On Development: Bold new zoning code would make dinosaur extinct

The new code would repair damage from the 1950s zoning code, which was more about accommodating the automobile than building a vibrant city.
Makley Place
Makley PlaceBrian Williams

The first phase of the new Columbus zoning code, unveiled this week, would allow apartment buildings up to 12 stories on major streets that already have significant economic activity – 16 stories if developers commit to affordability standards for 20 percent of the apartments. Buildings of five stories (or seven with lower-cost units) would be permitted on some less-intensive thoroughfares. And the requirement to include a minimum number of onsite parking spaces would be abolished.

This phase was carefully designed to match high-density areas with the Link-US bus/bike/pedestrian initiative that will include greatly expanded bus service if voters approve a 1 percent sales tax for COTA in the November election.

While allowing greater housing density in those targeted areas, the code, dubbed Zone-In, also is designed to encourage more neighborhood-oriented “missing middle” apartments by small-scale local developers, such as those in the Affordable Housing Trust’s Emerging Developers Accelerator Program. Developers large and small would be able to move forward on projects with less review through neighborhood commissions, but that doesn’t mean they have free reign. 

The code also includes illustrated design guidelines that require, in many cases, architectural flourishes such as cornices, parapets or other details on larger buildings; murals, plantings or other treatments on any street-level blank walls; and distinctive entrances to large-scale apartment buildings.

The new code would repair damage from the 1950s zoning code, which was more about accommodating the automobile than building a vibrant city. Downtown Columbus has long been a sea of parking lots because the zoning code dismissed transit and required that new skyscrapers have a certain number of parking spaces based on square footage of office space. The easiest way for developers to do that was to buy buildings and demolish them, which displaced apartment residents and forced many businesses to shut down or move.

Even with the growth of high-rise apartments and condos since 2000, the population of downtown Columbus is less than it was when the zoning code was adopted. The boomlet in downtown housing occurred only after the city radically changed zoning policy in the central core 25 years ago. 

The new zoning along commercial corridors comes at a time when cities across the country are eliminating parking requirements and allowing additional units and small multi-family buildings in places that now allow only single-family homes.

Those are the kinds of changes advocated by such entities as Strong Towns, a nonprofit organization that describes itself as “dedicated to helping cities and towns in the United States achieve financial resiliency through civic engagement.” Its website features articles and podcasts about initiatives in cities large and small, and the group promotes the idea of incremental growth rather than grand mega-developments.

Strong Towns founder Charles Marohn and Daniel Herriges, a founding member and longtime writer, have written a book, Escaping the Housing Trap, to be released April 23. The first several chapters offer a history of American housing finance over the past century – tracing the evolution of homeownership from shelter to investment. From Depression-era housing programs and loan guarantees to protection of home values in the 2008 recession and the COVID slowdown, federal policy has intertwined home values so thoroughly into the broader economy that reduced home values can destabilize the economy like removing a critical Jenga block. Such precariousness makes affordable housing harder to achieve.

Though Strong Towns is committed to incrementalism, the authors concede that housing shortages and affordability are dire enough that the sorts of boxy, apartment complexes popping up around Columbus need to be a part of a multi-pronged solution. The book is critical of NIMBYs – the “Not In My Back Yard” opponents of any new density – but also insists on community input and character.

“Gentle density” and “missing middle” housing – duplexes, fourplexes, old-fashioned rowhouse/townhouses and backyard garages with small apartments upstairs – are an essential part of addressing housing shortages. But these unobtrusive, once-common housing types have been largely banned in most of Columbus for decades. And the small-scale local builders who want to develop them on vacant lots face a hostile zoning process (one that can be but a minor irritant to large developers who can afford teams of lawyers).

The rollout of the plan is important. But of critical importance now is the 60-day period for residents to look more closely at the code and make comments and suggestions online or in person at Zone-in Gallery, located at 141 N. Front St. The city surely will be hearing from those of us who have lived comfortably here for half of a century. Mostly, however, it’s imperative that the city hear from those of you who will be living here over the next 50 years. The new code is for you and your kids.

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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