On Development: Zoning out on Zone In

The biggest beneficiaries of the new zoning code could be local businesses, homeowners and small developers who lack the means to hire architects and lawyers to guide them through the current process.
Makley Place
Makley PlaceBrian Williams

A year from now, Columbus most likely will have adopted Zone In, a new, simpler zoning code, replacing the 70-year-old Code of Theseus.

Theseus, the mythical founder of Athens, rescued the city’s lost children and sailed them to safety on a ship. Instead of shooting off fireworks on the anniversary every year, Athenians recreated the rescue, for centuries, using the same ship. Later, they realized that every part of the old Theseus ship had been replaced, causing the philosophers to ask: Is it the same ship?

The Columbus zoning-code is not the same ship that dubiously set sail in the 1950s. Components have not so much been replaced as supplanted, painted over, jury-rigged, remodeled, spackled together, and tied up with chewing gum and baling wire.

The 1950s code applied Reynoldsburg-like zoning to places such as downtown and German Village. It took 70 years of patching to realize that the code shouldn’t have been adopted to begin with, and now needed to be thrown out and reimagined.

But in the meantime, the patchwork polyglot attracted some defenders. The people most invested in the current code are those who know it well enough to cite obscure clauses in opposing new projects – even though the clauses may have been adopted decades ago to solve a problem not relevant to today’s changing city. 

The new code – a framework of which has been rolled out to neighborhood gatherings across the city in recent months – is already being demeaned as “friendly to developers.” There’s some truth to that. Developers will not have to jump as many hurdles, or variances, because the new code will be more straightforward and focused on today’s challenges.

Despite what critics say, some of the biggest beneficiaries of the change could be local businesses, homeowners and small-scale developers – the sorts of people who may lack the means to hire architects and lawyers to guide them through the arcane edicts of the current antiquated and convoluted policies.

They typically come before the city’s boards and commissions unprepared. Why are they unprepared? Because they often have a simple request – perhaps to build a new front porch where there used to be an old front porch – but the current code has made such an obvious improvement illegal, or at least more difficult.

If you’re seeking a minor zoning change, the city or neighborhood zoning committees must loom ominously, as if high upon a dais – peppering you with questions about obscure provisions, barking at you like The Great and Powerful Oz. Until Toto pulls away the curtain and reveals the zoning code to be a cruel joke.

It’s tough when start-up businesses such as Community Grounds endure zoning hurdles in changing 1134 Parsons Ave. from one commercial use to another. Without a parking variance, the 2,600 square-foot neighborhood coffee shop would have needed more than 3,200 square feet of parking (20 spaces) – because the zoning code assumes the place will always be filled, and only with people who drove there.

But to big developers, for the most part, the zoning gauntlet is a nuisance built into their budgets, just another cost of doing business.

What is likely to be lost under the new code, however, is the extent of community advice on new projects through city area commissions and other community groups. This is a valid concern, given the utter lack of imagination and taste, the trend toward filling entire city blocks, and the finance models that prod developers to build behemoths and get instant return on investment. Ideally, the new code will address some of those trends.

After all, in the decades before zoning – when Columbus was built much more densely than today, creating what are now some of the most desirable neighborhoods – residents had no say in development decisions.  In fact, residents today have a greater voice than ever to weigh in on development. Perhaps even too much.

There’s value to public input. Area Commissions today make recommendations, not decisions, but they have a forum to prod developers into working more closely with communities. One example is the Makley Place apartments and retail at 210 W. Fifth Ave., which was completed last year after the University Area Commission urged developers to work closely with neighbors.

But there’s also a downside to relying on community input. The people free to spend an hour or two at an evening or late-afternoon meeting do not reflect a cross-section of the community. Attendance skews toward white-collar professionals and retirees.

In my eight years on the University Area Commission, I’ve heard a lot of people begin their development critiques by saying: “I’ve been living in this neighborhood for over 40 years …”

What we need to hear is the thoughts of people who will be living in the community for the next 40 years.

That’s who the new zoning code will be written for.

Brian Williams is a freelance writer, a resident of the community for over 30 years, and a member of the University Area Commission’s zoning committee. The views expressed here definitely do not reflect those of the committee as a whole.

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