Guest Post: Density on Parsons

I am your density.

This is a guest post authored by Brian Higgins, Executive Director of the Parsons Avenue Redevelopment Corporation. Let us know if you’re interested in authoring a guest blog post that aligns with our values!

When the Parsons Avenue Redevelopment Corporation (PARC) was created in 2014, it was done with the intent to remove blight on The Avenue while creating new spaces for businesses and residents. For a small, bare bones non-profit, I’d say we’ve been pretty successful!  

In partnership with the City of Columbus and Nationwide Children’s Hospital, PARC procured over $100,000 in grants to improve the vacant building that is now Comune restaurant. We then purchased and closed a beer drive-through, converting the space into the All People’s Fresh Market where folks earning up to 200% of the federal poverty level can get free fruits and vegetables. PARC also purchased two vacant homes on Parsons Avenue, renovating and renting them as affordable housing units since 2018.

Always on the lookout for our next project, it occurred to us that we might already have a bird in the hand. I’ve never been a big fan of single-family homes on commercial corridors, in part because I don’t think that they’re the highest and best use. It would appear that the city and MORPC agree, as Parsons Avenue is one of the five Insight2050 corridors that promote more compact development. Why not demolish the two single-family homes and build more accessible housing? Instead of providing affordable housing (one of our core missions, by the way) to just two households, PARC could provide for many!

The first step was to check the zoning: C-5 Commercial District. That won’t do. We’ll have to rezone for residential. Second step was to see what the neighborhood plan recommended. The 2014 South Side Plan shows “Neighborhood Mixed Use — This classification is the same as the Neighborhood Commercial classification but also includes residential units located either above and/or next to the commercial, office, or institutional uses. Residential densities should fall within the range of 16 to 28 dwelling units per acre.” Our two parcels combined are 0.17 acres. That’s:

16 units/acre = 2.72 units for our site

28 units/acre = 4.76 units for our site

On the low end of the development scale, the plan was suggesting that we essentially do nothing—that two single-family homes along Parsons is a better use than building housing for more people during a housing affordability crisis. At the high end, we could only double the number of units.

Look, I know that the plan was well intended. City staff and neighborhood stakeholders worked together to try to come up with something that they thought was workable under a certain timeline and budget for that planning process, but if you treat the 2014 plan like dogma (which some people do), then there is no way to meaningfully increase density. An increase in density helps lower per-unit construction costs, which in turn makes it easier for our units to be affordable. We decided to move forward with a rezoning process, and we were optimistic that we could find a workable solution with the Schumacher Place Civic Association and the South Side Area Commission.

This first conceptual plan consisted of three stories with 16 apartments, 15 parking spaces and approximately 890 square feet of retail space. Some of the feedback that we received from people attending community meetings was that it includes too many units, not enough parking, too much mass on the west side of the property and that there are security concerns about having exterior circulation for residents.

Most comments were thoughtful and reasonable, so we went back to make some changes. We brought the corridors into the interior of the building, scaled the building down on its west side, decreased the number of units to twelve and ensured that each unit had one dedicated off-street parking space. We also flattened the roofline so that it looked more commercial and less like an extended stay hotel. The redesign was well received, and we sailed through the rest of the rezoning process. Because our architecture work was done pro-bono, (thank you Berardi + Partners!) we did not want to advance the drawings until we were sure that we were going to be successful in the rezoning.

When the project went out to bid, we learned two very important things.


1.
The podium that we had designed in the parking area used a great deal of concrete and was VERY expensive to build.

2.
Lumber prices had increased by
50% since October.


We could design our way out of the first issue, but the second issue was vexing. What was going on in the lumber market? COVID-19. Lumber mills are always adjusting their capacity for changes in the market, and when COVID-19 hit many builders took a long pause and scaled back production. By summer, things started to get back to normal, but there was an added increase in demand with people reallocating their vacation money into home improvement projects.

Do you remember the photos over the summer of San Francisco with the sky lit orange? That was because of the massive fires in California, which burned many trees destined for construction projects. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Trump administration placed a 20% tariff on Canadian lumber. All of these factors combined led to more expensive  construction, especially for affordable housing.

I mentioned that PARC could design its way out of some of the cost issues – and we did. We eliminated the parking structure, which meant that the building would now be served by a surface parking lot in the rear. We also removed a deck on the roof of the garage. Because outdoor space in the city is such a positive amenity, we needed to find a way to keep it in. To meet the need, we eliminated the third-floor studio unit and put the deck there. The loss of the studio unit means PARC will take in less revenue, but the other design changes more than make up for that loss.

It should be noted that it was imperative that any changes to the project still fit within the parameters of the recent rezoning. There is not time to go back through the regulatory process, and, since the project was not subject to a design review, we could make these changes relatively quickly.

With a more economical project in hand, PARC can continue in earnest with the architecture and engineering to formally begin the capital campaign. In the end, nearly 65 units per acre will be incorporated into the project. There are some that would say this is an intense volume. It’s clear that the building is at a reasonable scale for a major commercial corridor like Parsons Avenue, parking is adequately provided for and the project is attractive.


Under current zoning guidelines, many historic buildings that bring architectural value and unique character to our urban communities would be illegal to build today.

When approached thoughtfully, density allows growth to be more efficient and community services – from utilities to roads, transit, jobs, retail and cultural amenities – to be more robust.


Keep an eye on our webpage, https://www.parsonsavenue.org/, for more information about the project, which we call The Eleanor on Parsons. It is named after Eleanor Edgar, the mother of long-time South Side community leader, Reverend John Edgar.  Eleanor’s kind spirit and generosity enhanced the lives of everyone she met, but unfortunately we lost her in 2020 to COVID-19.

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Brian Higgins is the Executive Director of the Parsons Avenue Redevelopment Corporation and Principal of Arch City Development.  You can find him in his home office since he doesn’t go anywhere, but also on Twitter @ParsonsAve and @ArchCityCBUS.  #wearamask