On Development: Don’t zone out – get engaged instead

The most important voices needed on Zone In are those of people who will be living in Columbus for the next 40 years rather than those who have been in their homes for the past 40 years.
Row houses on Oakland Avenue at Summit Street
Row houses on Oakland Avenue at Summit StreetBrian Williams

More than 50,000 Columbus residents have offered thoughts and suggestions on Zone In Columbus in the two years since the city began a complete replacement of its outdated, 70-year-old zoning code. Looked at one way, that’s only about 0.05 percent of the city. But it also means that one of every 19 Columbusites has weighed in. Short of a citywide election, this is a heck of a lot more input than just about any other city policy gets.

City planners and other officials have continued to gather more input. They have staffed the Zone In Gallery (141 N. Front St.) six days a week since the first phase of the new code was unveiled a month ago. They will continue to do so for another month. Background material is available, and residents are encouraged to submit comments or suggestions – with or without a visit to the gallery.  

This initial phase of the citywide zoning code applies to only about 4 percent of the city’s area – 12,000 parcels of land on 62 segments of main commercial streets – focused on places that are considered by residents and planners to be most appropriate for greater height, density, and transit. These areas are now limited by the current code, which requires both big developers and small, neighborhood-oriented builders to seek variances and rezonings even for small projects that are consistent with the historic character of the neighborhoods.

Two common critiques of Zone In focus on the proposed allowable height of 12- to 16-story buildings in some commercial corridors and removing current requirements for off-street parking. 

The current code is based on an assumption that every household needs a parking space – even though 30,000 households in Columbus have no cars. What is proposed today for the 12,000 land parcels in the first phase is precisely what has been the case downtown for the past 20 years: Downtown parking requirements were eliminated about the time the housing boom began there. Developers include enough spaces to meet the expected needs of residents, but many have said their original estimates exceeded the actual demand.

What planners are seeking is not so much a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on Zone In, but rather suggestions that will make the broad vision of the draft code fit better with the neighborhood vision of residents. Should green space (such as courtyards) be required in development along dense corridors? Should multi-story, mixed-use buildings be required at busy commercial and transit intersections such as High and East North Broadway streets instead of the suburban-style, one-story, single-use buildings constructed there in recent years?

What they are not stressing – but that I will emphasize – is that the most important voices needed are those of people who will be living in Columbus for the next 40 years rather than those who have been in their homes for the past 40 years. This is for Millennials, Gen Z, and their children.

Though the zoning update is very important, the code alone will not address many other municipal needs. Things like:

  • The width of buildings, as opposed to height: Twelve or 16 stories can be awfully oppressive if a building is a block wide. But a narrower tower would reflect the vertical orientation that has defined cities for 6,000 years. In addition, a wide building that consolidates many parcels just puts more land in the hands of corporations and wealthy individuals. Maybe the code could allow buildings to be a few stories higher if they have a narrower footprint

  • Preserving naturally occurring affordable housing – a reference to existing older buildings (such as duplexes, fourplexes, row houses and courtyard buildings) that have not been gutted and gussied up, and therefore have more-moderate rents. The city should do everything it can to protect such affordable housing from being “deluxified” out of the reach of most residents. But this does not appear to have been a serious concern of our civic leaders.

  • The excesses of capitalism. Ask around: You probably have friends who have been besieged by phone calls from strangers trying to buy their home. Private-equity vultures have swooped into Columbus, Cleveland and other cities around the country, buying up undervalued homes in struggling neighborhoods. They make minimal improvements and resell at a higher price. Some will say, “That’s just how the market works,” neglecting to note the utter amorality of these market forces.

Land banking is a good available tool in Columbus and Franklin County. It would be great to see local government play a bigger role in the housing market – competing with the vultures and selling properties, perhaps at cost, to local families and builders. These kinds of efforts could keep investment in the local economy and prevent out-of-state capitalists from harvesting value from our community.

Columbus and the region face pressing needs that require new approaches. The city’s efforts are not perfect, but change is coming. And leaders, for once, appear sincere about seeking comments and suggestions from the community. Take the time to study the new proposal. And then try to make it better.

Brian Williams is a consultant and freelance writer. A former Columbus Dispatch reporter, he is retired from the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.

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