MOUNT VERNON — Driving down East Ohio Avenue and Howard Street, one can't help but notice the disinvestment. Dilapidated houses, property nuisance violations, broken sidewalks and lack of greenery are a few signs the area has declined over the years.
Strangely enough, one could view those problems as the area's strengths.
Those issues represent an area ripe for revitalization and the creation of a neighborhood that is attractive and well-maintained.
Last week, Lucas Kreuzer outlined a plan to move the East Ohio-Howard Street area from a sub-standard neighborhood to one that is a location of choice. Kreuzer, a Kenyon College intern working with the Area Development Foundation, presented the blueprint to members of the Knox County Land Bank.
Building on research started by ADF Vice President Jeff Gottke, Kreuzer looked at demographics of the Roundhouse District. The name stems from the area's involvement with the railroad.
The district is the area bordered on the west by South Gay Street, the east by Center Run, the north by East Gambier Street, and the south by the Kokosing River. The area was chosen for its proximity to downtown, parks and green space, and the East Gambier Historic District.
“There are a lot of amenities in this neighborhood,” said Kreuzer. “Although the neighborhood is aging, it's not so dilapidated that it can't be saved. There are good bones there.”
The goal is to give the Roundhouse District an identity and improve its quality of life, property values, and property stability. More specifically, to rehab and reinvest in moderately priced, high-quality, middle-income and workforce housing; and to infill commercial development opportunities where appropriate.
The Roundhouse District guide is the first of four blueprints to be created.
“The goal is to have one of these for all corridors into the city: Columbus Road, West High Street, and Sandusky Street,” said Gottke, who is also president of the land bank.
Kreuzer will stay on as intern and work on the Columbus Road plan. Through a new partnership between Kenyon College and the land bank, three to five Kenyon students will work on the West High Street plan. Gottke plans to begin work on the Sandusky Street plan in the fall.
As a catalyst for revitalization, the Roundhouse District blueprint is already paying dividends.
“I know of two properties on East Ohio Avenue that have been purchased by neighbors because they heard of this,” said Gottke. “So we're already seeing some results because of this.”
One of those neighbors is an East Gambier Street resident who purchased the property adjoining his home.
"I read about this revitalization program and said 'what is that about?'" he said. "I don't know what the whole blueprint will look like, but I am excited to be part of it.
"With all of the stuff that is going on downtown, there's some really good houses on this street. It's a nice, wide brick street. If things were fixed up, it would be a gateway."
He said that as a Gambier Street resident, he has watched some of the houses in the area go downhill.
"Some of them need a little TLC," he said. "Here's a chance to make Mount Vernon a little bit better."
Land bank board member Tyler Griffith, a Realtor with RE/MAX Peak, said he has another house on East Ohio in contract. The buyer plans on fixing up the house.
“This will definitely create a new focus to [city] grant applications,” said board member and City Engineer Brian Ball of the plan.
“If we look at the CHIP program (Community Home Investment Program), we can look at those kinds of grants for Columbus Road,” agreed Teresa Bemiller, board member and county commissioner.
Additionally, working through the land bank, Bargain Homes LLC already bought 304 E. Ohio Ave. to rehab and resell to an owner-occupied tenant. The land bank also bought and demolished the house at 504 E. Ohio Ave.
The Roundhouse District includes a mix of residential, industrial, and commercial use. Industry was and is concentrated along the section of land between the Kokosing River and Howard Street. Historically, it included the railroad line and a railroad repair shop; today, it includes Prestress Services Industries.
Other industry included the site of the Buckeye Candy building, originally occupied by Kokosing Iron Works and Cooper Manufacturing Co. It is now home to the Kenyon College Wright Center.
Housing includes a range of single-family homes built between 1835 and 1950. Today, several auto body shops along Howard Street intermix with residential housing.
“The environment of the past has obviously shaped the Roundhouse District of today,” said Kreuzer.
The district's housing represents various styles and architecture. Kreuzer walked the neighborhood, cataloging the shape and style of the homes.
“The style guide can be used for renovating houses or building new houses, keeping within the style of the neighborhood,” he said. “We can respect where the neighborhood has come from.”
The Roundhouse District includes zoning for central business, office institutional, general business, manufacturing 1, residential 1, residential 2, and public 1 use. Lots include single- and multi-family homes as well as commercial and industrial structures.
Looking at demographics, two neighborhoods emerge: West and East. The two neighborhoods have different median household incomes, home values, construction years, owner-vs-tenant occupancy, and population ages.
To evaluate saleability, value, and quality of life, Kreuzer and Gottke looked at five factors:
- Property occupancy type
- Police calls
- Property maintenance violations
- Tax delinquency
Each indicator was weighted and scored.
The guide's recommendations fall into three categories:
- Targeted property acquisitions
- Beautification and mobility improvements
Kreuzer said the city should consider rezoning the area around Howard Street from general business and manufacturing 1 to exclusively residential use. Of the commercial and industrial parcels currently around Howard Street, many of which are auto body shops, he said, “That doesn't mean they close. It just means it prevents [commercial and industrial] expansion in the future.”
Beautification recommendations include planting trees or shrubbery between residences and industrial parcels and installing new sidewalks and curbing.
From the land bank's perspective, the property scores help prioritize the properties for revitalization. Gottke pointed out, however, that “This is not just a land bank thing. This is for anybody who has a stake.”
The guide notes that it is critical that residents and property owners in the district become involved and that the development foundation solicits their input. Others who might have a stake include the city (sidewalks, curbs, Shade Tree and Beautification Commission), Habitat for Humanity/The Salvation Army (Brush With Kindness program), Kno-Ho-Co- Community Action Agency (weatherization programs) and the city/county (block grants).