COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Columbus is in the early stages of overhauling its zoning code, as city leaders stare down estimates that the region will grow by a million or more residents in less than three decades.

Released in fall 2021, an analysis of the current code — which officials said hasn’t had a major makeover since the 1950s — revealed a set of city land and property use laws that don’t put Columbus in a position to grow into an “equitable, thriving city,” said Kevin Wheeler, project manager for Zone In, the city’s rezoning campaign.

The 2021 assessment also concluded the current code is too scattered from one area to another, not necessarily “user-friendly,” and rooted in redlining. Its redo will tackle both housing and commercial rules for use of land.

“Zoning alone isn’t going to bring new development, new investment,” Wheeler said at a virtual project information session this month. “It’s one tool, it’s one of the pieces of the puzzle, and it can be an impediment — or it can encourage development.”

Where will initial rezoning efforts be focused?

The city identified 62 “corridors and nodes” that will be included in its first crack at modernizing the zoning code. Those include everything from stretches of Broad Street to the bulk of North and South High Street, to Sullivant Avenue in Franklinton and Morse Road in Northland.

Many serve as the “main streets” throughout communities in central Ohio.

In sum, the selected areas total about 140 miles of Columbus, according to a Zone In presentation. LinkUS — the region’s proposed rapid transit service — areas and current COTA bus routes were two of several considerations as to what corridors and nodes were selected.

But Wheeler, at the meeting on April 10, said what has been announced is only the initial focus area. “This is the start, it’s not the answer,” he said. “We’re going to have to be doing a lot of work with all of you to get to the answer.”

A full list of what Columbus roadways and areas are included in the first phase of the Zone In project is available here

Proposed priorities, timeline for overhaul

Although officials have picked the parcels of land that will eventually undergo changes, they have not made any recommendations for how each corridor or node should be zoned. That won’t come until around early 2024. 

“This is big. You do this once in a lifetime. Give us some grace as we go through this process, but our promise to you will be that you will be brought in,” Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin said at the meeting. 

Mayor Andrew Ginther said in his State of the City address that better embracing density is a big priority of his, particularly with the housing crunch the city is facing. The code rework will also aim to reduce dependence on cars in neighborhoods and bolster public transit and walkability, according to Wheeler. 

Other cities have redone zoning codes in recent years

Upzoning — or when cities change their zoning code and enact other policies to allow for more density — has become more common in recent years, said Columbia University PhD candidate Jenna Davis, who studies urban planning. 

“There’s a number of cities across the country that have started to think about how they can reform zoning codes to allow for more housing opportunities, not just in the coastal cities that we tend to hear about having high housing costs,” Davis said. 

Upzoning might include anything from barring single-family zoning in residential areas altogether or allowing for accessory dwelling units (ADUs), which are smaller, standalone housing units located on the same lot where larger single units are.

While ADUs are already legal in Columbus, Columbus City Council recently announced in March its intent to push for a program that would increase the number in the city — among close to a dozen other policies it will pursue in 2023 related to housing

As Columbus’ population has swelled over time, it has also consistently grown faster than the number of housing units being built. The Building Industry Association of Central Ohio in late 2022 concluded the city would need to nearly double its average number of housing permits to meet projected needs.

The zoning overhaul should encourage increased housing construction. None of it will come overnight. 

“Some people would say that these kinds of zoning changes would take years, if not decades, to actually have effects in terms of lowering housing prices,” Davis said.

For city officials working on the Zone In project, the rest of 2023 will largely focus on additional analysis by city officials and feedback from the community. When proposed changes do come, they won’t be put into place without public notice or a Council vote.