Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Is Downtown Columbus Historic?

One thing I’ve been asked a lot over the last few days is how do we change the current situation in downtown Columbus? I certainly don’t have the answers but I have some ideas. Nothing is simple and there are a number of things that are contributing to empty buildings and struggling businesses downtown.

The economy is tough. Very tough and that doesn’t help matters any. Most small businesses are being tested and we are no exception. We can’t control the overall economy but there are some things we can do to help infuse money into our local economy. Development is slow but helping making new downtown projects happen creates jobs, sells lumber, employs subcontractors and builds new equity in the downtown area.

I struggle with our downtown historic status. The entire four blocks of downtown are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I’m happy about that but I feel there is a fundamental flaw in how the district is managed that discourages development. Columbus has a local historic preservation group (HLPC) that oversees what happens in the historic district. Now I want to be clear I GREATLY appreciate what this group does and what it stands for. I know most of the board members and consider them friends. Every year they bring projects to life and Columbus is much better because of it. I just have a problem with one policy relating to downtown.

Basically there are two kinds of developers. One of them loves working in historic districts and the other one hates it. Historic districts tend to come with baggage. In a historic district you are typically required to comply with historic guidelines when you are doing building renovations big or small. To those of us who like that we see it as an insurance policy that someone isn’t going to build a pole shed next door to our historic property. The developers that don’t like historic districts see the regulations as a pain in the ass which is perfectly understandable.

So first things first what downtown Columbus really needs is developers that like working in historic districts. That cuts your options in half. Every project that I have done in Columbus required having my building plans approved by HLPC. Exterior building materials, doors, windows, awnings and paint colors are all subject to approval. I am more than happy to comply. The problem in Columbus is it appears compliance is optional.

So now the insurance policy is gone. Restoring buildings to comply with the requirements is more expensive than just doing any old thing. Those that comply go the extra mile and make that investment. When other property owners ignore the compliance it lowers the bar. That is unjust to those of us that do. From what I can tell there is little to no enforcement of the historic district requirements. 

Non compliant attributes are grandfathered in for decades. I don’t think the intent of that is to put rules in place that say “you can leave that the way it is for eternity or until someone comes along that feels like changing it“. When a property changes hands minimal non-compliant issues need to be addressed. Signs are a good example of typical non compliant attributes. Here is a good example of a historically pleasing tavern sign.

Legally if someone sells a building in downtown Columbus they must disclose that it is located in a historic district. So now we’ve made the disclosure but the rules don’t really matter. It’s kind of like shooting yourself in the foot but both feet at the same time. Historic developers are not interested because enforcement is lax and non historic types don’t want to have to deal with it in any way, shape or form.

So the question remains. Is Columbus historic?  It is listed but does anyone care?  If not why not ditch the listing?  The listing is very important to me but if it's important to Columbus then everyone needs be playing by the same rules. I personally think the downtown could be a killer historic district. Those communities that are successful at this understand the significance of the listing when it comes to the overall appearance and value of the community.  They don’t allow it to be voluntary. There needs to be some general compliance from all property owners not just some.

Kudos to the Kohl’s on a great back alley project. Yesterday they blacktopped their parking area. What a huge improvement.  If that entire alley was uniformly paved it would completely change the appearance of the alley. It raises the bar for everyone. Thanks for making a difference.


  1. EXACTLY - there is no enforcement and when it's brought up the buck is always passed to someone else until it's forgotten about and people move on saying well, we tried.

    It always comes down to the City Inspector not doing his or her job. Then my question is - is it in the job description to be the strong arm? I someways I would think it would have to be but then just what authority do that have.

  2. Yes, people get involved! There are existing groups who need new members to help them do the work to help make this city better:
    Columbus Main Street- specifically for the Historic Commercial Downtown District. We need help! We have been in the program since 1992 and the honeymoon is over! We have 4 committees you can choose from. Our meeting are the first Thursday of each month, 6:30PM at 128 W James St (in the Visitor Center that we run)or call Kim Bates at 623-5325 to see how you can get involved.
    Columbus Chamber- meets every Wednesday morning at the Columbus Country Club, 7:30AM.
    CDA (columbus Development Authority)- check the City website for the meeting dates.
    We don't need any new committees or groups- help the ones that already exist. Much of the apathy Todd talks about has spread to the groups- we can't get new people involved- everyone has ideas of what we should do but when asked to help they are too busy or find some other excuse.
    And Jenny- all the things you listed are part of the cause- there is no one thing, there never is.
    Pick the one thing you are passionate about and I can find you a group to join to help make it better!

  3. I'm going to keep repeating my comment above until some of you call to get involved. Just spouting off here does no good- it's just whining and complaining. If you can't be part of the solution you are just blowing hot air!
    Call me at 920-623-5325 to be a part of the solution and help make the Historic Downtown Columbus a place to be proud of.

  4. Kim - Bringing things to the surface to discuss them is not necessarily just blowing off hot air. It's a way of gathering thoughts. This is hopefully an eye opener to get people talking. Community organizations need a clear purpose and plan. That often comes from discussion. My hope is this helps that process.

  5. I hope this does spur people on to get involved and is not just some people blowing hot air! We need more involvement - for purposes, plans and projects. No involvement = nothing getting done and more to complain about. So- I hope this blog does wake people up and get them moving in the right direction.BTW- the photos here are wonderful! Thanks for taking the time to do this.