Former Mayoral candidate Joe Motil calls for an additional “Zone In” district to protect historic and non-designated historical sites
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After a conversation with the Columbus Landmarks Foundation, the Free Press can report that City representatives working on the “Zone In” project had limited contact with the region’s foremost preservation effort as they overhauled Columbus’s zoning code.

The Columbus Landmarks Foundation’s CEO Dr. Rebecca F. Kemper told the Free Press that Zone In reps did approach the Foundation a handful of times over the previous two years, and they also recently connected with a few Foundation board members to go through Zone In’s public gallery at 141 N. Front Street, which closed June 10. But there were no official sit-downs or any peer review of the major changes being made to Columbus’s zoning code.

“We’ve had a couple of moments of which the City partnered with a variety of non-profits, and sometimes we were with them on that. One was actually the redlining exhibit that was part of the Zone In redlining history,” said Dr. Kemper. “We were approached [last summer] by a few planners but were not given materials about some of the ideas they had for connecting with the community. And we had given some feedback about needing more details.”

City officials and Columbus City Council members say Zone In is necessary to build 200,000 homes over the next ten years to accommodate the tens of thousands of new residents predicted to move here over the next 25 years. Zone In seeks greater density (taller buildings) in the city’s most popular neighborhoods, and City officials contend this is going to rein in skyrocketing housing costs for everyone.

Zone In will remove what City officials say are too many zoning variances needed to build housing. Variances allow property owners to adjust land use, and also give the community a chance to speak out against such changes.

Members of the Driving Park community, for instance, were on record in the variances made for the Farm Crest Bakeries building on East Livingston Avenue. But their pleas fell on the deaf ears of developers, as the historical structure was recently demolished for affordable housing, instead of being adaptively reused for affordable housing. Disturbing is how the property was sold in 2017 for $250,000 and then sold again this month – just days after Preservation Ohio declared it endangered – for $2 million.

“One of our concerns is that a lot of the focus is going on decreasing the amount of variances that need to be filed,” said Dr. Kemper. “[But] lots of variance filings are often symptomatic of a poor zoning code. And we have some of that going on.”

“We recognize we have a need to re-up our zoning codes,” she continued. “We are very much supportive of mass transit. And maintaining affordability for the city, and that density protects our historic fabric.”

Zone In has designs on most of Columbus’s major corridors, such as North High Street through Clintonville, and is bringing six different customized plans to these corridors with the creation of these six new zoning districts. The number of historical structures in these corridors doesn’t compare to what Boston has, for instance, but there are “a lot of historical structures that identify with a neighborhood’s past,” says former mayoral candidate Joe Motil.

There are 82 properties on the Columbus Historic Register, and out of those, 54 are also on the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register and the Columbus Historic Register, however, do not cancel a property owner’s private property rights, and there are no restrictions to what they can do. A recent Columbus Dispatch op-ed by local historian Michael Feist suggested even the Clinton Chapel in Clintonville (pictured above on left), which was a safehouse on the Underground Railroad, is in jeopardy from Zone In.

This is another reason Motil unequivocally agrees with Feist’s op-ed.

“Absolutely these properties are in jeopardy from Zone In,” he said. “I think it incentivizes developers to wave big checks in the faces of landowners in these corridors to sell. So higher density apartments will pop up anywhere and displace historic structures, such as small business locations.”

To provide protection for historical and non-designated historical structures which define a neighborhood’s character, says Motil, an additional zoning district needs to be added to Zone In.

“To help determine which structures and their parcels would fall under this new zoning district, professional guidance would come from the City’s Preservation Office, Columbus Landmarks, and the Ohio History Connection,” said Motil. “Zone In has earmarked 12,300 parcels for new housing. Providing special protection for a miniscule number of structures that help identify and preserve the historic character of individual neighborhoods and the city is critical. And it will not impact the additional housing goals of Zone In.”

On the west side of North High Street in Clintonville, between Brighton Road and West Como Avenue, any of those properties in that block, which are historical in the eyes of many considering they are over 50 years old, could be sold to a developer and destroyed, says Motil.

“Anything that you might consider what is historic in nature that is part of the character of a neighborhood, whether it’s on Mount Vernon Avenue or Livingston, they are all in danger,” he says. “My concern is developers are going to start getting into their bank accounts, which are endless, and they can just start waving big checks in front of these people’s faces and buy whatever they want.”

Before Zone In, developers would need a variance to change a commercial parcel to housing so to tear down an office or a small business. Zone In is about creating more housing, and now the process is more streamlined, less complicated, and takes far less time.

Motil says there is no good answer on to how to convince a determined (and greedy) developer from tearing down historical structures and non-historical buildings admired by a community. But there is a simple answer to this problem.

“There’s give-and-take. That’s my thing. There’s compromise that could be made,” he said.

Motil’s angst against developers, shared by many in the community who voted for him in the last mayoral election, is well-documented. His biting criticism against developers has been embraced, and rightfully so when you take a good look at what happened to High Street off-campus and the Short North. High-end condo and apartment developers with drooling fangs for young professionals and privileged college students have stripped both areas of their charm, say many.

Preservation efforts in other cities, such as Buffalo, New York for example, began in earnest during the 1970s, and saved some of that city’s most beloved structures. But during this same time several of Buffalo’s historical structures and areas were demolished in the name of progress.

If there is one entity in Central Ohio with any sway over greedy developers, it has to be the Columbus Landmarks Foundation. Unfortunately, and just like the rest of the community, the most they can do is plead with developers to not wield their wrecking balls with impunity. The problem also became worse with a recent change in policy, says Dr. Kemper.

“One of the policy challenges is that recently, it used to be that you could apply for historic tax credits and tax credits for affordable housing development, but that’s currently not allowed anymore. And so what we’re seeing is, even developers that were doing that in the recent past are not doing that right now because you have to choose one of the other,” she says.

“We always ask those questions of ‘Can we think creatively?’” she says. “Can we push the envelope for our partners in development to think about how we can keep the history with us so we’re not asking communities to make a choice between affordable housing and keeping their historical heritage,” says Dr. Kemper. “I think that’s what is really critical. It’s a false binary. We need to be pushing the dialogue for that.”

It’s no secret that significant symbols of Columbus’s history have been crushed into dust. The Columbus Landmarks Foundation was founded after the picturesque Union Station, an intercity train depo built in 1851 and inspired by North America’s “The City Beautiful Movement,” was demolished in 1977. The Foundation was able to save one of Union Station’s marble arches and it now lonely stands close to Nationwide Arena downtown. The arch itself is also part of the Foundation’s own logo.  

But Kemper suggests the responsibility to save Columbus’s history shouldn’t rest on their shoulders alone, or shall we say, on their lonesome Union Station arch.

“We’re bit of a younger city than Cleveland and Cincinnati. The reason historically we were chosen as the capital was that we were a location of which established families had less political influence, and that had a lot to with the final destination of Columbus being our capital. [But] we have more legacies than our other older cities. Such as foundation giving, and at that level, that can move and nudge processes and provide sometimes a vision towards identity that can push back against narratives that are within a developer’s mindset, such as maximizing revenue on a site. These structures help with the long view of a city,” she said.