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Steady Vision

Tim Wagner Leads the Short North Special Improvement District
into Its Second Decade

by Jennifer Hambrick
April 2010 Issue

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Tim Wagner stands beside The Guardian, Russ Vogt’s sculpture installed last year in Chase Park at Brickel and High.
Photo © Larry Hamill

What are the ingredients for a successful district in a big city?

That list might include well-maintained buildings, parks, the occasional tree or flower bed, unique shops and, say, some decorative arches spanning the main drag. And that list should probably land on the desk of someone who can make all of these things happen.

Ten years after the implementation of the Short North Special Improvement District’s (SID) 12-year Plan for Services and Improvements, the SID’s director, Tim Wagner, has overseen the completion of a litany of improvements that have helped transform the Short North’s once pedestrian High Street strip into a dynamic pedestrian experience, complete with thriving businesses, flower gardens and public artwork nestled in quaint pocket parks.

Now, as Wagner, 64, and the SID’s board of trustees gear up to write a new Plan for Services to implement in 2012 – in essence, to renew the SID – here’s a look at what the SID’s first decade has brought to the Short North and the man who saw that it all got done.

A SID Is Born
By the mid-1990s, the Short North was on the upswing. Vibrant galleries, restaurants and boutiques operated out of once abandoned shop fronts, and neighborhood associations were thriving as forums where Short North property owners could advocate for keeping their district safe and beautiful.

So who would to do the actual work of keeping the district safe and beautiful? Who would keep the area, not long relieved of its toxic urban blight, from falling off the wagon of gentrification? And who would coordinate even bigger efforts to take the Short North to the next level, to make it an emblem of Columbus and to put the district and the Cap City on the map?

Faced with these questions, Sandy Wood and other Short North-area leaders established a Plan of Services and Improvements for a SID along High Street in the Short North. The plan held that the owners of properties touching High Street between Smith Place and the railroad tracks under the Columbus Convention Center would pay an assessment on their property taxes to fund the completion of ongoing maintenance and the installation of a clutch of pocket parks to beautify the district. The assessment also would help fund the plan’s centerpiece: a series of ornamental arches over High Street in emulation of those that had stood there in days gone by.

The district’s property owners approved the plan, the Short North SID was incorporated in 1998, and a year later the City of Columbus gave the plan its benediction. The Short North SID was born.

The ship was built, but it needed a captain.

“We were looking for someone that would feel they were a part of the community and who had the managerial skills to keep things consistently done, like cleaning up the sidewalks, planting flowers in the spring,” said Sandy Wood, who chaired the search committee for the SID’s director. “The primary credential was someone we thought would really care about keeping the place looking good and curing the problems that we’d had in the past, including the ability to talk with the City and solicit their cooperation with what we were trying to do.”

Around the same time, Tim Wagner, a computer expert who had run his own consultancy out of his home in the Short North and who had a number of significant Short North-area community activism accomplishments under his belt, saw fliers announcing the formation of the SID and the call for applications for its next director. He applied for the job, like everyone else.

“I remember having stacks of resumes to go through,” Wood said.

Wagner’s resume, which also included a couple years’ work as the paid administrator of the Short North’s Martha Walker Garden Club, documented that he had all the qualifications for the job of directing the SID. He took up the post in the spring of 2000 and has held firm even while navigating city bureaucracy and facing fallout from controversial public art projects.

“Initially there was a lot of deferred maintenance, lots of stuff that hadn’t been tended to for a long, long time,” Wagner said. “Weeds and fifteen layers of fliers on a pole and graffiti all over the place. Just an awful lot of catch-up done in the first couple of years.”

Once that catch-up work was done, other things started falling into place. According to the SID’s 2009 Annual Report, a ten-year retrospective summary of the improvements made under the current Plan for Services and Improvements, Wagner has overseen the creation of 17 planting beds, four pocket parks, three public art installations, six bus shelters and 25 container gardens along the High Street strip. These projects were executed in tandem with the SID’s ongoing responsibilities to remove graffiti (5,000 tags removed to date) from the area as it appears, paint litter receptacles and utility poles, create and refresh landscaping (4,000 flowers have been planted and 8,000 hours spent gardening) and keep sidewalks and curbs clean and in good repair. And he also coordinated the creation and installation of the 17 arches over High Street. Wagner says they’re paying off in ways he hadn’t anticipated.

“I think they’ve had a tremendous impact both in the Short North and in the city,” Wagner said. “You see ads for Columbus and the arches are in them. It’s just become a real landmark. It’s really helped the resurgence of the northern portion of the district, that probably most people didn’t even realize was considered the Short North before the arches were put up.”

Wagner says that, despite the widespread conversation about it, the arches’ failure to light up for a couple of years generated little in the way of serious criticism for the arches themselves. But the most controversial SID project remains the installation of the limestone sofa in Greenwood Park, the pocket park on High Street just south of 5th Ave.

“The vagrants who spend a lot of time sleeping on it (the sofa), sitting on it, panhandling from it – it’s become a real negative to some people,” Wagner said.

Chuck Kubat, owner of Magnolia Records, next to Greenwood Park, says he worries the problem could discourage potential customers from coming to his store.

“The worst part about it is it makes a perfect place for panhandlers and rowdy people to hang out, drink beer and hit people up for money,” Kubat said. “Customers complain all the time of having to walk through drunk people asking them for money.”

Wagner says the majority of property owners in the area around the limestone sofa don’t like the nuisance the artwork has helped generate. But he says he remains open to discussing what – if anything – can be done to solve the problem.

So who is this man behind the curtain, whose path from Catholic schoolboy to Vietnam vet, to once-practicing Buddhist to community activist has led him to oversee how people experience the Short North?

Steady Vision
“I never wanted to have the life of a straight line, where you set out a goal and work your life to get to that goal,” Wagner said recently in the sun-streaked board room of the SID’s home in the Goodale Park Caretaker’s Residence. It’s a good thing, since Wagner’s life trajectory has been anything but straight.

His first neighborhood improvement project took shape when he was 10 years old. He and some other kids in his Whitehall neighborhood built a baseball diamond on a vacant lot, mowing the grass, drawing base lines and putting in bases. Wagner and his cohorts didn’t ask anyone’s permission to create that field of dreams. They just built it, and the neighborhood came.

Wagner, whose father co-owned the Eastside Nursery for 20 years, studied accounting as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame. Even there, he sought out opportunities to mobilize the troops to achieve sometimes truly lofty goals. Wagner incited some friends to test the truth of a campus legend that it was possible to access the top of the university’s Administration Building, where a sparkling golden dome lifts a statue of the Virgin Mary to the heavens.

“We spent a lot of time exploring that building, trying to figure out how to get up there, and finally managed it. I sort of became the de facto leader of this little clan,” Wagner said.

The stunt was all in good fun – Wagner and his friends hung a sign on the dome cheering on the school football team. Not long after graduation, Wagner was first drafted into the Army, but enlisted in the Navy, to serve in Vietnam. Two combat tours later, he left the Navy and traveled through Asia.

“God only knows for whatever reason, I thought at some point I needed to learn to meditate,” Wagner said.

He made his way to India, where he heard about a man who taught meditation at a Buddhist monastery. Wagner stayed at the monastery for a while and learned to meditate.

“(I) did a lot of meditating, a lot of silence, a lot of not eating meat, a lot of teachings about attachment and suffering, just the Buddhist way of life,” Wagner said. “I haven’t eaten meat since.”

Buddhism replaced the Catholicism of Wagner’s youth. Even though he hasn’t been a practicing Buddhist for a long time now, he does remain sold on the value of meditation.

“Meditation is powerful, because learning how to visualize and control your mind really assists in creating things in your life,” Wagner said.

Stevie Conrad (left) with Tim Wagner in 1977 at E. 16th
and Waldeck Avenues where ComFest was being held.

Wagner says his experiences in India could be why he got involved with food co-ops when he returned to Columbus. He considers his stints working for the Columbus Community Food Co-op and, later, co-founding and co-managing the warehouse of the Federation of Ohio River Co-ops forms of “food activism.”

“I did not aspire to a big salary, a big house, the material goals that many Americans have, and so what to do with my energy instead? So that’s why this selfless work at a food co-op for God-only-knows-what scrawny wages we would get and living in basically student subdivided houses in the University District,” Wagner said.

When he moved to the Short North area in 1977, Wagner said he had plenty of time to observe the world around him. He didn’t like some of what he saw.

“I wasn’t going out looking for problems to deal with. These problems came to me. My neighborhood, in my opinion, was under assault,” Wagner said.

When Battelle was considering increasing the capacity of its hazardous waste storage facility on its property on the north side of 5th Ave., Wagner organized the Battelle Permit Opposition Committee against the proposed expansion. Battelle eventually dropped its plans for that expansion.

When the Riverfront Commons organization was creating a vision for the Olentangy riverfront through the University District and points south, Wagner and some other Short North residents formed the Urban Oasis Coalition.

“We were concerned that they were going to propose development along the river,” Wagner said. “(We said) ‘We’ve gotta be sure that this thing turns out in our favor.’ So we met and created our own vision for what we thought it should be.”

That vision included creating a park on the Whittier Peninsula and preserving the riverfront’s natural assets farther north.

“Maintaining the riparian aspect of the corridor was our main concern, basically making it a natural environment for people to enjoy and protect the river,” Wagner said.

Wagner also spearheaded a campaign to prevent the installation of high-voltage power lines through the Short North area. And when the Ohio Department of Transportation’s plans to widen I-670 and connect it to Grandview Ave. threatened to destroy some historic buildings in Italian Village and convolute traffic patterns through Short North neighborhoods, Wagner became a founding member of Citizens for a Better Spring-Sandusky, an activist group that advocated for an alternative plan for reconstructing I-670.

Wagner is the first to admit that the Citizens for a Better Spring-Sandusky didn’t get everything they were asking for. But the group did win what he considers to be some important victories: “Instead of having the sides of the freeway be these grassy hillsides,” Wagner said, “we got them to narrow the footprint and build retaining walls, so we saved a lot of buildings in the southern end of Italian Village. We got the park extended on the south side of Goodale. We got all this wrought iron fencing. We got a lot more landscaping. The connection of I-670 from here over to Grandview Avenue has been such a blessing for so many people that it’s hard to imagine not having done it. It just could have been done better, that’s all.”

While the plans for reshaping I-670 were being drafted, Wagner also was serving as the Martha Walker Garden Club’s administrator, a role that brought him face to face with many of the City of Columbus personnel with whom he still works closely in directing the Short North SID. Taking on that role, in turn, prompted Wagner’s transition from watchdog community activist to consensus builder between citizens and City Hall.

“Since I’ve taken this job, I’ve really had to calm myself down, bite my tongue,” Wagner said. “This job, a lot of it is working with the City, because everything we do is on city land. So you need a working relationship with these people.”

One of these people is Columbus City Forester, Jack Low, whose work cultivating the more than 100 trees along the Short North’s High Street corridor is just now about to take leaf for the spring. Most of those trees are reaching the ends of their lives, and Wagner says the district’s trees need to be replaced on a rolling basis for the next several years.

“The trees that we have on High Street are very, very important to the feel of the street. So replacing trees as they die is going to be a big issue, because it’s expensive.”

It’s the City’s responsibility to maintain and replace trees growing within the public right of way, and as director of the Short North SID Wagner’s role in any tree replacement effort in the Short North would be primarily to help coordinate and oversee it. But in the past, the City Forester’s office and the Short North SID have enjoyed a somewhat fluid relationship, sometimes the City, sometimes the SID, picking up the tab for tree maintenance along High Street in the Short North. Low is confident that however the billing proceeds, he and Wagner will work it out, largely because they always have.

“Tim and I have known each other a long time and we’re both after the same thing, to keep the original investment in the Short North vibrant and whole.”

The Future of the SID
But replacing dying trees isn’t the only thing on Wagner’s mind these days. Right now, he’s vying for the continuation of the SID services as the December 2011 expiration date of the Short North SID’s current Plan for Services and Improvements nears. Wagner and others in the Short North say the daily upkeep of the area won’t go away then, and so neither should the SID. Plans are already underway to devise a new Plan for Services and Improvements that would renew the SID in 2012, giving the SID’s board of trustees a new set of marching orders for maintaining and improving the district.

John Angelo, former director of the Short North Business Association and now an independent destination marketing consultant, is leading the campaign to generate a new Plan of Services and Improvements for the Short North SID by summer 2011. The SID renewal is a multi-phase process that, Angelo says, will evolve based on input from the nearly 100 owners of commercial or residential properties touching the Short North’s High Street strip and from Short North business owners.

“The immediate next step is really touching base with every single property owner in the area and getting their direct feedback on the projects and services over the last 10 years and also on what they think the district needs,” Angelo said.

Angelo and the committee of SID board members working on the SID’s renewal will gather this information in interviews with the district’s property owners. They also will interview Short North business owners, in particular owners of street-level businesses.

“Everything here is so interconnected. The success of a business is directly tied to the success of the property owners,” Angelo said. “The property owners’ measure of success, in many cases, is property value, the aesthetics of the district’s streetscapes, and closely tied to that is business success. If their merchants aren’t being successful, that will directly impact property value.” From the feedback they get from property owners and business owners, Angelo and the SID renewal committee hope to glean information about how appealing and walkable the Short North High Street strip is to visitors. Based on the findings of its research, the committee will devise a new Plan for Services and Improvements and present it and a related budget to property owners for their approval.

“That, of course, will back us into proposed assessments, how much each property owner will be contributing to the next 12-year SID,” Angelo said.

The property owner-approved plan will be reviewed by the City of Columbus’ Economic Development office, and its fate rests ultimately with Columbus’ City Council.

Wagner says he’s confident City Council will approve whatever new plan the Short North property owners approve, especially since a proposed new plan would not be paid for by the city, but by the property owners through a special assessment.

“What is more likely,” Angelo says, “is that we go to the City and we have an interesting idea for a project – much like with the arches – and we say, ‘Here is a project that we want to run. We’re coming to the table with this much money. Can you help us come up with the balance of what we need to achieve this project?’”

Angelo says such a new project could come in the form of tree plantings, curb repairs or other necessary improvements or be larger in scale. He says the SID’s new plan should continue to focus on the experience of coming to and being in the Short North and that developing the north end of the Short North could be an appropriate goal.

“It’s going to be about the streetscapes and safety and accessibility,” Angelo said. “For the north end of the district there’s ample opportunity to show a little more love. The south end is predominantly in a maintenance mode. Are there opportunities for the SID to build on the momentum and bring that great density of offerings that we have in the south up toward the north as well, and then ultimately connect with the University District?”

It remains to be seen what large-scale projects the next Plan for Service and Improvements will call for. But Wagner says that even without overseeing special projects, the SID has plenty of work to do.

“I doubt that anybody would say, ‘We don’t want you to pick up litter anymore, we don’t want you to get rid of graffiti anymore, we don’t want you to paint the litter receptacles anymore, we don’t want you to get rid of the weeds,’” Wagner said.

“To maintain ourselves as a model for the rest of the city and the area we need to continue doing what we have been doing,” said SID founder Sandy Wood.

As Wagner awaits a new set of marching orders, he connects the dots between where he is today and where he started out with the Short North Special Improvement District. Today he bears the responsibility of mobilizing countless people, organizations and government entities in the service of a better Short North. And he believes that somehow the people who tapped him for this role ten years ago knew he’d stay the course.
“I think they appreciated the fact that my heart was in the interest of the neighborhood,” Wagner said.

© 2010 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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