On Development: Build communities, not just housing units

It shouldn’t be business as usual when it comes to a University District church and green space currently pegged for redevelopment.
Summit on 16th United Methodist Church
Summit on 16th United Methodist ChurchBrian Williams

The Summit on 16th United Methodist Church building – a nondescript, midcentury structure built in 1954 as the Wesley Foundation – has an angular form that contrasts the gentle grassy slope it rests upon and the graceful curve it faces where Waldeck Avenue merges into 16th Avenue (dubbed Willie Phoenix Way in a 2020 ceremony honoring the local rock legend). Still, it provides welcome tree shade and green space amid a proliferation of tall new buildings visible across the intersection.

For now.

A proposed apartment block – another in an endless parade of ubiquitous, horizontal, brick-pine-steel monoliths in the University District – obliterates the trees, the lawn and the slope. It tries to hammer a giant, six-story square peg into a round hole that has served for decades as an unofficial public piazza between the commercial blocks of High Street and the residential and institutional neighborhood above.

The intersection and the lawn formed the birthplace of Comfest in 1972. The church is across Waldeck from B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation and a few doors west of Graham Elementary and Middle School (originally built in 1909 as Indianola Middle School). The stately, neo-gothic Indianola Presbyterian Church is just up the street.

This public and institutional cluster of buildings is barely a block from the historically and still often raucous commercialism of High Street, yet somehow retains its more-placid identity.

But this local history and tradition is abstract, unimportant and inconvenient for a developer in the business of plopping down variations on an unimaginative theme in university towns around the country. 

These monotonous, block-long, six-story hulks are bad enough on High Street, where that kind of density (though not that kind of design) is appropriate. To shoehorn them into the green space, obliterating the collegiate feel of a historic neighborhood, is a sign of either arrogance or cluelessness.

In other words: the American way of doing business.

We didn’t always have a “development industry.” We had local people and businesses. They hired local builders to construct – incrementally, as needed – houses, shops, factories, offices, apartments, cafes, etc., on land they owned. Over the decades, development grew more speculative and specialized. Some developers focus almost entirely on mass-produced, single-family houses in subdivisions. Others build only shopping centers. Still others on multi-family subdivisions, or large urban apartment blocks.

This is not a screed against density. It’s imperative that Columbus become denser. Columbus desperately needs more carriage houses, duplexes, fourplexes, row houses, courtyard buildings, high-rises (in some areas) and mid-rises scattered around. A lot of this means more housing density, not just population. One of the most significant demographic factors is that we certainly have more one-person households now than at any time in history.

We also need greater density to make feasible the mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods people say they want. We need this and better transit so we can make parking lots and garages less essential.

But what we also need are neighborhoods. Communities. The characteristics and activities that bring life to a collection of buildings.

Not the kind of “community” that comes from a development corporation’s marketing decision to slap a brand name on an apartment complex: The View; The City; The Hub; The Julian; The Wellington; Library Park; Crossline. A building with 200 apartments, an “amenity deck” and a street-level leasing office does not make a community, no matter what the brochure says.

This brings us to the unicorn in the room – the hidden interior of the church at 16th and Waldeck. When the Wesley Foundation joined with the Indianola United Methodist and University United Methodist in 1977, the building’s interior had a significant remodeling, designed by celebrated midcentury architect Edward Sövik, based in Minnesota.

Recently retired OSU architecture professor Kay Bea Jones has praised Sövik’s use of flexible space, modern stained glass with a timeless feel, and an undulating wood ceiling. Photos show the space to be as soft-edged and warm as the building’s exterior is angular and solid.

The proposal for the apartment block would, in some way, incorporate Sövik’s stained glass and perhaps other features of the worship space, according to Tyler Ammermann, of Chicago-based Up Campus Student Living, who gave an informal review of the project at the July 10 meeting of the University Area Commission’s zoning committee. Several people, including Jones, spoke out against the proposal, arguing that saving pieces of Sövik’s design out of their context was not sufficient.

Jones called for something creative and bold – something that could bring the university, the student population and the developer together. Maybe a public-private partnership with OSU – possibly a project that is focused on housing and a performance space for a particular department in the university, such as dance students. 

“Other universities do that sort of thing as a way to market the institution,” she said. She also has tried to get Metro School interested in buying the building.

With more ideas and community discussion, maybe a Phoenix will rise from the ashes of the developer’s plans.

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