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Columbus' zoning code reform seeks to correct wrongs of the past, make building easier

Zoning Code Assessment Report
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City of Columbus

Columbus officials want to make it easier to build in the city and encourage the type of growth that supports public transit and affordable housing.

To do so, they must reform zoning codes implemented decades ago that were designed to segregate the city based on class and race and pushed polluting industries into the neighborhoods where Black people, poor white people and immigrants lived, said Glennon Sweeney, senior research associate at The Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.

The effects of the policies are still present today, reflected in the health outcomes and wealth distribution among the city’s neighborhoods, she said.

The code isn’t just racist, the piecemeal maze also makes it complicated, time-consuming and costly to create the types of projects the city wants to see developed.

The city’s code was written in the 1950s when city planning tools to keep certain neighborhoods for white people with money were spreading like wildfire in cities like Columbus, Sweeney said.

“The fact of the matter is that much of this inequality can be traced to zoning and land use and development policies and practices that were designed to create metropolitan segregation, segregation by race, ethnicity and class,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney said things like single-family zones, excessive setbacks and excessive size and lot requirements were used to create many of the area’s subdivisions.

Councilwoman Shayla Favor said the efforts amounted to the creations of "ghettos" by design.

“The code does not really support our community’s shared aspiration to be an equitable, thriving city. It doesn’t foster equity," said Favor.

"In its current form it is inadequate at facilitating affordable housing, protecting job centers and encouraging transit-supportive mixed-use corridors that are needed to help all of our residents thrive," said Michael Stevens, the city’s director of development.

Because many families generate wealth through homeownership, and these policies prevented certain communities from forging that wealth, the policies have left a legacy of disinvested areas that can only be corrected with deliberate actions, said Sweeney and Councilman Nicholas Bankston.

“This is a racial justice, social justice, economic justice moment that we must meet as a community," Bankston said.

To unravel the effects of Columbus' zoning policies, the city has taken steps to encourage new policies that dream of drumming up more equitable neighborhoods.

But, even as the policies seek to move the city into a new era, old zoning codes create a stranglehold on progress. City Councilman Rob Dorans said a lot has changed since the 1950s, and the code should too.

“How we built transportation systems was completely different; public infrastructure, different; types of housing stock, different. There is little public policy from the 1950s that remains the same today. And our zoning code is no different, it is a relic of this era,” said Dorans.

Though much of the code is flooded with amendments and additions made in the decades since the last overhaul, those layers of complexity only add to the confusion.

The code has 41 use districts, four height districts and several overlay districts. Each district has its own regulations and approval processes. And, it isn’t written in a user-friendly manner.

“The code is inefficient to navigate and to administer so it’s difficult because projects rely heavily on project-by-project negotiations and those variances and rezonings to greenlight new projects really makes it burdensome and inefficient for the city to administer, but also creates uncertainty in the process,” said Stevens.

Project-by-project negotiation is when city zoning officials and a developer work to reach a compromise on design plans.

Stevens said the city wants to encourage infill development, the type that occurs in places where development already existed, but existing code encourages development in areas previously untouched, creating sprawl.

The code is so outdated, it goes against the city’s development goals, and projects designed to-code violate city policies. This means staff have to work with developers to include the type of parking, frontage and setbacks the city wants to see. Parking requirement reductions are the most common type of variance requested in the city, and excessive parking spaces, often based on blanket policies instead of market need, go against the city’s public transit goals.

Lisa Wise is a consultant brought on by the city to study the code, identify the problems and outline what the goals of the code reform should be.

In the study, consultants assessed the recent Franklin Condos project on East Broad Street.

“There were variances for height, an extra story was put on, there was variances for the setback, there were variances for parking requirements and placement. So, exceptions kind of became the rule,” Wise said.

Wise’s study found that on the scale Columbus is developing, processing dozens of zoning variances is a stress on city offices. It makes the process opaque and uncertain and all but ensures only experienced developers with a big enough payroll can jump through the right hoops. That means not as much housing is being constructed as could be.

“If you care about affordability in Columbus, and you care about design quality, the last thing that you want to have is a regulatory system that creates a lot of uncertainty and a long process,” said consultant Peter Park.

Simplifying the code will make development more accessible to small land and business owners, the consultants said.

Stevens said the new code should work for everyone.

“As we work through the new code, it can be used to design a city where residents have access to affordable housing, green space, and reliable, affordable commutes. That is where infill development is really important to address that.”

The code is expected to take several years to rehaul, but planners are looking into addressing identified growth corridors sooner. The city is entering the second phase of the project where it will use a consultant to gather community input and start developing ideas for the new code.

Visit the zoning code update page to keep track of the project and view meetings and related materials at www.columbus.gov/zoningupdate.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.