On Development: Too many topics, not enough time in one day

Matter’s incoming development columnist presents an overview of some of the many challenges facing Columbus, all of which will be explored in greater depth over the coming months.
Columbus skyline
Columbus skylinePhoto by Oz Seyrek for Unsplash

Bob Dylan is said to have squeezed his long list of laments into a single track with “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” from 1962, because he didn’t know if the world would be around long enough to write all of the songs.

Today’s situation in Columbus is not so dire, but nonetheless there is a long list of laments of which to make note – with the hope that they all can be explored in greater detail in the coming months. Not in song, of course, but at least in purposeful prose. Here’s a short list.

Intel looms over all of the challenges facing Columbus and its environs: Transportation in general. Transit and rail in particular. Housing in general. Affordable housing in particular. Reining in sprawl enough to keep some good land for agriculture. We can’t eat microchips.

If the residential development supporting the Intel juggernaut is completed without some kind of rail transit connecting it to Columbus and/or Newark, the growth could become more of a liability than an asset to Central Ohio. Local leadership – Columbus, Franklin County and even COTA – often appears deaf to the desires of young Central Ohioans who know that a sprawling and growing region has far less transit than it needs and deserves.

COTA has long been insufficient and is falling further behind. Covid, inflation, labor shortage – there are many challenges. But the next steps have to go far, far beyond restoring past service, and far beyond the LinkUS bus-rapid transit initiative that’s just getting started.

Construction of parking garages can cost well over $20,000 per space, boosting the cost of new housing. Cities around the country – Minneapolis, St. Paul, Buffalo, San Diego, Boston and Sacramento, among the recent ones – have eliminated requirements that new housing have a minimum number of parking spaces.

But minimums are a big issue at Columbus zoning hearings, where current residents want developers to have plenty of parking – arguing that not enough people bike in Columbus, especially in winter, and that transit is not good enough for people to go carless. Bicyclists counter that many more people would ride more often if it were safe to do so. Seven years after the first protected bike lane (Summit Street from 11th to Hudson), Columbus is finally on the verge of putting in its second, on Mt. Vernon Avenue.

Bicycle and pedestrian advocates in Columbus argue that their safety cannot be ensured by speed limits and signs. Signs pointing to “pedestrian zones” teach drivers to watch for signs rather than watch for pedestrians. Cities with the most successful Vision Zero programs design streets for slow speeds and have much greater success. Books have been written about this. 

Big, wide, squat buildings dominate much of the city’s new construction. Developers buy up several lots, which keeps land out of the hands of smallholders and deadens the commercial streetscapes. The zoning code minimum of six stories becomes a maximum, so buildings in the OSU area, for example, all tend to be a block long and six stories tall – block after tedious block of them.

In residential areas, private-equity vultures are gobbling up under-valued homes and lots, driving up prices in Columbus and other cities. Elsewhere, some local governments buy such properties to keep out absentee landlords and other bad actors. They then may sell them at-cost, or lower, to small, local, neighborhood-oriented developers, such as those being trained through the Affordable Housing Trust’s Emerging Developers Accelerator Program. That builds wealth among people already in struggling communities. 

Community leaders need to be schooled. Fifth-by-Northwest is an odd, interesting little spit of Columbus jabbing between Grandview Heights on the south and Upper Arlington, Clinton Township and OSU’s West Campus on the north. About 85 percent of its residents are renters – a percentage likely to rise as new apartment complexes spring up. As its population of young professionals grows, residents face a huge challenge: If they start families, can they stay in the city? Fifth-by- Northwest has no public school.

The former head of the Columbus Downtown Development Corp., during a real estate forum at OSU’s Fisher College of Business several years ago, bragged about residential growth downtown (rising so robustly that it’s now almost half of the 20,000 people who lived downtown in 1950). He singled out millennials and young professionals as adding to the vitality. 

He added that, over time, many of them would have kids and move to the suburbs, but that Columbus could probably lure them back when they became empty nesters.

Think about that: looking at the city and the schools as utterly separate entities and accepting the flight of young parents as an immutable fact, rather than a problem that must be solved. Actually, the fates of the city and Columbus City Schools are inextricably entwined. The city ignores this fact at its own peril.

Columbus likes to consider itself cutting edge. But on these and other challenges, it is fast falling behind many peer cities.

Brian Williams is on the Zoning Committee of the University Area Commission. The perspective outlined here is his own and does not reflect that of the committee at large.

Support Matter during our largest fundraising event of the year! Consider making a recurring monthly donation here

Related Stories

No stories found.
Matter News