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Zoning Code Update Could Lead to Big Changes in Development Process

Brent Warren Brent Warren Zoning Code Update Could Lead to Big Changes in Development ProcessA building under construction in Old North Columbus. Photo by Brent Warren.
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In the last few years a handful of cities – led by Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon – have receive national attention for making changes to their zoning codes.

Although zoning reform is not typically the kind of story that makes it past the local paper, the New York Times, Politico and many other national outlets wrote about the Minneapolis 2040 plan, which effectively ended single family zoning in the city. Many housing advocates and urbanists praised the policy as a way to to bring more housing variety into neighborhoods; framing it as a long-overdue corrective to the low-density, suburban style of development that has been encouraged by our zoning codes for decades.

Portland’s plan, which goes farther than the Minneapolis reforms and more explicitly encourages the development of small-scale affordable housing in neighborhoods, is being touted as a model for other cities hoping to tackle housing shortages without sprawling unsustainably into the surrounding farmlands.

The City of Columbus is in the early stages of rethinking its own zoning code, recently bringing on a consultant to undertake a review of the current code and to outline a strategy for updating it.

Will the new effort lead to a complete scrapping of the city’s 1950s-era zoning map, or will it just make some tweaks on the margins but leave the basic structure in place?

That is very much still to-be-determined, although city officials are leaving the door open for big changes.

“Everything is on the table,” said Kevin Wheeler, the city’s Assistant Director for Growth Policy, who added that he has been watching Minneapolis, in particular, “pretty closely,” and has some thoughts about what that city did and did not accomplish with its reforms. “We want to understand the possibilities…and we want to look at the tools that other cities have used.”

Lisa Wise Consulting was selected to lead the assessment and to formulate a strategy for the update, a process that will begin in November and last about eight months. The company has worked on similar efforts in other cities.

Although the overall project, including establishing a new code and getting it approved by City Council, could take two or more years to complete, city officials like Wheeler – as well as elected leaders like City Council President Shannon Hardin – are not shying away from talking up the impact the changes could eventually have. They are emphasizing the connections between the zoning code and issues like affordable housing, improved transit and the power of NIMBY (Not-In-My-Backyard) activists to halt or slow new developments in established neighborhoods.

Guiding Development

“How do we accommodate a growing city and population in ways that are not traditional greenfield growth?” asked Wheeler, adding that he sees the region’s many aging retail centers, most of which have huge parking lots, as prime opportunities for redevelopment.

Under the current code, to make such a project happen, a developer typically is required to rezone completely or get multiple variances approved – a complicated process that can stretch on for months (and sometimes years).

The zoning code makes it difficult to build housing in many of the places where the city would like to encourage more of it, including neighborhoods like Linden or the Hilltop – both of which are well-located but have suffered from disinvestment, particularly along their primary commercial corridors.

Parking minimums, height restrictions and other requirements in the current code serve to encourage a style of development that is more suburban in nature, one that is often not compatible with older neighborhoods.

“We want to establish a code that guides people to do the kinds of infill projects that have been demonstrated to be successful, but that currently require pretty extensive review and pretty long processes,” said Wheeler, adding that the goal is to “find a way to guide projects to that kind of outcome in a less painful way.”

“We’ve sprawled significantly over last 50 to 60 years,” added Anthony Celebrezze, Assistant Director of the city’s Department of Building and Zoning Services. “At this point there is a lot more opportunity for infill, but that development is different than it was 50 years ago; we’re seeing lots of variances to get a product that developers feel the public wants, and we need to react to that. Variances are supposed to be exceptions, but if everything is an exception, then maybe it should be the rule.”

The city is taking on zoning reform at a time when several other related initiatives are already underway. MORPC’s Regional Housing Strategy calls for more affordable housing and for streamlined development review processes, while plans to bring new transit options and more concentrated development to three different corridors are currently under development.

The effort to rethink the zoning code is meant to complement those projects, according to Celebrezze.

“We have a generation now that’s got different ideas about where and how they want to live,” he said. “They want to be near transportation and in walkable areas, and we have tremendous opportunity and capacity for that type of development throughout this city, especially along our corridors…we want to make sure how we’re directing growth matches with what the population wants.”

Tackling Affordability

Zoning reform efforts in other cities have also taken on the issue of affordable housing directly.

Austin’s Affordability Unlocked program is a recent example – it provides density bonuses in exchange for more affordable units. Meanwhile, an inclusionary zoning policy implemented in 1973 in Montgomery County, Maryland has resulted in over 16,000 affordable units being built (it’s a more comprehensive approach than the one Columbus now takes with its tax abatement incentives, which is limited to a handful of neighborhoods).

Amy Klaben, an affordable housing advocate who currently serves as the project facilitator for the Move to Prosper project, said she would love to see Columbus tackle affordability in a comprehensive way, and thinks zoning reform might be a way to do that.

“The intractable problems we have with infant mortality, neighborhoods that have been neglected…all these issues stem from housing policy,” she said. “If we start with the premise that we want to reverse that, there could be some really interesting new housing policies to adopt.”

Wheeler said that it’s still too early to say exactly what type of affordability initiatives might come out of the zoning reform effort. He stressed that a public engagement process is planned for next year, and the goal is to gather input from a wide cross section of the community.

But in a city where development proposals that add density to existing neighborhoods are sometimes met with strong resistance – and with real concerns about displacement and gentrification – will the prospect of changing the zoning code be greeted with alarm by the residents who like their neighborhoods the way they are now, and don’t want to see more development?

“There are people at both ends of spectrum; some don’t want any change, others want massive amounts of change,” said Celebrezze. “The challenge we need to meet with this review is that the code currently doesn’t reflect development patterns, which is why there are so many variances; we need to get to a point where the code is working for everybody.”

At the October 5 City Council meeting – in which legislation funding the first phase of the effort was passed – Shannon Hardin encouraged citizens to get involved, pushing back against the perception of zoning as an arcane issue that does not impact the everyday life of the city.

“This is a big deal,” he said. “For anybody who is interested or concerned about our conversations about housing, this study is the foundation of how we move forward; if anyone is interested or focused on equity…zoning has historically been used to keep people out that look like certain folks, and has been [used] to discourage the building of affordable housing; if anybody is interested or focused on transit or transportation, this is the foundation for how we have those conversations.”

This chart provided by the City of Columbus shows the decline in the city’s outward expansion through annexation. At the same time, the city’s population is projected to continue to grow.
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