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The Short North Grapples With Change

The Short North is one of Columbus's most vibrant success stories. 40 years ago the area along N. High Street was in serious decline. But a group of art enthusiasts slowly raised the Short North from the ashes. Now rents are rising, threatening the art galleries that have made the district one of the city's most popular destinations.

The sidewalks of N. High Street are filled with people during Gallery Hop. The Short North's most popular event occurs on the first Saturday of every month. That's when dozens of small art galleries keep their doors open after sunset and people come pouring in.

But the March Gallery Hop was probably the last for an aromatherapy candle shop on Buttles Avenue. Paul Robinett has been selling his fragrant handmade candles for the past ten years. A new restaurant is moving into the building. And Robinett's been told by the landlord that the restaurant needs his space and that he'll have to leave.

"So what I've been told is that my store will become the restroom of the restaurant coming in on the corner," Robinett says. "So people will be going to the bathroom where I built a wonderful business. And it's really not cool."

It's taken 30 years for the Short North's commercial district to reinvent itself. As galleries took over boarded-up buildings, restaurants and pubs followed. Today there's a good balance, say Short North insiders, between art and dining. Christina Menges is the new director of the Short North Business Association.

"All of the businesses in the district are important and add to the very unique and wonderful flavor that is the arts district," Menges says. "But the galleries are really the foundation of the arts district."

Even so, some gallery owners worry that restaurants and pubs might someday take over the Short North completely. One of those worried owners is Maria Galloway who opened PM Gallery in 1980.

"Every time we lose a retail space to a restaurant that's one less potential space for a gallery or a boutique or something else that's more creative and contributing to the day life of the neighborhood - the restaurants are the night life - and we need to have that balance and right now we do," Galloway says.

It's a simple matter of economics. When the Short North was struggling, the rents were low and affordable for struggling artists. Now that the neighborhood is fashionable, the rents are high; sometimes too high for small shops and galleries, but not for high-end restaurants. Again Paul Robinett:

"I understand the economics of it," Robinett says. "You know, the owner of the building came in and said, Hey man, you know it's a lot of money, it's a long term lease, I gotta do the deal.'"

The changes in the Short North have not gone unnoticed by a local restaurant owner.

"As of late it's a lot more nightclubs, a lot more restaurants," says Elizabeth Lessner who owns two restaurants in the neighborhood. "But there seems to be some really good synergy among all the things happening."

"I do worry that some of the art galleries might begin to feel the squeeze, as rents go up and up and up each year," Lessner says.

But some see that as a natural evolution. Realtor and developer Richard Bruggeman owns the building at Buttles and N. High where Paul Robinett's candle shop is located.

"This is all in Italian marble. That's the original ceiling. We've restored it a little bit but we really didn't touch the gold in-lay," Bruggeman points out.

Bruggeman is helping to remodel his building for the Chinese American restaurant that will displace Robinett's aromatherapy business.

"You can't compete against the shopping centers and you can't compete against the Wal-Marts," Bruggeman says. "So it has to be drifting toward high-end, high scale, unique restaurants; people with new ideas."

Bruggeman says a more populated downtown is changing the face of the Short North because people want to walk to restaurants from their homes. And he says two venues in particular have an impact on the Short North district.

"You've got to remember it's oriented toward nightlife entertainment down here," Bruggeman says. "Because of the convention center, and the Arena District, it's kind of being maneuvered that way."

Restaurant owner Elizabeth Lessner uses words like "fabulous" and "terrific" to describe the current mix of art galleries, shops restaurants and pubs. But if the galleries are forced out, she too says it's part of the future for an evolving neighborhood.

"I think that happens. It happens in New York, it happened in SoHo, it'll happen here," Lessner says. "I think that artists will find new places that are affordable. But as long as our arts scene throughout Columbus is thriving I think we're okay."

Christina Menges, the director of the Short North Business Association, says the group will do everything it can to keep the arts in the district alive.

"We want to maintain our arts focus," Menges says. "We value greatly the clientele that our bars and restaurants bring to the district. But we will never take the focus off of the art. Ever."