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Tue. Jul 16th, 2024

Columbus City Council could vote on zoning change proposal by end of July

By meerna Jul11,2024
Columbus City Council could vote on zoning change proposal by end of July

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Columbus’s top local historic preservation agency is keeping a low profile over its proposed “Zone In” rezoning, which is set to go before the City Council as early as later this month. But that doesn’t mean historic preservationists aren’t concerned.

Some of those concerns were echoed Wednesday at a packed meeting of the Columbus Metropolitan Club to discuss the initiative, with historic preservationists urging caution because developers could be given the green light to tear down low-rise, historically significant buildings in order to maximize profits by building taller, mixed-use structures.

While city officials have repeatedly cited the housing affordability crisis as a factor in the zoning changes, arguing that deregulating some regulations would help increase housing supply, “the speed (of new construction) doesn’t necessarily equate to housing affordability,” said Rebecca Kemper, CEO of Columbus Landmarks, an organization that advocates for the preservation of historic architecture, the redevelopment of old buildings and the excellence of new designs.

“When we move into a political landscape where we’re slowing down the system… I think the real concern is that we’re relying too much on developers to say, ‘What needs to change in our zoning code to speed up the process?’ We need to be really careful,” Kemper said.

That elicited a brief laugh from Leah Evans, CEO of Homeport, a nonprofit social housing developer who was on the panel.

“So I think that might be the perception that (Zone In) is driven by the development community,” Evans said. “We’re sitting at the table just like any other citizen, just like any other stakeholder.

“So there’s no bias toward one or the other. That’s why the process was so drawn out. Again, if you left it up to, I think, multiple developers, it could have been a much quicker execution.”

The current zoning code provides no protection for historic buildings, said Rob Dorans, the city council’s pro tempore speaker, who led the council’s rezoning effort. But it’s typically used as a proxy for preservation — because if developers want to build higher or with fewer parking spaces than the code requires, residents and council members can use the variances as a bargaining chip to preserve historic buildings.

“I think we need to think about better, more proactive policies about how we implement these (historical preservation) protections,” Dorans said, noting that zoning is not the intended method.

That said, Dorans said he is interested in using the city code to strengthen protections for historic buildings. Currently, that protection exists in special and usually small official historic zones scattered throughout the city — which most of the 12,300 parcels covered by Zone In are not.

“I think it’s a really serious conversation that the city needs to engage in,” Dorans told The Dispatch after the Metropolitan Club meeting. “…One of the things we talk about in Columbus is that we were too guilty of destroying history too quickly.”

Dorans said the city is studying how other cities approach historic preservation. But that doesn’t mean the city should stop trying to create more housing, he added.

Nancy Recchie, a retired historic preservation consultant, came to the meeting wanting to know what would stop developers from tearing down every low-rise historic building and replacing it with a tall one. Zoning laws that allow 16-story buildings, versus historic preservation laws that tell a developer he can’t build, seem like grounds for a lawsuit, Recchie told The Dispatch after the meeting.

“Our concern is that if you automatically zone it 12 to 16 stories, you’re going to get sued, the city is going to get sued” by developers who argue they have the right to maximize the value of their land, Recchie said. “…There won’t be any historic buildings left.”

Adding to those concerns, Kemper said, are some studies suggesting that by 2035, hedge funds will own nearly half of the nation’s rental market, suggesting that new Zone In regulations allowing high-rise construction could also hasten the demise of small, private landlords.

“Not every owner can afford to run a 14-story building,” Kemper said.

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By meerna

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