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Here’s the nonprofit bringing good design to Columbus’ disadvantaged neighborhoods

Neighborhood Design Center is partnering with the city in revitalization efforts for Linden and the Hilltop.

As Columbus considers how to elevate its neighborhoods thoughtfully, it has a secret weapon you may not know about—the Neighborhood Design Center. The center’s job is to revitalize urban settings through creative planning and it has been quietly doing so since 1982.

In the beginning, the nonprofit center offered small business owners solutions for their storefronts and other store design aspects. Now, it has recently extended its scope to focus on entire communities and what they may need—everything from physical improvements to stabilizing housing, connecting residents with employment and efforts to support the success of neighborhood students.

Partnering with organizations has allowed the center to operate on a larger scale. Even though the areas the center touches have widened, there always has been a commitment to hearing what residents want and need, and translating them. For example, from March 17 to April 18, the center, in partnership with the city of Columbus Department of Neighborhoods, the United Way and Ohio State University, met with Linden residents more than 200 times to listen, assess needs and come up with an extensive revitalization plan called One Linden. The plan has a reach of 2.6 square miles and 18,000 residents. “We truly want to make the community feel that they have a voice to tell their stories and what they want,” says Isabela Gould, the center’s executive director. The One Linden plan offers “10 Big Ideas” that the director of the Department of Neighborhoods, Carla Williams-Scott, says the city plans to implement.

The work has grown the Neighborhood Design Center’s operations. “We went from two full-time people and four student interns to five full-time people and six interns,” says Gould. “That has allowed us to operate with greater capacity and at a greater scale overall. And I think, more importantly, in moving forward, it allows us to connect even more and increase our potential for partnerships and for truly making a stronger impact in the neighborhoods in the long term.”

The team includes architects, city planners, landscape architects and interior designers. Interns make up nearly half of the staff at any given time, and more than 30 students have had the opportunity to intern with the organization. “We’re also in the process of expanding our relationship with other colleges,” says Gould, such as OSU’s College of Social Work and Fisher College of Business.

As the city and the partners decide how to implement the One Linden plan, they are working on a new plan for the Hilltop. Each neighborhood is different, says Williams-Scott, so each plan needs to be tailored to the specific needs of that community. The Hilltop plan is scheduled for completion by the end of the year.

“At first I was concerned because I had never worked with [the center]. If I haven’t worked with you and I don’t know what I’m going into, you kind of walk in almost like tiptoeing,” says Williams-Scott. “But they’ve really helped us in terms of creativity and how we do our outreach in the communities and their knowledge of the planning process.”

In addition to neighborhood plans, the center’s Neighborhood Commercial Revitalization program, funded by city grant money, offers aesthetic improvements to ground-level commercial storefronts and commercial interiors of eligible businesses in certain corridors on Cleveland Avenue, East Main Street, Parsons Avenue, in Franklinton, the Hilltop and the King-Lincoln District. It has also transformed vacant land through its Parcels to Places program and revitalizes public spaces through art installations. “We want to really see projects come to reality, not stay just in a paper format,” says Gould. “We make it possible for them to be able to dream big.”

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