‘We knew this was coming’: Changes begin to hit 400 West Rich

Rent increases at the Franklinton artist studios have left some longtime tenants questioning the future of the complex and the neighborhood at large. Others say coming changes offer new opportunity.
400 West Rich in Franklinton
400 West Rich in FranklintonAndy Downing

Michael Halliday has been renting a studio at 400 West Rich in Franklinton for more than 12 years, the last five of them spent in a 313-square-foot space the artist described as “primo,” since it receives generous exposure to the northern sun, generally regarded as the best, most consistent light for studio painting. 

Halliday, 75, said he currently pays $338 a month for his studio. But when he went to renew his lease, which is set to expire in April, he said he was told by Cara Tedrow, national director of property management for Urban Smart Growth, that the price would be increased to “about $900” a month.

“I sell a few paintings a year and maybe get a commission or two. … But I’m living off Social Security and another small stipend I get for my wife’s death benefit,” Halliday said. “I live on a pretty tight budget, and there’s no room for an increase like that. It felt like a slap in the face after more than 12 years here, that they weren’t willing to work with me, and that they didn’t seem interested in me being a part of their community. … I felt like Rodney Dangerfield, not getting any respect.”

The community at 400 West Rich started to learn about rent increases when some tenants started to receive new leases in January, though few details were communicated by upper management, leaving an information gap in which rumors and fear propagated. “Because naturally people assume the worst-case scenario,” said Kris Howell, who originally opened Strongwater and served temporarily as director of operations at 400 West Rich earlier this year. “I hear a lot that people think the building is being sold, or it’s being demolished, or all kinds of other things.”

Kim Kiehl, a consultant for Urban Smart Growth (USG), allowed that communication about the developer’s plans – including the factors driving the current rent increase – have not been well communicated, and she said that she was in the process of scheduling a public forum in which tenants and neighbors could engage in open dialogue with property management. Kiehl also said the developer had no plans to sell or tear down the building, and that 400 West Rich would continue to include artist studios, though more changes were likely in area, with USG also owning the buildings that currently house the Vanderelli Room and Chromedge Studios, as well as the adjacent vacant land. 

Vanderelli Room founder AJ Vanderelli, for one, is in the process of negotiating a lease that could keep the influential gallery at 218 McDowell Street through at least December, though its long-term home remains up in the air. (The gallery's current space has been targeted for eventual redevelopment.)

“Vanderelli Room is not going anywhere this year,” Vanderelli said in an early March interview at the gallery. “Other spaces will support our programming, if needed.”

In a phone interview, Lance Robbins, founder of Urban Smart growth, said he had offered Vanderelli a new space within 400 West Rich, hoping to provide "a soft landing" for the gallery when relocation becomes necessary. He also touted recent renovations, including the addition of nearly 8,000 square feet of new event space, and communicated his intention to continue to develop his Franklinton properties while keeping a focus on the arts community that has largely driven their resurgence.

“If we wanted to maximize the income, we would tear down 400 and build a high-rise, and we don’t want to do that,” Robbins said. “We don’t have to maximize the last nickel on the table, where we destroy something we’ve got a lot of pride in. … We’re prepared to make the investments to not only [preserve] this community but to take it to what we see as a higher level. And it’s going to engender change, and it’s going to take a cooperative effort to do it.”

In conversation, Robbins cited everything from high interest rates to steep increases in utility bills for his recent decision to reassess operations within 400 West Rich and Strongwater, the bar and restaurant housed at the north end of the complex, which will remain in place with updates. “When we realized we were not recapturing expenses – anywhere close to it – we brought in people from senior management and said that we have to look at this as a business much more closely,” Robbins said. “And so, in the last six months we took a much harder look at everything.”

According to five people interviewed, this stretch coincided with a stark shift in the tone of Urban Smart Growth's dealings with tenants, which they said pivoted from an artist-friendly, resident-driven approach to a colder, more calculated and business-forward mindset.

Robbins took some responsibility for recent communication gaps, which he said intensified following the January departures of local senior leaders such as Chris Sherman, former local vice president of development for Urban Smart Growth, and Lauren Conrath, who worked as the general manager of Strongwater before taking a role as director of operations at 400 West Rich. (Both Sherman and Conrath left their positions to pursue other opportunities.)

“And there’s going to be fallout in the course of reestablishing those relationships with [tenants],” said Robbins, who added that he would be willing to work with artist residents who are struggling with rent increases, whether helping them relocate to a smaller studio or another shared space within 400. 

“I just don’t know at this point,” said Halliday when informed of this. “I feel like a trust has been broken between the owners and the tenants, and I don’t know how quickly that will heal. I’ve pretty much started packing stuff today and pulling out boxes and going through things. It’s a pain in the ass to have to move, but maybe it’s time.” (Halliday’s departure is one of a handful in a tenant exodus that has taken place in recent weeks; in a phone interview, Donna McCarty Estep, a 400 tenant of eight years, said the March 10 Franklinton Friday event doubled as a going-away party for three of her fellow artist residents.)

The financial issues at 400 West Rich cited by Robbins were fueled in large part by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the temporary closure of Strongwater and left the on-location leadership at 400 West Rich struggling to safely run event spaces and galleries amid a public health crisis that, for a time, prevented large public gatherings. 

“And then coming out of COVID, I think a lot of people were just questioning what they were doing, and wondering what their direction in life was,” Sherman said. “And I think ownership was in that same kind of position. And I think that’s what’s guiding their decisions right now.”

The Vanderelli Room in Franklinton
The Vanderelli Room in FranklintonAndy Downing

Built in 1910, 400 West Rich is best known as the former home of D.A. Ebinger Sanitary Manufacturing Co., which produced toilets, humidifiers and the first refrigerated drinking fountains – though it was far removed from those glory years when Robbins purchased the building in 2009. 

“There were trees growing out of the building, raccoons living in here, it was crazy,” Sherman said.

These conditions started to change slowly in the months leading to July 2011, when 400 West Rich ushered in its first artist tenants, including Halliday, who began renting a studio in November of that year.

“It started out small, with a handful of units at the south end of the building on Rich Street. And then over the course of a couple years, we just kept renovating more and more, and it really grew organically, which is something I think is really important with these kinds of projects,” said Sherman, who added that Robbins generally took a hands-off approach to development of the property. “I think it was a really good way to introduce a project of that scale not just to the neighborhood, but also to the community at large. And it allowed us to do it slowly, so that [people] could tell us what they wanted, and not so much us telling them.”

In many ways, the growth of 400 West Rich foretold the current building boom taking place within Franklinton, which in recent years has welcomed developments from River & Rich and Gravity. It’s this boom that has, in turn, helped to drive the recent increases in rents at 400 that have left some artists questioning their future in the neighborhood – a scenario familiar to artists both in Columbus (see: the Short North) and elsewhere in the country.

“Probably within the first few years I was in [400 West Rich], we would joke, like, ‘Where are we going next? Because eventually they’re going to throw us out,’” McCarty Estep said.

“That's the artist’s job. You go into the neighborhood nobody else wants to go into,” Davey Highben said. “And I get it. Development sucks. Being a drone for gentrification or rich people’s capitalization sucks. But it’s part of the game, and if you don’t know that by now then you’re probably a hobbyist and not an artist.”

Robbins said he is cognizant of this history, in which artists play a key role in revitalizing a neighborhood for developers before eventually being priced out of it, and that in response he has granted $100,000 in what he termed “scholarships” – essentially at-cost rent for 25 percent of his artist tenants, offered to those who are seen as having made notable contributions to the greater Franklinton arts community. 

While the higher costs to rent studio space at 400 West Rich have been jarring to some artists, there are others who still see the area as a good comparative value.

“I thoroughly checked out the town before I signed a lease,” said Highben, who pays around $400 for a 200-square-foot studio at Chromedge, another USG property located at 289 W. Walnut St., adjacent to the Vanderelli Room. “I moved in here in October, and it’s been lucrative, as well as inspiring. We definitely have more collectors. And it has opened doors to more possibilities. … If you’re a hobbyist, or a part-timer, as opposed to someone who’s trying to do this full-time, and your rent goes from $200 to $500, or $400 to $800, hell yeah that’s shocking. But that being said, $2 a square foot is still super reasonable for the foot traffic you get down here.”

But even Highben acknowledged the potential barriers presented by higher rents, particularly for younger artists. “No 22-year-old is going to want to walk in and spend $600 When their rent is $1,200,” he said. “And leaving your house to do your art is an amazing thing to do when you're in your 20s. You have bragging rights. Your friends take you more seriously. And you have space to be a weirdo without anybody judging you. And the sad part is those people are going to miss out.”

All of the 400 West Rich artists and staffers interviewed were keenly aware that change was inevitable in and around the property, particularly as new builds went up both to the south (River & Rich) and north (Gravity) of the complex. And yet most remained optimistic that art and artists will continue to thrive in Franklinton – even if it means developing new anchor points within the neighborhood rather than relying solely on 400 West Rich.

“I would say everybody needs to grow together, and to acknowledge that we’ve always been growing,” Howell said. “Everybody’s growing, and I do think it’s an opportunity to not rely on 400, but to work in tandem with it. … We’re all down here doing stuff. It’s endless opportunity.”

Conrath expressed similar sentiments. “For a long time, we’ve watched properties around here be bought out, and we knew this was coming someday. It’s just the next evolution,” she said. “It doesn’t mean it’s the end of the arts district. It’s going to look a little bit different, but that also means new opportunities for different people and different businesses.”

“There are people in the neighborhood who are super-dedicated and don’t want it to fail,” Vanderelli added. “If people only pay attention to the negative stuff, it’s going to ruin it, and we can’t let that happen, because there’s so much more that’s positive about what has been and what can be.”

As for what this new future might look like as it begins to take shape in the coming months and years, McCarty Estep, for one, said she’s heard growing whispers about artists launching new ventures, both deeper into the Franklinton neighborhood and in other areas throughout Columbus.

“We have so much Franklinton that frankly has been ignored for a long time. … So, I don’t think it will be bad to push into other parts of the [neighborhood],” she said. “I really think that if anything comes out of all of this, we will see a studio boom happen and maybe more co-ops being built – artists pushing out, finding spaces and maybe building those a little more instead of relying on this little pocket. Most folks don’t like change, and maybe we’ve gotten complacent. … And you know what happens when you make an artist mad: A lot of times we just go out and build more, like, ‘You know what? We built it once and we can build it again. We can build it bigger. We can build it everywhere.’”

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