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Study Shows Need for Zoning Code Re-Write, City Says

Brent Warren Brent Warren Study Shows Need for Zoning Code Re-Write, City SaysThis visual from the assessment shows the type of building that could've been built without variances at 1670 E. Broad St. A taller, more ornate building with no parking in front was built instead (see below).
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The City of Columbus today released the results of a year-long deep dive into the zoning code and its impact on development.

The study details the widening gulf between the type of development the city says it wants to see, and the type of development that is actually allowed by the zoning code.

The city, along with entities like the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, Franklin County, the Central Ohio Transit Authority, the United Way of Central Ohio and others, have spent the last five-plus years laying out a strong case for building more housing in existing neighborhoods, improving transit service along major corridors, and investing in affordable housing.

One of the largest single obstacles to achieving that vision, according to the new report, is the city’s 1950s-era zoning code.

“Zoning is a tool we can use to guide growth and development to help ensure that all residents have access to affordable housing, greenspace, and reliable, affordable commutes,” said Mayor Andrew Ginther in a press release. “At present, our zoning code does not support our community’s shared aspiration to be an equitable, thriving city. We can and must collaborate with every Columbus neighborhood to envision new zoning policies that guide growth around the desires, needs and aspirations of our entire community.”

Exactly what that collaboration will look like has not yet been spelled out, but it will involve a “multi-year community engagement process” that will result in a “comprehensive revision” to the code, according to the release.

When CU spoke to city officials last year about the zoning code update, they hinted that big changes in how development is regulated in Columbus could be afoot, and the new report seems to add weight to the view that a full re-write – rather than a more limited revision – will be needed.

Here are the five key findings of the assessment, as laid out in the report:

  1. Standards Are Not Tailored to Local Conditions
  2. Code Does Not Prioritize Future Housing and Transit Needs Equitably
  3. Code is Not User-Friendly
  4. Over-reliance on Site-by-Site Negotiated Zoning Actions
  5. Multi-layered and Scattered Decision-Making Process Creates Uncertainty

The report also gives concrete examples of the code’s disfunction, like blanket parking requirements that treat a suburban big box store the same as a small business in a walkable, urban neighborhood with good transit access.

“Columbus grew by 15% from 2010 to 2020 — that’s 32 people, every day, for a decade,” said Scott Messer, Director of the city’s Department of Building and Zoning Services. “This growth can happen to us, or we can intentionally cultivate development and investment in ways that enhance our city’s competitiveness and shared prosperity.”

Another issue highlighted in the document is the current lack of requirements or incentives for affordable housing.

Recent zoning reform efforts in other cities have taken on the issue of affordability directly, and some places – like Montgomery County, Maryland – have had inclusionary zoning policies on the books for decades, resulting in thousands of affordable housing units being built (it’s a more comprehensive approach than the one Columbus now takes with its tax abatement incentives, which are limited to a handful of neighborhoods).

“Like many fast-growing cities, Columbus has developed a series of zoning and land use regulations over time. As layers were added, the code became more cumbersome, and the outcomes became less predictable. Columbus now has the opportunity to untangle this web and leverage modern best practices to intentionally design its zoning code for equitable growth,” said Lisa Wise, who led the consultant team that produced the study. “More and more cities are proactively addressing their regulatory structure to help improve quality of life, take advantage of new opportunities, and remain economically competitive.”

The findings of the zoning code assessment will be presented virtually on Wednesday, October 20 at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. For more information, see www.columbus.gov/zoningupdate.

The building that was constructed at 1670 E. Broad St. – The Franklin – after going through a long approval process to receive zoning variances. Photo courtesy of City of Columbus.
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