When the Dennison Place Neighborhood Association in Columbus raised questions about the scale of a five-story mixed-use project on W. 5th Avenue, Vision Development could have backed away and regarded community discussion as a barrier that would slow down its plans.
But Connie Klema, an attorney for Vision — and also a developer herself — sees things differently.
“It seems like this process would take longer,” she said, “but in the end it saves time. Generally speaking, the quality of a project is driven by the quality of the neighborhood.”
It’s not just the existing architecture and other physical attributes, but also the willingness of the people to speak up and be engaged in the process.
“Civility is an extraordinary help,” agreed Tim Sublette, vice president of the association. Vision, he said, has had a “very positive, supportive relationship with the neighborhood” in the year since the University Area Commission endorsed the project, which was revised in response to neighborhood requests. In fact, neighbors even invited Vision officials to a block party this summer.
This is not the common, adversarial community-developer experience.
Neighbors initially were not happy with the height, massing, and potential traffic impacts of commercial activity and 140 apartments and condos on 5th Avenue and along Highland Avenue and Forsythe Street residences in the Victorian Village area. The Zoning Committee of the University Area Commission (UAC), which makes recommendations to Columbus City Council and the Board of Zoning Adjustment on neighborhood zoning variances, hoped there was a way to avoid community confrontation.
Zoning decisions are limited to the changes or variances in an application, but community resistance to a proposal often is rooted in a building’s design, number of units, or whether it seems out of place. So neighbors tend to focus on traffic or zoning code requirements on parking, floor-area ratio, and lot coverage as a way to register their disapproval.
The UAC Zoning Committee, over the past two years, has increasingly encouraged developers to present conceptual reviews of their proposals in order to discuss plans with the committee and the community seeking formal approval.
“I was surprised we hadn’t thought of it before,” said Susan Keeny, longtime chair of the zoning committee. “As we started to get more developers from out of town building here, we saw that they don’t know our town. They don’t know the context and community.”
She noted that, naturally, the builder wants a return on investment. But she wants builders to understand that many residents are already invested – for the long term. Developers who take the time to know and understand a community are often willing to make some changes, which sometimes leads to a project that works out better for both sides.
Klema said Vision has long favored community engagement not only as a way to build good will, but also build better projects. On 5th Avenue, she said, ongoing meetings gave developers and architects a better feel for the neighborhood and its history.
“We had more faith in our direction with their guidance,” she said. And with neighbors’ suggestions “the plan is jointly put together – and better.”
Sublette said the outreach could have become just a public-relations effort, “but instead, it actually did open some doors and create some connections.”