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The Rebirth of The Hilltop Via Highland West

Walker Evans Walker Evans
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(Photos by Geoffrey Phillips)

If any one urban area has been the center of media attention over the past six months, it would have to be Highland West. This Hilltop neighborhood has been the focus of a variety of issues and initiatives including a retail restoration project along West Broad Street, some drama involving the addition of on-street bike lanes, and the recent possibility of being closer neighbors with the Columbus Casino. To learn more about this area, we recently sat down with Geoffrey Phillips, President of the Highland West Neighbors Association.

Walker Evans: To start, can you give us a little bit of an overview about Highland West and explain the current neighborhood efforts aimed at bringing energy back to this area.

Geoffrey Phillips: Highland West is a neighborhood association, and we started having meetings this past summer. There had been an existing organization called Highland Village which had become inactive over the past couple of years. It all started out as a system of blockwatches, but the neighborhood needs a lot more than just a blockwatch. It really needs community identification and community pride, which seem to be lacking… and not on the part of the people who already lived there. They’ve just never had a focused group that could bring everyone together and represent how they feel toward the larger community.

WE: So how did those first few meetings go?

GP: After the first few meetings we came up with our objectives and bylaws. Our first meetings focused on blockwatch issues because crime was something we wanted to start on right away. The first blockwatch meeting was early fall/late summer last year. Diana Pearson and I went down the south side of Broad and posted flyers on telephone poles. A lot of the people around here are older and aren’t online, so email is not a way you can really get a hold of a majority of our people. You really have to go to them door to door, but we didn’t have time for that. We didn’t have the money for mailings either, so we used telephone poles as information centers to tell people what was going on.

We had our first meeting at Hillcrest Baptist Church on West Broad. We were worried that enough people wouldn’t show up, but we ended up having 40-some people at the first meeting. In Sept/Oct we had another meeting with 66 people. During all of this we got incorporated, reserved the name and got our bylaws together. I became first president, and we set the bylaws to require yearly turnover. Board members turn over every two years. We set up committees for social events, blockwatches, media, government and finance. It always takes time to build these things, but we are getting more and more participation every day. We have both resident members, and members outside of the community.

WE: Just in case people aren’t aware, can you give us the boundaries of the Highland West community?

GP: The boundaries are I-70 to the east, Hague to the west, Sulllivant to the south and the railroad tracks to the north:

WE: With Broad Street being such an important commercial corridor through he middle of the neighborhood, does the neighborhood association extend itself to businesses or business interests along that strip?

GP: We do pay some attention to people like business owners and landlords who do have a stake in the community, but for the most part you need to be a resident to have a vote in the neighborhood association. I think we do a good job of listening to what our people want and then we represent whatever they want.

And for the most part what our neighbors want is for Broad Street to be put back the way it was. This area of West Broad used to have its own little Downtown. This area was originally founded outside of Columbus city limits at first, in Franklin Township.

Back in the 1890s or so, doctors started moving in around the Psychiatric Hospital. Then, black and white families started moving in and filling in the neighborhood. We want to keep that mix and make it even more diverse.

If you look at what exists on Broad Street here today, you’ll find pawn shops and tattoo parlors, which are what our residents like. Those are the business that have put a stake in our neighborhood. We want to keep the area bohemian, similar to the early-nineties Short North. We don’t want to create something new in hopes that it will draw people… we want people to come to the Hilltop because of what’s already here. This is an urban area with small town flavor. We have plainspoken residents that will tell you what they think, whether you like it or not. That kind of transparency is hard to find sometimes, and I think it’s a plus for our area. The objective is take what we’ve got and grow to fill in the rest. Often times people talk about crime here, but low or mixed income does not have to mean crime. The police are short staffed here, so the crime issue is really more of a city hall issue. They’re not really being responsive to what is needed over here.

WE: Highland West has been in the news quite a bit lately because of two hot-button issues: Bike Lanes along Broad Street, and the possibility of relocating the Casino to the west side. If possible, can you give us the quick Highland West take on these two issues?

GP: Actually, neither of these two issues have really been that divisive for us. When we do our own polling within the neighborhood we’ve found that what people outside of our community want for us, we don’t necessarily want for ourselves. People in our community came forward to go to door to door to listen to the people’s opinions on the bike lane proposal, and 98% of the people signed the petition against it. The external surveys done prior were of residents all over the entire Hilltop who wouldn’t be affected in the same way, and who hadn’t seen the actual renderings of what this would look like… which is why we said our residents don’t want it. The Casino issue was done by email because they had to hear from us more quickly, and only 1 out of 25 people in our area replied and said they don’t want the Casino located on the west side.

Essentially, I think the bike lanes have come down to being an attack on the businesses that want this money and the interests ‘over there’ rather than ‘over here’. Some people are making the argument that is there is already plenty of parking for what currently exists, but we currently have a 50% vacancy rate. What we need is for the city to follow through with their promise, which is for them to purchase land two lots deep to provide additional parking. This isn’t going to happen anytime soon because the money isn’t there, so we are stuck with what we’ve got. But we need to add more on to it if we’re going to grow.

WE: Speaking of growth, it would seem that this commercial strip along Broad is pretty ripe for development as it’s still very urban in design, and still somewhat densely filled in, especially compared to west of Hague where the commercial layout is more suburban in style.

GP: Yes, Westgate’s side used to have buildings up to Royes Ave, but they tore that whole strip down. Of course, now people are seeking to put those types of buildings back in. We don’t want to necessarily compete with Westgate though, as those residents will want different things for their area.

Anyway, we are using the Broad Street commercial overlay to get some kind of unity to see how these shops get developed. A coffee-shop type of gathering place is imperative. Personally, I would wait until we see how this bike lane issue is going to be resolved because I would never put a shop on a street with that kind of parking restriction, knowing the area as I do.

We also have some people that just purchased the old post office at Harris and Broad. Encouraging development is tough because if you just move into an existing building and do nothing you are okay, but the minute you want to tear down walls or change your front entrance, you have to have city permits and they aren’t going to grandfather you in. You need parking to meet building requirements and we just don’t have it over here. If developers can’t get approval, our overlay is useless.

Some things have started to move along though, and it started when they put the Health Center in. We have realtors getting calls on their buildings and who are starting to be a little more fussy about what type of businesses they want to move in. So people are beginning to bite. I see a bit of Yellow Springs flavor in our area. We’ve got a little record collector shop on the corner of Broad & Oakley. Lot of really old stuff in there, and a real gem for anyone into record collecting. We just had a pizza place called The Taste move into the strip. They also own the tobacco shop next door. Rig’s carryout was also recently renovated.

WE: For anyone interested in the neighborhood as a place to relocate, or buy their first home, what sort of things would you tell them?

GP: I myself started out in Bexley. Then I wanted to go to a mixed neighborhood within the city. We want to restore Highland West to a working class community. The housing stock here is wonderful and it should attract a lot of people who want to pay 30-50 thousand for a three story home, because you can’t find that anywhere else. In Olde Towne East it costs over 100 thousand just for the shell of a home that needs a lot of work. And I think that the Arches signaled the gentrification of the Short North. I love the memories of those areas, but now they’re really different.

WE: Any other neighborhood association initiatives worth mentioning to existing residents?

GP: We want to designate the second week of every month as neighborhood cleanup day. We want people to pick up litter on Broad Street, around their homes, and churches and other places to adopt areas too. We started this recently on West Broad and it’s really been met with success so far.

We also want to reestablish community pride. This is our neighborhood, and it doesn’t have to look run down. It didn’t use to look like that, so why should it look like that now?

At the end of the day, we have the same struggles that most other neighborhoods have. Maybe some day we will have a Super Neighborhood Council where all sorts of associations can come together to work towards solving these issues.

More information can be found online at highlandwestneighborsassociation.ning.com.


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