The Frequent Fails of Columbus Zoning

Throughout Columbus’ history, zoning codes have been, shall we say, less than ideal in promoting strong development. Long favoring low-density over high, single-use over multi, cars over pedestrians and bikes, low-rise over high-rise, the city’s zoning has exacerbated a housing shortage and greater economic segregation.

The issue has long been somewhat embarrassing for a city its size, especially one that purports itself to be progressive and forward-thinking. This may sound harsh, but it’s not. While zoning codes are hardly a glamorous topic, they are one of the most fundamentally important drivers of any city’s development and growth patterns.

Problems with the city’s zoning codes have been popping up in the news for a century, and surprisingly little has been done about it even as the city has been experiencing record population growth. There are endless examples of how zoning codes have either failed to promote better development or made it far more difficult. Here are just a few.

1985- Campus Area Construction Halted Over Parking
Back in the era Reaganomics, Euro pop and big hair, housing in and around Ohio State seemed to be a free-for-all in terms of the little oversight given to construction standards, permit-free demolitions and packing as many students in illegal units as possible.

Although there were technically codes against much of this, they were weak and irregularly enforced, so conflicts between existing residents and developers were constant.

In regards to student housing and new construction, parking was one of the main points of contention- as it tends to be even now. Before 1985, codes had long called for 1.5 parking spaces per unit, but demand for student housing caused developers and landlords to get creative as to how many “units” would exist in a single structure.

Instead of simply addressing the existing codes to allow for greater density and reduced parking requirements, the City decided instead to go in the opposite direction and implement even stricter codes.

Instead of requiring 1.5 parking spaces per unit, they tied parking requirements to square footage by requiring 1 space for every 380 square feet of living space. While these changes did help address overcrowding and illegal units, new development became more expensive to build due to even greater parking requirements in lots with limited space.

Furthermore, the new codes limited new construction to single-family housing on lots with less than 50 feet of street frontage. Given that lots in the area were almost universally smaller than that, the new rules almost single-handedly killed multi-unit residential development across much of the district.

Today, you can view this transition line pretty well, with most apartment complexes around Campus having been built either in the 1960s and 1970s, or after 2000, with relatively little in between.

One of many examples of Campus-area apartment buildings built before the new codes.

This is not to argue that the codes were great before 1985, nor is it an argument for bulldozing all the historic, single-family and other housing that exists just to throw up the kind of bland apartments like those pictured above.

The City failed to address housing needs that were causing many of the existing issues at the time, however, and ended up promoting low-density planning in one of the city’s most urban areas. To this day, developers are still largely required to get a slew of variances for building multi-unit housing around Campus, especially off of High Street.

2001- New Zoning Rules Toothless
This isn’t exactly a story of how zoning codes failed, but rather how coding changes simply didn’t go far enough. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, there had been growing nostalgia for the traditional neighborhood- one that featured a mix of corner shops, restaurants, entertainment venues and walkable infrastructure.

Those types of neighborhoods had fallen out of favor after WWII, and per zoning codes, were essentially illegal to build in most cases. This ban was the eventual outcome of a decades-long effort to gradually segregate more and more types of development from residential areas.

Land-use zoning began in Columbus in the 1910s, but back then, it was mostly used to control the spread of heavy industry into populated areas. That early segregation of use has since snowballed into the ridiculous. As mentioned, for most of human civilization cities had been built with mixed-uses in mind, but over time, zoning gradually added more and more types of development deemed unacceptable near housing, including any type of business that residents might actually enjoy walking to, such as restaurants and retail shops.

These single-use neighborhoods rapidly became dominant by the 1950s with the concept of tract housing. There were always those who felt something was being lost in the transition even then, however, and that feeling only grew in subsequent decades.

By 2001, the city was ready to drastically alter codes to promote more of this old-school development. Championed by then Councilman Richard Sensenbrenner, the updated code standards called for new development to follow a grid street pattern, few or no setbacks from sidewalks, garages along alleys, a mix of uses, higher densities and mass transit adaptability.

The type of small-lot residential in Clintonville is part of what the new codes were supposed to encourage.

Not everyone was convinced of the plan. Other council members, city leaders and neighborhood groups opposed the new standards, with some claiming that Columbus’ growth was due in part to its more sprawled nature and lack of density outside of the core.

They feared such new standards would, in some way, harm the city’s attractiveness to new residents. While those arguments seem specious at best, it’s a pretty classic example of the thinking that got so much of the low-density sprawl built after WWII and which remains prolific even today.

Despite some objections, the new codes did eventually get passed, but they largely applied to new neighborhood and subdivision development, while standards for new, small-scale infill in existing urban areas were largely ignored. Furthermore, the new codes only encouraged less suburban sprawl, but didn’t necessarily mandate that result. If a developer still wanted to build traditional suburbia, they could.

The new codes merely removed some of the restrictions if they didn’t. The problem was that for most suburban developers, sprawl was their bread and butter and what they knew how to build, so few were interested in creating anything different. Since then, very few new subdivisions have incorporated this more urban-style development into their plans. Sprawl remains dominant on the fringes of the city and in almost all suburbs.

2018- German Village Rewrites History to Reject Project
In a very recent example of how poor codes give vocal groups far too much power in killing otherwise decent urban infill, we look to the Livingston Avenue hotel project on the edge of German Village. Originally proposed as a 5-story “boutique” hotel in March, 2018, the project was to take the place of a single-story 1980’s office building and a large surface parking lot.

Neither the existing building nor the lot were historic, of course, and the overall site overlooked the I-70 highway trench, so the project seemed to be a good fit for a neighborhood otherwise well-known for its strict development requirements, especially regarding historic preservation. There was nothing to preserve in this case, though.

The site of the proposed hotel.

Between March and July of that year, the project proposal would go to the German Village Commission three times with three different designs from 5 to 6 stories tall. Each time, the project was rejected for being too tall. At 62′, the project required a variance to exceed the ridiculously low 35′ height limit on that section of Livingston.

That height limit, by the way, was first implemented in and hasn’t been changed since 1928, which just gives readers some idea of just how outdated some Columbus codes really are.

The 6-story version of the proposed hotel.

The project went dormant for a year before resurfacing in the late summer of 2019 with a brand new design, but still at 5 stories. To say that the response was negative is seriously underselling it. The project was derided as a threat to the entirety of German Village, that it would become a catalyst for its eventual destruction as a historic neighborhood.

One group that offered up particularly bizarre arguments against the project was the German Village Society, a group mostly focused on the goal of historic preservation and guiding development efforts in the neighborhood, but otherwise has no official function related to the German Village Commission or the city. Its members made wild claims about how German Village had always been a residential neighborhood, and that the hotel threatened that.

Of course, that was nonsense. While it’s true that German Village has always had more residential than any other type of development, it’s never only been that. German Village had been built in the 19th and early 20th centuries when neighborhoods were very much a mix of commercial, retail, office, residential and even some light manufacturing.

There was no such thing as a separation because there were no codes mandating it then, so a hotel would not have been out of character and would’ve been unlikely to raise a fuss. If anything, it’s certainly arguable that demanding German Village never have any retail or commercial development goes against the historical legacy of what the neighborhood has always been.

Anyone who has ever shopped or dined in the neighborhood knows this.
Another highly dubious claim made was that the hotel would significantly alter the direction of development in the neighborhood and render it another version of the Short North. German Village is almost entirely built out because so few of the original structures were ever torn down. Outside of South High Street- which is not actually part of German Village itself- there are extremely limited options for new construction, let alone at the scale that the Short North has seen in the past decade.

It’s virtually impossible for German Village to ever experience the same development patterns without mass demolitions, which will simply never happens for too many reasons to list here. But those fears, however supportable, were magnified due to poor zoning codes which hold building sites to irrationally strict and outdated standards, and there are few stricter than those in German Village.

The people that typically go to local neighborhood development commission meetings seem to typically be the most vocal against development and change in general, but are not always representative of the greater feelings of a project within a neighborhood.

In a twist, the hotel’s developer argued that those residents closest to the site and who would’ve been most impacted by it were actually in favor of the project, but it seems those favorable voices just didn’t attend the meetings. As usual in life, those with the loudest voices tend to be heard most, no matter the logic of their arguments, and in this case, they had the rules on their side.

This vocal group unfortunately included members of the neighborhood development commission itself. Ironically, at the October 2019 meeting review of the new hotel design, one German Village Commissioner commented that even if the hotel’s proposed height of 62’ were reduced down to the existing code’s 35’ maximum, they would still oppose the project as being too large and being out of character with the neighborhood. Even bare minimum standards are sometimes ignored for the sake of- in this case- imagined ideals.

The last rendering of the hotel project, which attempted to match the neighborhood more thoroughly.

By spring of this year, the project had been redesigned at least 5 times and had been reduced further to a height of just 42’, but was still being rejected and with no change in the likelihood of it ever getting approval. The last word from several months ago suggested the developer would attempt to appeal directly to the city, which has the power to bypass local neighborhood commission authority and approve the project. That option, however, is rarely used.

Codes as a Force of Denial and a Better Way Forward
The crux of the zoning code issues through the past several decades is that they’re almost exclusively used as a measure of prevention. Whether that is preventing the German Village hotel or stopping density around Campus, they all have basically functioned the same way the past century.

Codes are like a game of Whack-a-Mole, where new development is constantly beaten back down regardless of its quality or site appropriateness. Instead of just using codes as a stop sign that seeks to block an increasingly long list of possible developments, we should have them spell out the bare minimum requirements for what should be built, not its maximum boundaries. They should be a force of aspiration, not limitation. Some other cities have been well ahead of the game in figuring that out.

Last fall, Minneapolis banned single-family housing zoning. Lots that were once only zoned for single-family homes could now have multi-family development instead. This didn’t mean that developers could come in and replace all single-family homes with enormous new apartment complexes, but it did allow previously-zoned single-family lots to contain things like duplexes and rowhouses.

The primary motivation for these changes revolved around addressing housing affordability in the city, something that is increasingly becoming an issue nationally. This includes Columbus, where the the skyrocketing average home price and massive housing shortage has prompted local leadership to think up new ideas. The irony of it all is that Columbus leadership wants the suburbs to push for and build more density when the city’s own codes keep preventing it.

Recently, however, we learned that the City is once again looking at revamping development zoning codes. While it’s been suggested that they are open to radical changes and to finally address their glaring weaknesses, it cannot be understated just how much opposition there is waiting in the wings to fight against them.

Such changes are at least a few years away, and the process to create them will involve dozens of public meetings on any proposed changes, so what may be radical now could be significantly watered down when they finally arrive. We also cannot cling to the idea that big changes will definitely occur when recent history suggests that city leadership itself is quite timid when it comes to implementing anything considered controversial.

On that note, mass transit or protected bike lanes say hi. So while there is much to be cautious about, there is at least new hope that a serious effort will be made tackle this.

So where does all this leave us?
To be sure, there is a place for separating some types of development as many codes originally intended, for regulating- to some degree- the aesthetics of a project or offering protection for historic buildings against development threats.

Those types of codes certainly have their place, and citizens do have the right to use them to push back when they believe proposals have gone too far. But for every limiting factor, there should be far more that promote stronger urban development. Current zoning is not the best we can do.

It’s a product of mediocre thinking that has only produced more mediocrity in a city that should be using its fantastic growth to bust down the doors of what is possible.
With Covid, crime and other issues recently causing many to rethink the role of cities in the future, it will become increasingly critical to think outside the box and push for a cohesive development vision for Columbus in the coming years.

In the question of what we all what Columbus to be, the answer should at least start with the acknowledgment that it not a suburb, town, village or the countryside. It is a city, and no matter what, deserves to be developed as one.

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