does social planning come into play? How do you manage collecting all of that information – online and offline – and turn it into something productive?

AB: Everybody has a say. We were in a township the other night talking about a signage program for a township signifying that you are leaving Columbus Ohio and moving into this particular township. They have a lot of pride. They wanted something more than the standard green and white sign. You have to work through the dialogue. Generally if someone suggests that they’d like to see a different idea, we illustrate that.

Anyway, the biggest thing about the bike lanes is that it’s not something permanent. Bike lanes are paint. Building colors come and go. People come and go. Neighborhoods change. I think the things we were doing in the Short North thirty years ago, we could not do today. We just couldn’t just take things and stick them wherever. So we have the luxury of not building hospitals or other things that are expected to last for hundreds of years. Things change over time. Hearing, listening and talking to people. We don’t do architectural drawings here. Most of our time is just getting people talking to each other. To be the facilitator for good ideas.

CH: We let our students present their ideas first and then we open up the floor for any comments and questions. A lot of times, the voices that speak the loudest are heard in those settings, so we also bring along comment sheets or surveys to gauge the rest of the room on their opinions.

AB: It’s a very different way of doing design work. We are not the great forum givers. We are of the community and the students are the greatest resource for simple, fresh, not very heavy-handed ideas. So we are much different from the typical consultant that would come in with an agenda. We approach each task in an open minded and unprejudiced way, and we listen to people. The hardest thing is to get someone to describe what their neighborhood looks like. What are you proud of there? If we can get that dialogue out, then I think we have moved the state of consciousness from unknown to known. And then they’re ready to go out and do some things.

WE: Are there any other new projects coming up in 2011 that are of interest to our readers?

AB: Well, design work has a very funny schedule. Things drop off of the edge of the Earth in December and January. After the holidays though, the phone starts ringing again and things pick up the pace.

Jennifer Saunier: The “Artwalk” maps are something creative and cool and new. We did three Artwalk maps, partnering with Columbus Public Health. We did them through the Arena District, around the Statehouse and in the Discovery District. Three more are coming out that I’ve been working hard on.

CH: Columbus Health Department started this program on their own and we helped them develop a new logo, new maps and new templates. I think this project also opened up our eyes to the idea of putting a health emphasis on certain types of projects. Jen’s working also on a project with the United Way in the King-Lincoln District. And I don’t think without this Artwalks project we would have come up with the idea of focusing on diabetes in that neighborhood.

AB: Our dexterity should be as broad as we can make it. That’s the world we live in. We look at something and think about how we can put it together in unique and different ways. How can we make something more friendly and more accessible.

WE: Is there anything else you’d like to add about the student experience in process at the Neighborhood Design Center?

CH: I’ll let Katy expand on that.

Katy O’Lone: Well, in the classroom we have studio work to complete and we do similar types of things that we do here at Neighborhood Design Center – all of the conceptual design, the beginning of projects rather than the end construction document. But in the classroom setting we are only going through these motions with our classmates and when we talk to professional designers, it’s a very different world. So when we come over here to the NDC and we have to talk directly to the public, we actually hear what people want in a real world situation. It’s a whole new conversation where we have to learn how to talk to someone who maybe doesn’t understand the design realm or the lingo. That experience is probably what is most valuable to students. The fact that Jen and I recently graduated and instead of just coming into a firm and just producing CAD documents, we actually get to talk to clients and produce work and share ideas and talk to the public instead of just being someone who is kind of sitting in the background and not being involved in the real world.

WE: After graduation and beyond the Neighborhood Design Center, what types of fields or jobs to graduates move on to?

KO: Jen and I are both landscape architecture graduates.

AB: I think we’ve potentially overbuilt, given the state of the world. There’s not a lot of projects to go around at design firms right now. Students are beginning to find new and different ways to practice their craft. I think a lot of the students are looking for a cool place to go, new experiences, because the opportunity to jump right into the profession just isn’t there. And I really think that’s great for them because they will not regret any experiences like what we can provide at the NDC which is so much different than sitting there just drawing at a design firm.

CH: Yes, I think the project management is the most unique opportunity that we provide the interns with. Anywhere else, you wouldn’t be handed a project and told, “here, run with it.” We’re of course here to guide the projects, but you certainly are awarded them, what you contribute on. That’s one of our unwritten tasks, it’s our job to help students find their potential while we help neighborhoods and communities find their potential.

More information can be found online at NeighborhoodDesign.org.

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