Suburban Strength: Columbus’ Suburbs Are Growing Faster Than the City

A funny thing happened on the way to Broad and High: Even before pandemic lockdowns made urban-dwellers dream of more space, Central Ohio’s suburbs were thriving.

Joy Frank-Collins
Center Street Market in Hilliard

For “city people,” jokes about the suburbs are low-hanging fruit. From long commutes to chain restaurants to comments about rolling up the streets at dusk, the material is plentiful. But in Central Ohio, the ’burbs are no laughing matter. They remain growth hot spots, even as hip city neighborhoods, glitzy Downtown high-rises and ambitious urban revitalization projects have attracted most of the headlines in recent years.

Columbus’ suburbs have shown across-the-board growth that, in many instances, outpaces that of the city of Columbus, according to 2020 census data. And given that Columbus itself grew by more than 100,000 people in the last decade, the only Midwestern city to do so, that’s saying something.

Within the last 10 years, nine Columbus suburbs (New Albany, Hilliard, Canal Winchester, Pickerington, Grandview Heights, Powell, Dublin, Grove City and Reynoldsburg) have grown faster than the city, which grew by a respectable 15.1 percent. And even the seven that trailed Columbus (Groveport, Whitehall, Westerville, Worthington, Upper Arlington, Gahanna and Bexley) still showed population growth ranging from 7 to 12 percent.

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So what makes the suburbs so darn appealing? Tom Rubey thinks it centers on family. Seventeen years ago, he and his wife moved from German Village to New Albany, where he already worked, after having kids. “It’s a stage-of-life thing,” says Rubey, the development director for Les Wexner’s New Albany Co., which turned the sleepy village of New Albany into Central Ohio’s fastest-growing suburb, with a population that has increased by 40 percent over the past decade.

Creating a True Cradle-to-Grave Community

For the past 20 years, Rubey and his colleagues at The New Albany Co. have worked in concert with the city of New Albany to create a true cradle-to-grave community boasting residential development that includes apartments, traditional single-family homes, townhomes and even zero-lot-line cluster developments. They have a “long-term view when it comes to development,” he says, taking small, incremental steps to build a community around four key principles: environmental sustainability, health and wellness, arts and culture, and lifelong learning.

And it seems to be paying off. According to the real estate service Zillow, the average home value in New Albany (as of the end of September) is $504,182. That figure, the priciest in Central Ohio, has increased by 14 percent over the past year and 36 percent since 2016. When listed, houses typically spend about 13 days on the market.

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Kerstin Carr, director of planning and regional sustainability for the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, cites several additional reasons for the enduring appeal of the suburbs, including good schools, bigger lot sizes and redevelopment within the communities themselves. “I feel they also worked really hard over the last five to 10 years to reinvent their downtowns and green spaces to be sure that residents can bike and walk to school and to trails and to coffee shops,” she says. Cities like Hilliard, Grove City, Gahanna and Reynoldsburg are trying to make significant changes to their downtowns to add what she calls “intentional density,” while Dublin essentially created a whole new vibrant town center with its Bridge Park development.

The recently built Charleen and Charles Hinson Amphitheater in New Albany

In the past, the word “density” evoked negative connotations of cramped spaces and concrete jungles. But Carr and others are working to change that. “You need density to provide the amenities that people are looking for,” she says. Grandview Heights, another one of Central Ohio’s fastest-growing suburbs, is a perfect example, Carr says—a walkable community that embraced density from the get-go.

Jon Melchi, executive director of the Building Industry Association of Central Ohio, views Columbus’ suburban growth through a broader lens. “This whole region is growing,” he says. The diverse employment opportunities, multiple universities and other booming industries make Central Ohio extremely attractive. That growth, in turn, has driven up demand for real estate in the region, he says, pushing people who were initially looking to buy homes in established cities and neighborhoods to look into new builds, many of which are in the suburbs.

In many high-density urban areas like New York City and San Francisco, the coronavirus pandemic seemed to kick off a retreat into the suburbs and away from exorbitantly high rent and mortgages. Melchi doesn’t believe that happened here, although it could account for some uptick in new builds as the work-from-home reality drives some families to look for space for a home office, an amenity more readily available in new construction.

Carr says that while there was a temporary slowdown in Downtown development during the height of the pandemic, it’s picking up again. “The suburbs are not necessarily taking away from the Downtown,” she says. What she does see happening is communities working to provide more options within the region so people can choose where they want to live, especially when remote work takes commuting out of the equation.

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Bridge Park in Dublin

But don’t rent the U-Haul and bust out the cornhole sets yet. Fast growth often leads to growing pains. According to Michael Wilkos, senior vice president of community impact for the United Way of Central Ohio, Franklin County is adding roughly the equivalent of the population of Bexley (13,349 people) a year. By 2050, Columbus’ population is projected to grow by 1 million. According to a housing study conducted by the Building Industry Association of Central Ohio, there will be an additional need for 457,597 rental and owned units to house this population surge. The organization estimates that it will require the construction of 14,000 new housing units per year to meet the demand—and the current rate, according to the BIA study, is around 8,000 per year.

While many fear that this growth will lead to the dreaded “urban sprawl,” Melchi says there is significant room for expansion inside 270 as well as outside of it. But doing it the right way is going to take thoughtful planning like that done by New Albany leaders, partnerships between other innovative communities and developers, and revisions to zoning laws to ensure that the Central Ohio of 30 years from now has the diverse and affordable housing needed across the region, from our suburbs to Downtown, to accommodate all of our new neighbors.

This story is from the December 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.