Sure, it needed a little work.

A component of revitalization was to prime the real estate market in Weinland Park to the point where investment would be self-sustaining. And it’s working all too well in some instances. However, the rest of the system, code enforcement, review boards, and the city’s building services department all don’t seem to be all that interconnected with the result that decades of bad zoning decisions and inappropriate renovations are able to repeat themselves. As it has been pointed out before the history of zoning in the neighborhoods near the city center of Columbus was largely stacked in favor of developers and absentee property owners at the expense of neighborhood residents in the late 1960s and before. In many ways, it wasn’t a conscious planning decision but in aggregate over decades it made a mess of some neighborhoods.Weinland Park is one of the few neighborhoods north of downtown that is in some respects still subject to following the old ways of Columbus zoning.  In many circles, converting historic houses into apartments is not thought of the best use regardless of the how the parcel is zoned. But back in the day.

The greatest number of set-back variances, lot area variances, parking exceptions, and non-conforming uses occurred in the older, dense mixed use areas that had once been residential….The general impact of the last five years of zoning actions was further deterioration of the residential environment of older areas. Commercial structures and parking lots joined the non-residential uses permitted during the preceding decades. At the same time setback and lot variances permitted construction of larger multifamily structures than code allowed. Instead of serving the residents of older areas council and zoning boards served property owners by allowing them the most profitable use of their land.

One can make three generalizations about how zoning functioned in Columbus, Ohio through 1970. The effect of zoning was to detract from the residential character of older areas of rental housing not far from the city center. First, zoning was reactive rather than proactive, responding to the request of property owners and developers rather then directing their activities. Second zoning actions increased density and intensity of use in duplex and apartment districts. Third, zoning served primarily to protect the value of private property. The result was older residential areas where renters lived deteriorated, while single family neighborhoods where middle income residents owned and occupied their own homes remained stable. Incompatible uses proved a disincentive to the maintenance of of the single family homes that once filled the older neighborhoods near the city center. Consequently, owners of these homes either subdivided their dwellings into apartments or sold them to apartment or commercial developers, while they themselves moved out to newer areas where their residential environment would be protected.

Patricia Burgess, Public Planning for Private Interest: Land Use Controls and Residential Patterns in Columbus, Ohio 1900-1970, (The Ohio State University Press, 1994)

And so it seems that not much has changed

It’s the same house from above after illegal renovation.

For campus landlords who dominate the student rental housing market the improved safety situation and revitalization activities in Weinland Park are tailor made for a quick profit but they’re a planning and preservation disaster for the neighborhood. Investors are purchasing houses are converting them into student rentals by converting every square foot of interior space into living area, and adding more too.

Foundation repair

The house at the very beginning of the post and the house above are the same house located at 225 11th Avenue between Summit and North Fourth Street. The contractor obtained a Certificate of Appropriateness from the University Area Review Board for new windows, siding, shingles, and foundation repair.  Then everything went horribly haywire. The investor’s contractor raised the foundation and removed a part of the wrap around porch in the front and the back porch completely. All the windows and doors were removed and the rough openings moved to correspond with the interior changes. Additional square footage was added with an addition to the second story. The entire hipped roof was removed and reframed with a new gabled roof and and a building length dormer  and skylight was added. The basement was renovated as living space after the house was raised. In the end the liveable square footage was increased from 1600 feet to 2800 square feet. The back yard will be paved for parking. Highest and best use; the most profitable use possible has been achieved. But at whose expense? It’s going to be difficult to sell adjacent houses unless the owner-occupant has a predilection for a yard coated in red Solo cups every Sunday morning. And who lives here when the sophomores are moved to campus?

While one might think it somewhat bold to show up at your local review board with plans of a building you’ve illegally altered beyond recognition and that at bare minimum the UARB might want to see the receipt for the fine. But since they only do aesthetics they’re willing  to approve the design and code enforcement or building services can figure out the rest. Consequently, the illegal part is usually another departments problem. This works to the contractors advantage because each portion of the regulatory chain approves their part assuming someone else will force compliance. However, by that time, if it ever happens, the renovation is a fait accompli which is French for, “sorry, you’re too late to do anything about it.”

However, one of the UARB members noticed another wrinkle. This type of conversion is an expansion of a non-conforming use, the very thing that put Weinland Park in its dire straits all along, and the contractor needs a zoning variance from City Council to do it. So, now what? Does City Council approve the variance and continue the same historic pattern of highest and best use at the expense of the neighborhood? Is the city going to make this type of inappropriate renovation unprofitable? As it is now the contractor only has to pay 5 times the cost of the building permit. At current student rental rates the owner can probably realize at least $2500-3000 a month for the building so the fine is a pretty good bargain for not seeking approval, and possible rejection. And there appears to be no political will to have the illegal renovations removed after it is built. In fact, the contractor told the UARB that he had gotten away with it before. And the contractor talked about his investor/client purchasing the rest of the block on 11th Avenue and doing the same thing all the way down to Kelly’s Carryout on North Fourth Street obviously not all that worried about any repercussions. This ought to be interesting to watch because across the street from the proposed block of illegal past conversions and future questionable ones will be the Wagenbrenner’s $12,000,000 restoration of the New Indianola Historic District row houses on 11th Avenue between North Fourth Street and Grant Avenue.

So, the newest plan for the 11th Avenue gateway is a couple blocks of newly restored historic row houses and passing over North Fourth to a newly constructed student ghetto all within 100 feet of each other. That is unless the historic pattern of zoning and design review for maximum individual investor profit at the expense of the neighborhood residential quality of life changes. Hopefully some changes are in store. It would be nice if attics and basements were only used for their original purpose of storing stuff and not storing students. And that the protection of Weinland Park’s historic housing stock was taken more seriously. And someday the realization that all investment is not good investment might kick in. However, it’s not that individuals within various departments, agencies and boards don’t care, they do, but there is a disconnect between the various entities where everyone seems to assume that someone else will make the hard decision about enforcement or just even saying no, it’s a bad idea to do that. And in some cases there is a sense of inertia that if it has been passed before why not pass it again. In addition, honestly who is going to wake up some morning in a city department and decide to unilaterally reverse 70 years of planning and zoning mistakes. If everyone can even agree that it was a mistake.

However, at some point there must be some epiphany that this type of renovation is not  helping anyone unless they are an absentee landlord. It’s not going to help sell houses to faculty members or bring in a renter over the age of 23. Nor will it stop displacing Weinland Park residents who cannot afford to pay $400 a bedroom a month for rent. And there is little incentive to invest in single family properties nearby unless they too are student rentals. So the cycle of disinvestment in Weinland Park continues. Hopefully, there will be changes in development and renovation in Weinland Park that values neighborhood quality of life over the highest and best use of each parcel.

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