On Development: In a growing city, what’s old can be new again

Preserving duplexes and row houses – and building modern versions – will not solve the twin problems of housing shortage and an acute lack of affordable housing. But it is a part of the solution.
Row houses on Oakland Avenue at Summit Street
Row houses on Oakland Avenue at Summit StreetBrian Williams

What is it that we hate about those hideous, boxy, five-story apartment blocks erupting from the sidewalks in the campus area, West Fifth Avenue, Franklinton and parts of downtown?

They share a similar height range, with one level of retail space topped by four or five floors of apartments, and they all seem to look alike. But some have all-masonry facades, while others have a mix of materials. Some make laughable attempts to look like several separate buildings. Still, we tend to lump them all together. What makes us feel queasy when we see them?

It’s about width. These things are sudden, oblong pegs inflicted upon centuries of graceful swatches of urban fabric. Only when developers have amassed enough land parcels can they plop these wide, horizontal hulks into streetscapes that have traditionally accommodated narrower, vertically oriented buildings. Across cultures around the world, for decades, even millennia, cities have evolved primarily with this vertical orientation – until our recent epidemic of boxiness.

We tend to blame developers for this assault on our sense of urban aesthetics, but that is oversimplified. Developers are beholden to a finance industry that knows little and cares less about the character of our neighborhoods. It prefers to invest in (or harvest from) projects that return dollars, lack nuance and follow trends that have had recent financial success.

Yes, Columbus and the region are growing at a frightening pace – more than making up for the loss of population in nearly every other corner of Ohio. Columbus is not very dense, but it must become denser to accommodate growth. So must the suburbs densify to ease the sort of costly sprawl certain to be spawned by Intel. As a result, a certain amount of this clumsy, warehouse-style housing is probably inevitable.

But assembling the necessary parcels puts more land in the hands of large investors – and beyond reach of ordinary people. Historically, our streetscapes were lined with small-scale projects in which someone opened a store or restaurant and then added second- and maybe third-story apartments to pay the bills.

So, are there other options?

Columbus should have more of what it used to build: classic duplexes, fourplexes, row houses and courtyard buildings – now often called “missing middle” housing. Century-old four-, six- and eight-unit rowhouses are scattered all over the OSU area, Short North, Franklinton, South End and Near East Side. Fifth-by-Northwest is chock full of 1920s to 1940s fourplexes. Even the row houses have a vertical feel, with two floors and separate porches.

It’s called the “missing” middle because zoning made it illegal to build such small-scale apartment buildings in what became single-family-only neighborhoods. Though such structures have not been added to the streetscape for decades, the older ones are familiar and easily recognizable. Most Columbus neighborhoods have no shortage of empty spaces that would be great for modern iterations of those old Columbus icons.

Maybe we need a campaign – a Parade of Missing Middle Homes. Ask builders, developers and architects to imagine new models. The Affordable Housing Trust for Columbus and Franklin County has a training initiative aimed at cultivating the next generation of women and minority developers. Maybe the Central Ohio Community Land Trust could make properties available so those who complete the Emerging Developers Accelerator Program can build and show off the next generation of row houses and fourplexes. Perhaps the row houses could have third floors, with the top level as a separate studio apartment. Builders and architects could get creative.

There are hurdles, of course. The Columbus zoning code still does not allow such buildings in many of the places where they’re needed. The city is in the midst of a major revamp of the old code, and it appears likely the new zoning will not be completed (much less adopted) for a year or more. But encouraging Missing Middle housing ought to be a no-brainer for new development. The city could surely find a way to approve a showcase of such apartments through zoning variances – and to put them on a fast track.

In the meantime, Columbus officials ought to do everything they can to preserve the duplexes and courtyard apartments the city has. Many of them – if they haven’t been gutted, remodeled, and fancied-up – are perfectly decent and affordable ($1,000 for a two-bedroom; $600 for a studio). And with hardwood floors! A housing tower proposed for the northeast corner of Lane and High last year would have demolished the century-old, 33-unit Alhambra Court apartments. Those places – and their affordability – could never be duplicated.

Preserving the duplexes and row houses – and building modern versions – will not solve the twin problems of housing shortage and an acute lack of affordable housing. But it is an important part of the solution. And it will make Columbus stronger and more resilient.

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