If you draw one conclusion from our expansive cover story (“Columbus Real Estate Right Now”), it probably should be this: Urban neighborhoods are on the rise. It’s an idea that used to hit home for me each day when I would drive to our Downtown offices, before the coronavirus forced us all to work from home.
If I took city streets, I might cut through Weinland Park, once one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city, where average home values have doubled over the past five years to nearly $240,000. Or I could take High Street through the Short North, with its gleaming new residential high-rises, and then into Downtown, another hot spot for residential construction, past new developments like The Nicholas, which we also wrote about in this issue (“Luxury Apartments,” Page 72). After decades of suburban sprawl, Columbus is becoming a denser city, with residents flocking to urban settings and developers filling in empty lots or replacing smaller buildings with multifloor apartment or condo complexes.
City planners have hailed this as a positive development, a return to a more sustainable use of land. But just as COVID-19 has changed my daily commute, I’ve also been wondering if it will alter how we feel about dense neighborhoods. In the age of social distancing, will it reverse (or diminish) the movement back to the city as we begin to view tighter quarters as a health threat rather than as urban vitality?
Consider New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. “There is a density level in NYC that is destructive,” tweeted New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in mid-March. He was referring to the behavior of the residents of the country’s densest city, who were still crowding streets and public places at the time. But the pandemic also calls into question the basic idea of urban life. “The very thing that makes cities remarkable—the proximity of so many people to one another—is now making them susceptible in a pandemic,” wrote Emily Badger of The New York Times. “Density, suddenly, is bad for our health.”
“Once we’re able to go back out in public again, are we going to say, ‘Maybe densification isn’t such a great idea?’” asks David Staley, an Ohio State historian and futurist. “‘Maybe sprawl isn’t a bad thing?’”
Mark Wagenbrenner, a developer who’s led the urbanization charge in Columbus with such high-profile projects as Jeffrey Park in Italian Village and Harrison Park in Harrison West, isn’t ready to go back to the old sprawling ways yet. “As a ‘green development’ person, that’s probably not sustainable,” he says. But he also acknowledges the uncertainty of the coronavirus’s long-term impact: “I think we’re all guessing as to what happens.”