By Ed Runyan
Dennis Blank, a Warren native and retired Time Inc. marketing executive, is the type of person who uses the term “branding” a lot when talking about revitalizing Warren’s residential central city.
Where government officials might describe a neighborhood as “strategically located,” Blank describes it as “the front yard of Harding High School.”
Where a government official might describe the area just north of downtown Warren as blighted, Blank describes it as a “DIY mentoring zone,” that could flourish with the help of a “highly localized Angie’s List” of historic-home repair experts.
And while illustrating the niche of young adults that might thrive in a neighborhood within walking distance of parks and downtown coffee shops, he showed a photo of Ozzie and Harriet and their sons from the 1950s television show as a contrast.
“Ozzie and Harriet are not likely to come here,” he said of the neighborhood he’s tried to nurse to health over the past year — an area he calls the Garden District.
It’s a 22-square-block area containing about 372 older homes, 110 vacant, 27 awaiting demolition, 58 vacant lots, many government offices, major churches and attractions such as the YMCA.
It also contains a section of Atlantic Street Northeast, where 20 vacant lots have been reseeded with natural grasses and wild flowers in what he calls “carpet-bomb gardening,” which gives a more attractive look to vacant lots that were recently an eyesore.
On Tuesday at the Wean Foundation’s meeting room downtown, Blank and his partners in the Garden District project, the business group Trumbull 100 and nonprofit Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership, gave an overview of their plans to continue to turn the Garden District into a new brand.
When that is complete, the Garden District can serve as a template for transforming the rest of the city’s neighborhoods.
Young people would be the best audience to target for reinvestment, Blank said, because they “are willing to walk places,” sometimes rely on bicycles, don’t need a 2-car garage, “who want to walk to concerts” at the downtown amphitheater.
Blank said a developer is planning to start renovation of the Packard House on North Park Avenue within a year and create 16 upscale housing units.
He showed pictures of artwork being created in formerly vacant lots now occupied by Garden District residents participating in the Land Bank’s side lot program. He showed stone planters “and other branding elements” being constructed. He even showed a picture of some things he just thinks ought to come into being: houses with the “painted lady” style of bright-colored painting, a vacant lot devoted to nothing but bird houses.
Blank told the crowd of over 100 the next steps that will advance the cause — continued marketing of the vacant homes, use of media to advance the concept.
Chevrolet dealer Diane Sauer noted that a neighborhood in Columbus — Victorian Village — was a lot like the current Garden District before it became one of Columbus’ most desirable places to live and play.
“We have beautiful old houses, architecture, walkability, trees,” she said. “We feel this is the time to make this happen.”