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Columbus unveils first draft of zoning plan that will reshape city

Columbus City Council President Pro Tem Rob Dorans speaks about the Zone in Columbus initiative at a press conference on April 4, 2024.
George Shillcock
/
WOSU
Columbus City Council President Pro Tem Rob Dorans and other city officials are moving a zoning overhaul through city council in 2024 that aims to revamp the 70-year-old existing code along Columbus's "Main Streets."

After more than two years of work, the city of Columbus is unveiling the first phase of draft plans for its revamped zoning code that calls for taller buildings and denser housing along the city’s main thoroughfares such as Broad Street, High Street and Cleveland Avenue.

That, city leaders say, would enable an additional 88,000 housing units to be built over time than what current zoning code allows.

Now the plan has to be sold to developers, property owners and residents.

Some fear the proposed changes could inexorably alter neighborhood character. Others welcome it and the promise of more housing options throughout the city.

City officials discussed the plans at an event downtown Thursday morning at a parking garage at 141 N. Front St. A conference room inside the garage's first floor will be transformed by Tuesday into an open house exhibit for people to come view renderings and informational graphics about the zoning change.

City Councilmember Rob Dorans put it bluntly to the crowd of people at the announcement, saying zoning is a boring concept.

"If you know anything about zoning, it's like watching paint dry," he said.

But Dorans and other city leaders want as many people as possible to talk to them over the next 60 days. Dorans said what's exciting is that the new code will enable 80,000 new housing units along streets city leaders deem "main streets" with businesses and denser housing.

"We have not re-evaluated our city comprehensively in 70 years. Think about how different we are, as both the mayor and the council president mentioned what we want to encourage right now is connectivity to transit walkable neighborhoods," Dorans said. "That is nearly the exact opposite of what that code from 70 years ago wanted to encourage."

Columbus City Council is expected to vote Monday on a resolution to start the process. That will kick off the 60-day comment period for people to weigh in. The city wants a final vote on the new code this summer.

It’s the first major zoning overhaul the city has taken on in 70 years.

“We’ve never done anything this expansive,” said Kevin Wheeler, the city’s assistant director for growth policy.

The first phase concentrates on 62 road and street corridors city officials believe have the greatest ability to support growth. These include commercial areas where people can walk to shop.

For example, according to the proposal, 12-story buildings would be allowed along East Broad Street between Parsons Avenue and Nelson Road on the Near East Side. And five- to seven-story buildings could bloom near the intersection of North Broadway and North High Street as well as Henderson Road and North High Street in Clintonville.

Ginther highlighted some key provisions of the code.

Another provision in the code will allow a developer to build two to four stories taller than the baseline of building height set by code if they agree to make 20% to 30% of the building's housing units income restricted.

While at the parking garage complex, he said the city is trying to revamp the code so there is less car centric suburban sprawl. He said one rule change will permit developers to scale parking to accommodate anticipated demand, as opposed to requiring a specific number of spaces that might not be a good fit for the location or the development in question.

Ginther also said the code will have much clearer design standards that will make it easier for smaller homeowners and developers to navigate the complex set of rules.

This week, Ginther said the city doesn’t have enough housing to meet demand, calling it a crisis.

The Greater Columbus region is expected to grow to more than three million residents by 2050.

According to the mayor, the new code will impact more than 12,000 land parcels in the city. That may sound like a lot, but it is less than 5% of the total number of parcels in the city.

Ginther said without the code, Columbus would be only able to build 6,000 new housing units over the next decade. He said with the new code, the city can build upwards of 88,000 units.

“When you grow by a third, as a region, nothing will stay as it is,” Ginther said.

Ginther said he doesn't want Columbus to accept the fate he views Seattle, Austin and San Francisco fell into as their populations boomed. "They missed the opportunity to preserve affordability in their communities while they still could. But we will not accept that fate in Columbus is a region," he said.

Asked about potential opposition, Ginther said, “People don’t fear change. They fear loss.”

Ginther said he'd like to reverse the culture of "NIMBY" or "not in my back yard" to be "YIMBY" or "yes in my back yard."

Dorans agreed when asked about residents who may express hesitancy or opposition to the plan.

"Change is is always scary for folks. And one thing I can guarantee you is that change is coming to Columbus one way or the other, because of the growth that we're anticipating as a community," Dorans said.

The city also wants to streamline the process for developers whose projects are delayed or thwarted when seeking zoning changes or variances in neighborhoods not zoned for their types of projects.

City Council President Shannon Hardin said the city did 10,000 zoning variances and changes in 2023 alone.

Hardin leaned into the current zoning code, criticizing how old it was and its history in relation to Columbus' history of redlining.

"Our current zoning code dates back to the 1950s, an era when my grandmother's home on Lexington Avenue on the Near East Side was demolished to make way for Interstate 71. It was a time of rotary phones and black and white TV, and it was built around black and white ideas of racial exclusion, like redlining," Hardin said.

Hardin and Ginther said the current code segregated the city by promoting suburban sprawl.

Hardin said getting these first 12,000 parcels of land rezoned is just a first step that he and other city leaders want to bring to other areas of Columbus.

"But it is an inflection point for us as a city and I, and we will do everything in our power to make sure that this city rises to the occasion," Hardin said.

Development would also be concentrated along bus lines as officials from COTA and other agencies press ahead with plans for bus rapid transit service through the LinkUS effort. Voters in Franklin and parts of surrounding counties may be asked to vote on a 0.5% sales tax increase to raise money for what is projected to be an $8 billion effort.

The city conducted a community survey during the process, receiving more than 5,300 comments. The average age of each participant was 43. And 27% were renters.

The city is opening its “Zone in Gallery” at 141 North Front St. downtown, where visitors can review plans and talk with city representatives. It will be open during certain hours six days a week during the public comment period from April 9 through June 7.

For more information, email ZoningUpdate@columbus.gov.

George Shillcock is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. He joined the WOSU newsroom in April 2023 following three years as a reporter in Iowa with the USA Today Network.