The Commissioner — Fall 2009
Columbus, Ohio, Development Commission
There's been significant improvement — in part due to the increased sophistication of neighborhood commissions — in the way we handle planning and zoning in Columbus," says Mike Fitzpatrick, chair of the Development Commission in Columbus. "As a result of their efforts and the interaction they now have with city staff, many issues are resolved before they get to us and, if something is still hanging by the night of the meeting, it's usually manageable."
That sentiment is shared by Maria Mantra Conroy, a first-term commissioner, who appreciates Fitzpatrick's evenhanded approach. "If at a meeting we hear a lot of, 'hey, the developer never talked to us,' Mike is good at telling the developer, 'You didn't do your job. Go back and talk to them. We'll see you in another month,'" she says.
Conroy, the commission's newest member, and Fitzpatrick, an 18-year veteran of the panel, currently are joined by three other commissioners. By statute, the Development Commission consists of seven members and an alternate, but questions about the applicability of a residency requirement have resulted in the temporary suspension of voting rights for two commission members who work in Columbus but do not live there. "We're in a holding pattern right now while the city reviews requirements for all of its boards," says Vince Papsidero, AICP, planning administrator for the city's Planning Division, noting that the Development Commission is one of just a few city panels with a residency requirement. The alternate position is vacant.
Appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council, Development Commission members serve three-year terms and may be reappointed indefinitely. While neighborhood diversity is not required, "I do think there's good geographic spread and a nice variety in terms of disciplines," says Conroy. "Historically, it's been dominated by architects. Now there's an attorney and a couple of academics."
The Development Commission convenes on the second Thursday of every month for zoning hearings and quarterly on the fourth Thursday for policy meetings. The panel serves in an advisory capacity to the City Council, which has ultimate authority.
"Lately, things have been slow but they're picking up a little," says planning manager Richard Mackley, who handles all zoning public hearings for the city. "Usually there are between three and five rezonings, but if you go back a year or two there were as many as 20."
Mackley sends commissioners information packets a week to 10 days before each meeting. "We've been experimenting lately with e-mail. If there are more than five cases, however, it can be too much to send electronically," he says.
"We get a synopsis of the request, maps and schematics, and photos of the area," says Conroy. "I do a lot with Google maps to orient myself. If something isn't straightforward or there's any confusion, I'll head out and take a look at the site and see what's around."
When the commission disagrees with the staff recommendation or there is a split vote, "we fill out an information sheet explaining our reasoning and rationale," says Fitzpatrick. "Our concerns are then forwarded to the City Council for consideration."
During policy meetings, members of the Development Commission receive updates on neighborhood plans and revitalization efforts. The Planning Division recently began using Facebook to encourage a dialogue among neighborhood residents. "They sent out a message inviting us to become a fan," says Conroy. "It's yet another venue to receive updates and help gauge the neighborhood's pulse." Conroy notes that those who "really want to know what's on people's minds should consider serving [on a planning commission]."
In Search of a Sustainable Future
The automobile is still king in Columbus, but change is coming, says Mike Fitzpatrick, chair of the city's Development Commission. "We're laying the groundwork for the future, one that will encourage pedestrian activity and transit," he adds, noting that the city's mayor is a proponent of light rail.
Incremental changes include mandated sidewalks in all new developments and a proposal to require bike racks in certain parking areas. "Things are going to have to change eventually so we might as well start inching forward," says Maria Mantra Conroy, the commission's most junior member. "We're doing what we can when we build new places to think about how they might potentially fit in should we actually get a [transit] system here in the next decade or so."
To support future transit, the city has been promoting higher density, mixed use development in major corridors, says Vince Papsidero, AICP, planning administrator for the city's Planning Division. "The commission also has been supportive of our effort to push the limit within neighborhoods to see what they are comfortable with in terms of density."
"Plenty of people still think density is a four-letter word," says Conroy, noting that planners have their work cut out for them. "It could be high-end town houses going in but that doesn't matter, because it's 'density.'"
The city also promotes revitalization in neighborhood business districts, Papsidero says. "We're plagued by the current economic situation and a zoning code that's very challenging. It's outdated and hamstrings individuals, but we don't have the resources or staff to do a complete overhaul. So we and the commission do the best we can, often working around it."
Home to Ohio State University, which has the largest student population in the United States, Columbus is also home to corporations such as Wendy's, Red Roof Inn, and Victoria's Secret. "As the state capital, Columbus is an interesting city with lots of entrepreneurial energy," says Fitzpatrick. "Many commercial ventures are hatched here and we'd like to see that continue. Columbus will thrive if it remains a good place to do business and a place where development continues at a high level. That's why I am here and willing to do my part by serving on the Development Commission."