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Ready or Not, Columbus is Booming

A Gloomy Beginning

In 1871, the brand new Columbus Dispatch ran a front page article of a man recounting a visit he made to the city as a young boy in 1844. The man wrote about coasting into the city on a canal boat and disembarking not far from High Street. He spoke of a dreary, muddy town that was “barren” and wholly “unremarkable” in its feel. He bemoaned the young city for being little more than an unfinished capitol building, a prison and a “lunatic asylum in the distance”. By the time the man later wrote about the experience, the city had changed from years of “steady, slow growth”, but remained a rather small, insignificant town.

Broad Street in the 1880s.

It took Columbus many long years to became a notable city in its own right. Often overshadowed by Ohio’s other larger C’s, Cincinnati and Cleveland, Columbus had to fight for recognition with every step. Over time, that slow-but-steady growth has turned into a legitimate boom. Today, the city is shedding its lackluster past one piece at a time.

Rising Up

Last May, the Census came out with city population estimates for 2016-2017. In them, Columbus grew by well over 15,000 people, for the first time becoming a national top 10 fastest-growing city. It even managed to beat out places like Austin and Nashville for sheer growth. This news was followed more recently by the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, or MORPC, estimating that Columbus grew by almost 22,000 people 2017-2018.

Clearly, Columbus is not only on the rise but has gained a growth rate normally reserved for the Sun Belt. Ohio has not seen a city grow this fast since WWI. All these new people have brought significant challenges far greater than merely conquering the unpleasant aesthetics of centuries past, though. If the city is not careful, it could find itself unprepared to handle them.

Suburbia in the City

In the 1980s, the city was desperately trying to figure out how to revitalize Downtown. The population had collapsed, businesses were failing and the area completely emptied out after 5 pm. The surrounding neighborhoods were in even worse shape. The Short North was still dealing with rampant prostitution and crime. Olde Town East’s mansions were falling into further disrepair. To try and solve this, city leaders came up with all sorts of ideas to bring the urban core back. They suggested more parking, looked into better transit and even considered a riverfront makeover.

In classic ‘80s thinking, the city settled instead on an enclosed shopping mall as its Hail Mary. They hoped that by making Downtown a shopping destination, there would follow an influx of private development and new residents. City leaders ignored developers who were telling them they believed no one really wanted to live in the city, least of all in truly urban places like Downtown. The suburbs were where people wanted to be, and they didn’t see any true demand for urban housing. They were right. Indeed, City Center brought with it almost no population growth. In fact, all it really succeeded in doing was harming smaller retail shops through the rest of the urban core.

City Center’s construction begins, 1986.

It would be another decade before Michael Coleman brought about a greater push for urban housing, both in and out of Downtown. Coleman was ahead of his time by a few years, as by the time City Center came down in 2009, a national back-to-the-city movement had begun. Even with Coleman’s championing, Downtown housing construction faltered. The double recessions during the 2000s put the kibosh on significant housing construction nationally, and Columbus fared no differently.

The economy has improved since then and is no longer restricting housing, but other problems have arisen to replace it. While the city couldn’t get anyone to live in the urban core 30 years ago, it is now facing the opposite problem. It can’t build urban housing fast enough to meet demand.

Housing Crunch

Houses under construction

Columbus had never stopped growing even during the urban dark ages of the last half of the 20th Century. Whether because of its inherent advantages as a capital, having Ohio State, the use of annexation, great leadership, simple dumb luck or a combination of all of the above, that growth was immensely beneficial. It allowed the city to keep investing and rebuilding itself and prevented it from ever truly feeling tired. In a region of worn out cities, this was a huge advantage. Perhaps that is what primed it for the boom it has now entered. When cities became desirable again, Columbus was one of the few Northern cities that still felt fresh and attractive. And attract is has.

As the population growth rate has increased over the last decade, its already rising neighborhoods exploded in popularity. The Short North is the most obvious example, though not the only one. All that growth has come at a price- literally. Housing in the most desired areas has gotten much more expensive, now to the point where paying $3,000 a month or more for a small apartment is not the outrageous idea it once was. So people have started looking elsewhere across the city. That, in turn, has caused development to rise in places like Weinland Park, Franklinton, the Parsons corridor and the Near East Side. Even some of the city’s worst neighborhoods are seeing vacancy rates plummet.

There’s only so much existing housing to go around, though, and only so many downtrodden neighborhoods with low prices just waiting for another chance at being cool again. Piling on thousands of new residents year after year with limited housing supply has only one possible result- rapidly rising housing prices. Those prices are reaching record highs with almost every passing month. Meanwhile, inventory is at or near record lows.

New homes along Grant Avenue in Weinland Park.

The Housing Contradiction

One would think that record demand and record low inventory would be a developer’s dream. You would expect to see them falling all over each other to build bigger and faster. Yet that’s not happening at all. A recent study suggested that Columbus is not remotely close to satisfying existing demand. The study estimated the region will have to increase housing development by several times the current rate just to keep up. If the growth rate increases even further, necessary construction will only need to increase with it. That’s a serious problem.

Local developers seem to recognize this, but many issues are preventing an easy resolution. Local zoning codes work against developers adding density in many neighborhoods, for example. In some of the city’s most urban corridors, zoning sets an often arbitrary limit on height and density of housing units for a particular site. This forces developers to request multiple variances for larger proposals, only to see those variances met with rejections. The other outcome is that proposals are scaled back or never built.

Even when zoning isn’t a problem, neighborhood commissions constantly attempt to limit density altogether. This is especially true in notoriously anti-development neighborhoods that have large NIMBY resident groups. This often leaves developers with their hands essentially tied. We’ve seen the NIMBY story play out time and time again across Columbus. Because of such delays dealing with zoning codes or neighborhood opposition, many developers have gotten in the habit of proposing smaller projects outright just to get a project approved in a timely manner. This all works against the housing problem. Without a realistic, streamlined process in place that allows for greater density, construction will always fall behind demand.

Undervalued, Understaffed

Zoning and neighborhood outrage don’t deserve all the blame. Another issue may be that Columbus just doesn’t have very many national developers. For every Nationwide, there seem to be 10 local developers that lack both the resources and the clout to push for large-scale urban development. Looking at a Columbus peer city like Nashville, which is somewhat smaller than Columbus and growing more slowly, you see endless residential and mixed-use towers going up on a scale that Columbus just doesn’t see.

Downtown Nashville.

Nashville seems to receive outside private investment on a much larger scale, and the outcome is obvious. This may be because Nashville has more name and brand recognition, or because Sun Belt cities are viewed as inherently more attractive for investment than those in the Midwest. Ohio is still part of “flyover country”, and in turn, so is Columbus. Changing perception is a hard nut to crack once established, but certainly not impossible. Columbus has clearly managed to get the word out to some degree, but large-scale outside investment remains elusive.

Finally, like many cities nationally, Columbus faces a skilled labor shortage which has negatively impacted construction. There simply aren’t enough workers to fill the jobs. Builders can have neighborhood approval, financing and have gotten past zoning codes, and still ultimately be unable to build just because there isn’t enough help to go around.

Whatever the reasons, Columbus is simply not building enough housing. This is disastrous long-term for the city’s affordability and must be addressed sooner rather than later. Ideally, the city needs to be updating zoning codes throughout the city and pushing density as a necessity rather than an option. Soliciting proposals from more national builders, incorporating more affordable housing into all projects and even encouraging more people to enter skilled trades through education programs would all help to lessen upward pressure on rents and home prices. If all this sounds easier said than done, that’s because it is. The problem isn’t going away, though, so the solution has to start somewhere.

Transportation Woes

The second imminent problem is getting around the city. Columbus arguably has one of the most convenient highway systems in the country. Until now, driving from one side of the city to another has been a relative breeze. Columbus still has one of the best average commute times in the country. This situation won’t last forever, and it will disappear faster than most think. Traffic problems and complaints are becoming more frequent by the day.

Perhaps because of its perception as an easily navigable city, Columbus leadership has been playing around on the transit issue ever since the last passenger train pulled out of Union Station in 1977. Everything from monorails to trolley cars have been talked about over the years, yet nothing has ever come close to being built. The city’s heart has never really seemed into it. The general public itself has only been given the chance to vote on transit once in the past 40 years, and that ended in failure for a multitude of reasons.

Not So Smart City

Now, the city is using the Smart City grant to play around once more, this time with an autonomous vehicle system for “last mile” travel. It still is nowhere near a reality despite the recent launch of an autonomous shuttle at the Scioto Mile. The shuttle is kind of cool but feels gimmicky compared to real transportation solutions. “Last mile” refers to transportation that connects the gaps between main transportation systems and final destinations.

Such connections are vital, but Columbus leadership seems to be missing the bigger picture on what’s important. You can’t have a last-mile autonomous system without transit to that last mile. You certainly can’t have one with a technology that is still years away from being practical on a large scale. Experimenting with forward-thinking technology and having big ideas are fine, if not commendable. Those big ideas must coincide with investment in existing, workable solutions, however. Columbus leadership has yet to seriously commit to this idea. Its few dips into the practical, such as with BRT, or bus rapid transit, have been disappointing.

The CMax Letdown

The CMax, Columbus’ single-line BRT option along Cleveland Avenue is a bare minimum effort in implementation. Successful BRT systems all utilize certain features that differentiate them from a normal mixed-traffic city bus system. First, the stations tend to be much more advanced. They are not merely shelters like typical bus stations, but often have a look and feel more like a train platform. The stations are usually raised off the ground so that you can step right onto the bus rather than walking up from ground level. Ticket machines are also included that allow riders to both purchase individual passes or recharge old ones.

Columbus’ “enhanced” C-Max stations are certainly fancier than those for the regular COTA buses, but only in design rather than function. As with the rest of COTA, there are no rechargeable cards or passes. In turn, there are no machines at stations to buy such passes. You must either buy a pass at select grocery stores like Kroger, or you pay for a pass on the bus itself. Neither option provides quick, convenient options for potential riders. Complicating the matter further, the passes can only be purchased using cash.

Another crucial difference between BRT and standard bus systems is the use of dedicated lanes. The entire point of a BRT system is that it’s noticeably faster than regular buses. Regular buses operate in mixed traffic, meaning they must navigate through any existing traffic along their routes. This slows them down considerably and often makes scheduled arrivals and departures wholly unreliable. The city only recently implemented an app that estimates such times. Those times are still not entirely trustworthy. The CMax has no dedicated lanes, and therefore functions as any standard bus. While the line’s fewer stops make it somewhat faster, the city’s decision to not give it a dedicated lane ensures that it will never fully achieve the “rapid” part of BRT. They did give the line signal priority, but what’s the use of that if the buses are stuck behind 50 other cars waiting at the light?

Fundamentally, the city missed the concept of BRT in many ways. Now, none of these problems are irreversible, but there seems to be little incentive to do better. There is still too much deference to the car in Columbus, even when designing a transit line. A dedicated lane for transit would remove one for auto traffic, and in a city as car-centric as Columbus, such a move would be controversial. Ensuring that transit riders receive the best possible experience in the best possible system is still secondary. There are plenty of roads in Columbus, making alternative routes almost endless. There are zero dedicated transit lanes.

A typical BRT station.

Running Out of Time

If we are to believe the Census and MORPC, Columbus doesn’t have years to wait for better options. The Hyperloop isn’t going to save the city from traffic. It needs practical, useful solutions now. Crosstown trips aren’t going to get any easier. The city has studied the transit issue dozens of times over the years, as each new proposal has come with another study. It must have stacks of such studies collecting dust in some back office somewhere, a sad, silent monument to wasted time and taxpayer dollars.

It’s time to use some of that information to come up with a comprehensive plan. This plan needs identified routes, cost and ridership estimates, and plans for future expansions as the population grows. Whether this plan involves rail, bus rapid transit or a combination of many types, the city can’t sit around experimenting and studying any longer. Nor can it make it by waving off best practices as it did with the CMax. It’s time to get real. It’s time to build. If the city needs some ideas on route maps, might I suggest any of the online “fantasy maps” that enterprising residents have created online?

A booming city brings many positives. There is endless opportunity for increasing vibrancy, diversity, economic health, and amenities. Columbus has a rare opportunity for a Northern city these days, one that many others would kill for. While it’s doing a lot of things right, the city can’t afford to squander that opportunity by getting too comfortable with doing the bare minimum. Neither can it simply coast along hoping the negatives never outweigh the positives. A city that lacks the initiative to not only fix its existing problems but also anticipate future ones, may, in fact, be doomed to being as vanilla and unremarkable as it was long ago.