The New Suburban Infill Proposals: How They Compare, and the One Thing They’re All Missing

Brent Warren Brent Warren The New Suburban Infill Proposals: How They Compare, and the One Thing They’re All MissingSenior housing proposed for the former Macy's site at Kingsdale Shopping Center. Rendering via City of Upper Arlington website.
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The last month has seen four significant mixed-use developments proposed in Columbus suburbs.

Two of them will be adding new uses to what used to be single-use shopping centers (the Kingsdale Shopping Center in Upper Arlington and the Shops at Worthington Place), while the other two are calling for new, walkable neighborhoods on sites that have been empty or nearly empty for years (58 acres of farm land owned by Otterbein University in Westerville and the former United Methodist Children’s Home site in Worthington).

The following graphic provides a comparison of each of the developments. (It’s worth noting that each of these projects is at the earliest stages of the approval process, and could change significantly by the time a final plan is approved).

Collectively, the four developments could bring over 600,000 square feet of commercial space (mostly office) and more than 1,900 new residential units to the region.

What they won’t bring, at least according to the plans that have been submitted so far, is any sort of affordable housing – all of those planned residential units will be market-rate.

The region’s affordable housing shortage has been getting a lot of attention lately. The recently-released Regional Housing Strategy from the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC), for example, stresses the benefits of building a diverse range of housing in all neighborhoods, including in wealthy suburbs like Upper Arlington, Westerville and Worthington.

Amy Klaben, a longtime affordable housing advocate who currently serves as the project facilitator for the Move to Prosper project, sees the lack of affordable housing in the new proposals as a huge missed opportunity.

“At a certain point, public officials are elected to lead,” she says. “Yes, there’s going to be opposition, but we do need to build for people who need housing, for the people working in all these essential jobs who cannot [find] decent housing.”

“We know that there’s a connection between mixed-income housing and increasing a community’s GDP,” Klaben adds, referring to a city’s gross domestic product, or overall economic output. “And, employers like it when they can find and attract employees…so there’s also an economic development reason for doing the right thing and including affordable housing within a development.”

Thanks to changes in its tax abatement policies, the City of Columbus is now seeing more large-scale development proposals that contain at least a small proportion of affordable housing units. And some suburbs – like Whitehall and Reynoldsburg – have encouraged new affordable housing, either as stand-alone projects or as components of larger developments.

Bassem Bitar, Planning Manager for the City of Westerville, stresses that the Otterbein proposal is “at a very preliminary stage at this point, with the focus being on the overall land use and the merits of rezoning.”

“As such, there hasn’t yet been detailed discussion about the housing rates,” he adds. “However, workforce and attainable housing are an integral part of City Council’s goals and objectives and are also highlighted in the Westerville Community Plan…these goals and objectives  have been communicated to the applicant.”

Likewise, Worthington’s Planning Director Lee Brown says that, although there doesn’t appear to be any reference to non-market rate housing in the latest plan for the United Methodist Children’s Home site, more detailed discussions of the proposal will take place at a planning commission meeting in November.

Klaben is hopeful that some sort of affordable housing component does make it into these projects, and that all of the region’s suburbs – especially the relatively wealthy ones with few affordable offerings – can find a way to take meaningful action on housing.

“Many of these communities have adopted strong diversity, equity and inclusion goals, and so they’re recognizing, especially in light of recent events, the importance of inclusion,” she says. “Now’s the time to step up and address the need to do that in housing, because just making a statement – without allowing people into your community – that doesn’t create a true, inclusive community.”

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