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Interview: Shannon Hardin on Development, Transit & the Densification of Columbus

Brent Warren Brent Warren Interview: Shannon Hardin on Development, Transit & the Densification of ColumbusPhoto by Lauren Sega.
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A lot has happened in Columbus since Shannon Hardin was first appointed to City Council in October of 2014, especially in the transportation and urban development realm – the city won the Smart City challenge grant, new mixed-use projects have continued to pop up all throughout the central city, and the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) rolled out a redesigned bus network.

As the head of the Public Service and Transportation Committee, Hardin has had a front row seat for many of the changes taking place. Now, as council president, he will help to set the city’s agenda as it tackles the challenges that come with population growth and plans out future transportation investments.

A new initiative, called the Regional Corridor Analysis, was kicked off last fall by the city, COTA, the Urban Land Institute (ULI), and the Mid Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC). The plan will take a close look at five corridors in the region, assessing each for its potential to be developed more densely and to support “high-capacity transit.”

With the final recommendations from the corridor plan scheduled to be released later this year, we thought it would be a good time to sit down with Hardin for a conversation about transportation, development, and the importance of looking ahead at a time when everything seems to be changing so quickly. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Brent Warren: I wanted to ask you about the new regional corridor analysis. We’ve written about so many different transit plans over the past five years, for this one I thought it might be interesting to check in with someone like yourself and talk more about the big picture – what is this going to mean, and how is this plan going to be different from the other ones we’ve seen?

Shannon Hardin: Well, I think the reason I’m most excited about it is because it’s more than just a transportation conversation, it’s more of a land planning and land use conversation. Also, I thought it was good timing to move this forward because we are having a conversation right now as a community about the future of transportation, and smart cities has put us on the national scene – and really the international scene – as a community who’s willing to have big conversations about what the future looks like for mobility.

The plan gives us the ability to take a deeper dive into specific corridors and to think through what those corridors could look like in terms of density, and how we can grow density. The important part about densification, in terms of a land use and planning conversation, is that it will tell us what type of transportation we will need to support that. When you get the critical mass of folks along the corridor – and if you’re thoughtful about where you grow that density – then you can be ahead of and move in concert with the transportation conversation.

For instance, we talk about Rickenbacker pretty often; we know that Rickenbacker’s going to be an area where there will be significant job growth over the next 25 years, so why not think through what happens if we densify along Alum Creek – leading into Rickenbacker – so that we are having schools and live-work spaces and communities along that corridor?

So then, we’re not having a conversation about how do you move bodies from the north side down to a work center… we’ve built in the folks closer to the location. And if you’re early and thoughtful enough, that’ll allow for things like the right-of-way to be available for whatever that next form of transportation looks like.

So I think that’s what makes this a little bit different. We’re not studying for a mode, per se… at the end of this process we’re not going to say, ‘this corridor needs x,’ we’re going to look at what a given corridor will look like and how it will we grow; will this help our growth, will this stunt our growth, will it allow for the types of transportation to support that kind of growth? So that’s why I’m really excited about it.

The five corridors that will be assessed by the Regional Corridor Analysis, map courtesy of MORPC

BW: It sounds like density is a big part of it.

SH: Density is the key, I mean, we have dense corridors right now…we have High Street in the Short North, but you see, because our densification happened outside of a plan, we have parking issues now along the corridor, we have a set amount of right-of-way that we can’t influence.

So, knowing that we’re going to add a million-plus people to the region, why not get ahead of that? Why not help the growth, and put it (where) we’re not necessarily encouraging urban sprawl, with people everywhere, but we’re building those corridors that will really make the conversation less about should we do enhanced mobility options, to what will we need to support that?

I think that is a more exciting conversation, it kind of gets us a step closer… it lays a foundation for us to do something; the data will tell us and drive us into the direction we need to go.

BW: When you say the word density, a lot of people imagine skyscrapers going in next to their house, and they don’t like that picture. If you have these corridors where you’re saying, ‘we’d like to see dense development happen here,’ how do you get acceptance for that from the neighborhoods where these corridors are?

SH: Well, one is that, we’re going to grow, so people are going to be added, and densification in Columbus looks very different from Philly or another city. We got this information from Insight 2050 – the two areas we’re going to grow in, in terms of demographics, are seniors and young professionals. The cool thing about those two demographics are, they want the same things – they want to be able to live upstairs in a smaller footprint, go downstairs to a coffee shop, walk a block over to a grocery store, and get their haircut on their way back… oh, and stop and have a drink.

And so, I don’t think that is as much of a scary conversation, because we’re already growing in that way – right now, we see those pods of growth, and the cool thing about the study that we just commissioned is, it’s not just a Columbus conversation. We have incorporated I think six or seven other communities around Columbus that are also thinking this way. That’s the one thing that Insight 2050 did for us, it gave us a level set, in terms of the conversation, so not only Columbus is talking about densification – if you drive down to Grove City right now, they are doing the same thing in their urban core.

We’re just trying to be ahead of the conversation, so that our transportation needs are not sprung on us… and trying to work backwards to try to solve those. We’re trying to be thoughtful, and the cool – and also the frustrating and crazy thing about transportation is – you talk about it today and 15 years from now you see the outcome. So they’re long-term conversations, and since it’s already going to be a long-term conversation, we shouldn’t wait until we are growing and building, we should have policies that encourage that.

BW: What do you think was missing from some of these previous efforts – COTA did their NextGen plan, and that resulted in a map of recommended (high-capacity transit) corridors, and there was the city effort, Connect Columbus – was something missing from those plans?

SH: No, I think this adds on, it’s the next step, it picks up where those leave off. We’re not pulling these corridors out of thin air, we’re actually pulling the corridors from those plans. Again, we know where the job centers are going to be, we know where the growth potential we have in our community is, this is just saying, well, if we know where the jobs are going to be, and we’re already having issues getting folks down to a place like Rickenbacker – just to use that as an example – why not be intentional about how we grow in that space?

I see this as advancing those conversations – pulling all of those conversations into one, forward-looking planning exercise. And again, we’re talking land usage, and are there things that we should be doing with zoning, or new policies that we should explore, that would encourage density?

The thing about transportation, which I found cool when I first became chair three years ago, is that it touches, affects and influences every other aspect of our lives. When we talk about affordable housing, that is directly connected to how we build and where we build – it is a densification question. When we’re talking about healthy communities and walkable communities, that is all wrapped up in this conversation and this planning exercise.


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