Habitat for Humanity of Central Ohio

Written by Nathalie Wright, Field Representative, Columbus Landmarks Foundation/National Trust for Historic Preservation

Columbus Background

On the eve of celebrating its bicentennial, Columbus, Ohio has a population of 787,000. The city was established in 1812 to serve as the new, and permanent, state capital.

As the seat of Ohio’s government and a growing center of commerce, Columbus steadily expanded.  Expansion was enabled by its location on the National Road, the United States’ first federally-funded road, and the Ohio and Erie Canal, both completed through the city in the early 1830s.

The Civil War years brought greater prosperity to Columbus, as many businesses and companies supplied the Union troops with goods, and Columbus was a major mustering point for Ohio’s recruits. As a central location, Columbus was also a rendezvous point for Southern and Northern prisoners and the wounded. The population jumped from 18,000 to 31,000 during the 1860s.

By the late 19th century, Ohio had an extensive railroad network, with many lines traversing Columbus, which further contributed to the city’s growth.  By 1900, Columbus housed 125,000 residents and the Columbus Buggy Company, the largest buggy manufacturer in the world.

By 1914, a year in which the neighborhood of Weinland Park would have been expanding, the city averaged an increase of about 500 people a month; housed all State institutions; had a diversity of industries and small manufacturing; and was a converging point for supplies and raw materials. Lumber, iron and steel products; finished and semi-finished products; coal and agriculture fed into sixteen divisions of railroads, including the shops of the nation’s three largest railroads. Columbus, consequently, in 1914, had 25 banks, nine national banks, and 23 buildings and loans.  In addition, Columbus advertised it had few labor problems (no unions).

The city’s boundaries extended more than two miles out from its center at Broad and High streets.  The 20th century witnessed stable growth as the state government grew, several national companies established their headquarters in the city, and the Ohio State University experienced tremendous growth, resulting in today’s 50,000 plus students attending the Columbus campus.

Columbus’ steady population growth, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, led to the establishment of numerous neighborhoods.  Most of these neighborhoods are still intact, and some of them are locally or nationally designated historic districts.  Among the designated historic districts are German Village, a German working class immigrant neighborhood developed in the 1850s; Victorian Village, a large neighborhood of late 19th century upper middle class housing stock; and Italian Village, a neighborhood comprised of fairly modest working class Italianate style houses from the late 19th century.  Some of Columbus’ older neighborhoods do not have historic designation, but do have a rich history, which illustrate the city’s heritage and development.

Many of Columbus’ turn of the 20th century neighborhoods developed as a result of streetcar lines.  Horse-drawn streetcar rail lines were first established in 1863, and many more were added in the years following the Civil War.  Local electrification of the streetcar lines began in 1891.  As in many cities, the faster, more comfortable, electrified streetcar lines allowed for workers to live as much as five miles from the center city and still only have a 30-minute commute.

This gave rise to a number of new neighborhoods that were outside or at the far edge of the city boundaries.  One such example is Weinland Park, a neighborhood to the north of downtown.  A portion of Weinland Park, New Indianola Historic District, has historic designation from the City of Columbus and is an early 20th century neighborhood with intact streetcar suburb (multi-family courtyard) housing. 

Weinland Park Background

Weinland Park is a small, roughly one square mile, dense neighborhood with approximately 4,800 residents, and is part of the University District, the neighborhood surrounding The Ohio State University.  Portions of Weinland Park were platted in the late 1800s, although development was scattered with brick and frame buildings dotting the streets.  The neighborhood’s close proximity to the University, on its northwestern edge-- but especially, it location to the factories along the railroad tracks, on its eastern edge, and multiple streetcar lines, connecting to downtown--provided multiple opportunities for employment. 

Predominantly a working class neighborhood, residents of Weinland Park traditionally held white collar jobs such as clerks and traveling salesmen and blue collar jobs such as machinists and factory workers. Industries, which left downtown because of rising land costs post Civil War through World War I, often settled north along the railroad lines that form Weinland Park’s eastern boundary.  These industries specialized in products which spanned the buggy years into the auto years—for example, making headlamps and seat covers for buggies and then automobiles. Jeffrey Manufacturing and Mining, producing innovative coal mining machines, was a major employer, as was Kilbourne-Jacobs which produced the most wheelbarrows and earth moving equipment in the world. Jacobs’ own house, a 1890s mansion, is located in Weinland Park and today houses a social service agency.

In addition, this movement of industry to this area coincided with the Great Migration of African Americans and also white rural migrations into the communities located on both sides of the railroads. In the 1950s, the area also experienced another major Appalachian migration.

Weinland Park’s housing stock is generally comprised of simple two-story Gabled-ell and 1 ½ story cottage house types, situated on narrow lots typical of streetcar suburb platting.  Although there are examples of brick houses, the majority are wood frame.  A collection of 90 brick multi-family apartment buildings and duplexes was developed, 1916-1921, on the eastern edge of the neighborhood.  With their courtyard arrangement, the four apartment building clusters began to attract middle-class professional workers to the neighborhood.

Weinland Park’s identity emerged as a neighborhood with the naming of the park, commemorating the work and community activism of an early 20th century city councilman.  The park, in turn, became the site for an elementary school of the same name.

As the 20th century progressed, Weinland Park transitioned to a low income transient neighborhood.  Nearly all of the owner-occupied houses were converted to rentals, older apartment buildings were converted to the largest concentrations of Section 8 housing in the city, and a few apartment buildings, attempting to capture the student market, were built in the 1960s, demolishing individual historic homes.  By the end of the 20th century, Weinland Park’s owner occupied homeownership rate was less than 10%. 

Beginning in the 1970s, Weinland Park has had a decades-long struggle with employment losses, disinvestment, poverty and high crime rates.  The city’s oldest settlement house, Godman Guild, relocated to the area, and the neighborhood worked to revitalize by forming a housing corporation. However, with no large players as stakeholders at the table and a large, abandoned and deteriorating factory that polluted the area for decades on its western boundary along the railroad tracks, efforts were challenged.

To combat this negative cycle, beginning in the 2000s, a tremendous amount of research, study, energy, and money have been expended to stabilize and revitalize Weinland Park.  The Weinland Park Neighborhood Plan adopted by the City of Columbus, 2004-2006 offered a vision for neighborhood improvements.  A key point of the Plan was the revitalization of Weinland Park into a sustainable, mixed-income neighborhood.

Though two elements of the plan—the fate of a large but nearly empty shopping center and the proposed site of a police sub station—did not materialize as envisioned in the initial plan, the conversations which came out of these diversions proved fruitful. A series of high profile projects gave residents and other partners hope for more reinvestment.  Both Campus Partners, the University’s off-campus development arm, and the University Area Commission, on which Weinland Park commissioners are active, directed and helped with revisions and plans.

A series of high-profile investment projects were built shortly thereafter: The Ohio State University constructed the Schoenbaum Family Center, an early childhood education laboratory which attached to the new Weinland Park Elementary School, built by Columbus City Schools; and OSU and the City built a police sub station/Neighborhood Pride Center.  The elementary school became the new home to an existing Columbus City Schools’ program—a year-round school designed to bridge the gap for learning in a school with previously low test scores. In addition, a new elementary-middle school-high school feeder pattern was adopted with much resident support.

Godman Guild, housed in a former elementary school a few blocks away, was revitalized by other corporate stakeholders. The Ohio State Extension Program (normally associated with rural services) became part of the urban neighborhood with innovative programs, many of which were directed by the residents, who took charge of the issues from computer classes to financial planning. However, a major step forward was the eventual demolition of the former factory and the clearing of adjacent brownfields, through monies accessed by the City and under the vision and business plan of a private developer who won the trust of the neighborhood.

The United Way of Central Ohio made Weinland Park one of its priority neighborhoods in 2007, emphasizing crime reduction and vacant housing.  Additionally, between 2004 and 2009, over $30 million was spent to rehabilitate 350 low-income rental units in the neighborhood.  Rehabilitation work was spearheaded by the Ohio Capital Corporation for Housing, which won an award, 2011, from the National Trust for its efforts.  Founded in August 2010, the Weinland Park Collaborative is a partnership of 20 organizations working to provide strategic improvements, guided by neighborhood residents.  The Weinland Park Collaborative strategy is for the “neighborhood to be an inviting and safe community where people and families of different income levels and ethnicities can thrive.”

Habitat for Humanity – Greater Columbus Background

Columbus’ local Habitat for Humanity affiliate was formed in 1987.  Working throughout the Columbus metropolitan area, the affiliate has constructed over 235 new homes.  Habitat for Humanity-Greater Columbus partners with first-time homebuyers living in substandard housing, who earn 30-60% of Franklin County’s median income.  Prospective owners attend classes and provide 200-250 hours of sweat equity on their home or other Habitat houses.  In 2009, Habitat began the planning process for the construction of six new houses in Weinland Park.

Habitat for Humanity-Greater Columbus has been a member of the Weinland Park Collaborative since its founding, in 2010.  Working within the Collaborative housing goals for increased homeownership, renovation of vacant and foreclosed properties, and grant assistance for extant homeowners to make exterior repairs, Habitat is contributing to the housing mission by constructing affordable new homes.

Using federal neighborhood stabilization money, six new houses are presently under construction in Weinland Park.  A wall-raising ceremony for the first two houses occurred on August 4, 2011 and the homes were completed in mid-December 2011.  All six houses have been sold, including two to current Weinland Park residents and one to a former Weinland Park resident. Through all the collaborative efforts, the Weinland Park Community Civic Association and the Weinland Park Homeowner’s Association became active leaders. With the help of the Columbus Foundation, all partners work collaboratively.

Columbus Landmarks Foundation Background

Columbus Landmarks Foundation advocates historic preservation and rehabilitation as its primary mission through community participation and education. It also promotes exemplary urban design respectful of the architectural and historic past.

Columbus Landmarks Foundation was founded in 1977 by a dedicated group of historic preservationists and local residents who were committed to preserving Columbus' architectural heritage after the destruction of a key downtown landmark. Since that time, Landmarks has played an integral role in educating the community, encouraging responsible public and private sector enhancement of historic areas and structures, and promoting the highest standards in the design and construction of new buildings and spaces. Membership includes more than 600 individuals and corporations who remain committed to Columbus Landmarks Foundation’s mission and vision.

Project Partnerships

When Habitat for Humanity announced that it was constructing six new houses on vacant lots in Weinland Park, many neighborhood homeowners were concerned -- not because they didn’t want affordable housing in the neighborhood, but because they didn’t think Habitat’s proposed house designs were appropriate infill construction. Residents voiced opposition to losing the integrity of their community as an early 20th century neighborhood, and they did not want to be identified as a “Habitat community.”

Neighborhood proponents wanted Habitat’s new houses to be similar in scale, massing, and setback as the existing houses on the streetscapes.  While Habitat for Humanity understood the residents’ desire to have sympathetic new development in Weinland Park, the requested house designs were a departure from their standard construction work.  The organization was reluctant to accommodate the neighborhood.  At one point, meetings became contentious enough that Habitat considered abandoning the Weinland Park project. 

The Weinland Park Community Civic Association reached out to Columbus Landmarks Foundation for assistance in conveying their architectural vision to Habitat.  Columbus Landmarks Foundation became involved with the neighborhood/Habitat dialog and subsequently prepared a Weinland Park Informal Architectural Survey report.  The report defined and conveyed to all parties involved what the intrinsic architectural features of the neighborhood were and how Habitat’s infill housing could be more compatible.

The Wagenbrenner Development Company, the private developer working in the area, assisted Habitat for Humanity by creating architectural renderings and floor plans tailored to match the extant Weinland Park housing stock.  After many meetings of negotiation, revised plans were offered by Habitat, which the neighborhood residents happily accepted.  The revised designs reflected the extant architectural features of the neighborhood through the use of gabled-ell floor plans, front porches, implication of a gabled dormer, one-over-one windows, and front or side facing gables.  Additionally, the footprint of the new houses was adapted to better fit the historic, narrow Weinland Park lots.

Although all parties involved had reached consensus on the new designs, another hurdle arose when it became apparent that the designs were more costly to construct than Habitat’s typical house types.  As part of their commitment to Weinland Park, the Columbus Foundation funded the difference between the cost of the new designs and what Habitat had budgeted to spend.  The Columbus Foundation’s monetary contribution was a key to the success of the Weinland Park Community Civic Association and Habitat for Humanity-Greater Columbus cooperative effort for appropriate neighborhood house designs.

Impact

Weinland Park’s architectural design conversation has created an ongoing dialogue between Columbus Landmarks Foundation and Habitat for Humanity-Greater Columbus.  Recognizing the efforts of both parties, Columbus Landmarks bestowed the Weinland Park Community Civic Association and the Habitat for Humanity-Greater Columbus its 2011 Outstanding Organization/Group award for their collaboration with the new housing designs. 

As a result of the vocal neighborhood input, the local Habitat affiliate is now more mindful of other old or historic neighborhoods that also desire compatible infill designs.  At the August 4th wall-raising ceremony for the first of the six Weinland Park houses, many speakers noted the collaborative accomplishment of the Weinland Park Community Civic Association and the Habitat for Humanity-Greater Columbus.  Within opening remarks, E.J. Thomas, Columbus Habitat’s CEO, specifically mentioned the success of working with the neighborhood residents on the designs and recognized that Habitat does not want its houses to stand out as being “Habitat houses.” 

Columbus Landmarks continues to participate as an active member of the Weinland Park Housing Committee, a subcommittee of the Weinland Park Community Civic Association, which addresses other critical issues pertinent to the historic fabric of the neighborhood.  Current issues include (1) an infusion of private and public reinvestment dollars to the extant housing stock; (2) how those rehabilitations impact the streetscape; and (3) the future of a block of vacated row houses, duplexes, and small apartment buildings within the New Indianola Historic District.

Columbus Landmarks Foundation provided a copy of the National Register of Historic Places nomination to all parties involved, in order for the developer, neighborhood residents, and other stakeholders to understand why the area is considered historic.  A feasibility study for the buildings was completed and a conceptual rehabilitation design was scheduled to go before the Historic Resources Commission.

Looking Ahead

Through continued discussions and education, it is expected that Habitat for Humanity-Greater Columbus will take its positive experiences with compatible infill design in Weinland Park and apply them in other historic neighborhoods.  Habitat already anticipates the same level of concern and collaboration when venturing into rehabilitation work on older houses in the Hilltop neighborhood.

Columbus Landmarks Foundation will further nurture its relationship with Habitat for Humanity.  Assistance may include helping Habitat identify funding sources, which will allow the organization to construct houses that are atypical of their standard design palette, providing technical support for dealing with historic materials in their rehabilitation work, and participating in neighborhood meetings.