The twilight of an outdated zoning code

Can Columbus update its zoning code while voters rein in the construction coziness at City Hall?

Brian Williams
File photo of the plans for a six- to seven-story apartment building at the southwest corner of North High Street and King Avenue in the University District.

The Clintonville Mystery House at the southwest corner of Indianola Avenue and Tibet Road is like the Columbus zoning code... but prettier. The house, originally more typical of the neighborhood, has been cobbled into a style-defying spectacle by decades of new wings, rooflines, porches, turrets, walkways, crow’s nests, a solarium, a spiral staircase and more.

The 1950s Columbus zoning code was never pretty. And over the last 70 years changes have been tacked onto and tucked into the base code as new challenges arose and new needs and trends demanded action.

City planners long ago realized a new code was necessary — and that crafting a modern zoning code amid a growth spurt could take years, with lots of expense and hearings and controversy. At a time of unprecedented growth, Columbus seeks to completely overhaul its zoning code with a planning staff smaller than those of its peer cities.

Columbus, with almost a million people spread over 226 square miles, has 54 staffers focused on zoning cases and planning. Their counterparts in Charlotte, N.C., a city to which Columbus likes to compare itself, number 69 people in a city of 875,000 spread across 309 square miles. (Because job descriptions and duties vary among cities, these numbers are estimates.) 

Despite being small in number, Columbus planners know the quirks of the current code, and are bogged down in them daily. Give the city credit for recognizing the value of an outside view — and publicizing the scathing assessment the code received in August from Los Angeles-based Lisa Wise Consulting (a company that also led a team updating Westerville’s zoning code.)

The center staircase inside the Mystery House of Clintonville, seen here decorated for the holidays.

The report said the code was hopelessly outdated — a remnant of the early days of planning for cars rather than people. Additionally, the “fixes” added over the decades made procedures so complex that, basically, the only builders and developers who could slash through the thicket were large companies with money and legal muscle. That is a factor in the trend of demolishing six or eight small buildings with apartments above shops and replacing them with six stories of mixed-use, block-long behemoths.

The report’s five key findings include:

  • Standards Are Not Tailored to Local Conditions 
  • Code Does Not Prioritize Future Housing and Transit Needs Equitably 
  • Code is Not User-Friendly 
  • Overreliance on Site-by-Site Negotiated Zoning Actions 
  • Multi-Layered and Scattered Decision-Making Process Creates Uncertainty  

The consultants did not create a new code but rather offered guidance on how to accommodate the norms in different parts of the city and to focus denser growth on major transit areas that Columbus and suburbs designated in the MORPC Insight2050 Corridors Concepts study. Ideally, a new code would recognize the distinctions between neighborhoods, yet make the approval process more consistent across the city — and more accessible to smaller-scale builders.

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An underlying theme in the assessment is the concept of “form-based” zoning. It’s not easy to describe, but simple to illustrate by looking at Downtown Columbus. Over the years, hundreds of Downtown buildings were razed for parking lots; the old code required X number of parking spaces per Y square feet of office or retail space. 

In essence, the 1950s parking-based code was more fitting for Reynoldsburg traffic. A developer could tear down a historic Downtown building to construct a one-story strip mall with parking out front — but could not build a mixed-use office building on a parking lot.

To fix that costly flaw, in 1997 the city created a new, separate zoning code for Downtown — a form-based code still overseen by the Downtown Commission. Everything built Downtown over the last 25 years has had to comply, resulting in the construction of skyscrapers, sports venues, parking garages, apartment towers, public plazas, hotels and storefronts that were evaluated largely by how their design fit with the area, and not segregated by use. One of the commission’s goals is making it easier for developers to get plans approved — while also holding them to high design standards.

The Downtown Commission is a unique body, but planners hope to incorporate its smooth-process/high-standards goal into a citywide code intended to be both consistent with a regional vision and reflective of distinctions among neighborhoods and community priorities. 

Planners face the seemingly impossible task of disentangling the process while being responsive to a vocal percentage of residents who oppose big projects and see the city — especially through tax abatements — as too accommodating to developers. The tax breaks and big public-private developments, however, are the policies of political leaders. The zoning code is an administrative process.

Can the two be separated?

The Clintonville Mystery House met contemporary building codes last year while retaining all its quirkiness. That’s a sign of hope. Maybe Columbus can update its zoning code and voters can rein in the construction coziness at City Hall.

Brian Williams is a consultant and freelance writer. A former Columbus Dispatch reporter, he is retired from the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.