January 2022

Pizzuti vs. The Neighbors: The German Village-Area Development Highlights Some Complicated Questions

Courtesy of Columbus Monthly
By Laura Arenschield
January 24, 2021

How does a city grow? Where? And who benefits from the growth? Recent housing developments, including the Pizzuti site near German Village, show how complicated these questions are.

In the scheme of recent protests, the ones over the proposed redevelopment of a former Giant Eagle site near German Village earlier this year were almost comical: One resident carried an inflatable killer whale in protest of the “whale” of a development. People wore whale masks and whale hats. A woman dressed in a onesie designed to make her look like a killer whale.

Their cause: blocking, or at least substantially changing, plans for a new apartment complex on the 2.3 acre site of the now-vacant grocery store on East Whittier Street in Schumacher Place. The developer is the well-respected Pizzuti Cos. It’s built some of the city’s most prestigious high-rises, including the Miranova office and condo complex near the Scioto Mile and Le Méridien Columbus, The Joseph in the Short North— gleaming buildings that city leaders say have added value to the surrounding neighborhoods. If Pizzuti couldn’t develop the site appropriately, who could?

But many of the people who lived near the former Giant Eagle had concerns: They didn’t want a big shiny apartment complex dropped in the middle of their community; they worried about traffic, a sharp increase in population, the way the building might affect their property values.

“It’s not that we didn’t want it developed,” says Brenda Gischel, president of the Schumacher Place Civic Association and a founder of the group Neighborhoods for Responsible Development, which has opposed Pizzuti’s plans for the East Whittier site. “But we didn’t want a five-story building that stuck out in this neighborhood, and we didn’t want something that isolated the development from our community.”

Brenda Gischel, president of the Schumacher Place Civic Association, and John Clark discuss their concerns about the development.
On the surface, this might seem like a classic NIMBY—“not in my backyard”—concern. But there’s more at stake here than the typical neighborhood squabble. The city’s population is growing, the people moving here have to live somewhere, and there are ample reasons why denser neighborhoods close to the city’s core are better than suburban sprawl. (Consider the frustration of sitting in traffic during your morning or evening commute and add the greenhouse gases and air pollution emitted by all those cars—avoiding those issues are just two of the benefits to concentrating people in the heart of the city.) Most people seem to get that, on a broad, citywide, theoretical level. But it’s different when the new condo or apartment complex is right across the street.

The tension around the development of 280 E. Whittier St. is an example of the kind of debate that already is playing out in neighborhoods across Columbus—the kind of debate that is only likely to get more contentious as more and more people move to this area. “People talk about how divided we are as a country politically,” says Jon Melchi, executive director of the Building Industry Association of Central Ohio, an organization that advocates for and supports builders. “And I can tell you that the bluest parts of Columbus and the reddest parts of Delaware County all seem to have the same perspective on residential development, which is, ‘I’m in favor of it, just not right there.’”

Ultimately, this is the puzzle every American city needs to solve as it grows: What kind of community do we want to be in 10, 25, 50 years? How will we make sure there’s space for everyone who wants to be here, and how can we make sure each of those people has the best possible chance to thrive? How do we make sure the decision-makers here look out for everyone—even the people who don’t have time to march in the streets or wage letter-writing campaigns or form activist groups on one side or the other? How do we make this an equitable place to live?

What has happened with the redevelopment on East Whittier might offer some clues about how that process will unfold—and shows how important it is that Columbus comes to grips with its population growth and housing issues soon.

The East Whittier Street site was once a Big Bear grocery store. That chain started in Columbus in the 1930s and eventually grew to include 65 locations across Ohio and West Virginia. The Schumacher Place Big Bear opened in 1950. By 2004, though, the company was in trouble, and the store became a Giant Eagle. It was small by grocery store standards, covering about 30,000 square feet, but it was a neighborhood resource.

“People walked there to visit the pharmacy, to get their groceries,” says Gischel, who has lived in Schumacher Place for decades. “It really was a neighborhood store.”

Greyson McCaig wears a whale costume and plays a drum at a protest in March.
In 2017, Pizzuti bought the site, which included 2.3 acres and the grocery store building, for $5.3 million. At the time, a Pizzuti spokesman said the store would remain, that it was a “privilege” for the Giant Eagle to serve the surrounding community. The site is bounded by Whittier to the south, East Kossuth Street to the north, South Grant Avenue to the east and Jaeger Street to the west. That Jaeger is one of its borders is important: The street is the official line separating Schumacher Place from German Village, where historic designations and a vocal resident base make new development trickier. If the site had been one block to the west, the development Pizzuti is proposing might not have been possible.

Pizzuti began talking publicly about turning the site into an apartment complex in March 2020; in August of that year, Giant Eagle announced it would leave the building. Initial plans included about 330 rental units with 8,000 square feet of retail on the first floor; the development was four stories in some parts and five stories in others. Almost immediately, neighborhood groups, including the German Village Society and the Schumacher Place Civic Association, voiced concerns.

In multiple meetings, hundreds of residents spoke about their fears that the complex would block light to their homes—at four-plus stories, it was taller than the previous grocery store building. Renderings showed a more industrial, modern structure—a departure from the older homes that surround the site. They worried that people parking at the complex would block the roads for trash and recycling trucks and slow existing residents’ travels to and from their homes. The number of residential units proposed for the site is denser than the largely single-family homes in the area.

“We would have supported 45 units per acre, which would have been an increase—there is no housing on the site now, so that would have created some housing,” Gischel says. “And we would have welcomed more retail.”

As of December, the plans include 262 rental units and 9,000 square feet of retail space. Renderings show the building would be four-and-a-half stories at its highest point. Columbus City Council approved the development in July; a group of neighbors appealed that approval to the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas. No decision had been made on that appeal as of press time. (Pizzuti representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.)

The site now is barren, except for a sizable hole. Crews tore down the empty grocery store earlier this year; the block is surrounded by chain link fencing. Banners on the fence show images of a four-story brick façade with walk-up stoops and tree-lined sidewalks.

Just across from the site on East Kossuth Street, multiple homeowners have staked signs in their front yards opposing the development. “Tell City Council the Pizzuti Project is TOO BIG!” one proclaims. “Don’t Let This Happen,” another reads, above a picture of a white building towering over homes in the neighborhood.

Every neighborhood might not have protests involving killer whales—not every neighborhood has a resident base with the same time and energy for organizing—but a version of this tug-of-war over development has been going on for years in Columbus. In Olde Towne East, residents have voiced concerns over the height of a proposed four- and five-story apartment complex at the corner of Oak and 18th streets. In the Short North, a proposed apartment complex on West Second Avenue went through a number of iterations based on resident opposition before being scrapped. It was resurrected earlier this year; the Victorian Village Commission ultimately approved plans for a seven-story building, three stories shorter than the original proposal. An apartment complex in Old North on North High Street was scaled back in 2016 after residents complained about the height.

People are moving to Columbus at a rapid pace. The most recent estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau put Columbus’ population at more than 900,000, a 15 percent increase over the last census, in 2010. Columbus is growing at about double the rate of the rest of the country. It’s the fastest-growing city in the Midwest and the 14th-biggest in the country. The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, which covers all of Central Ohio, projects that the region is going to grow to 3 million residents by 2050.

“The question for us now is: ‘What should our city of the future look like?’” says Michael Wilkos, senior vice president of community impact at the United Way of Central Ohio. Wilkos is also a co-founder of the group Neighbors for More Neighbors Columbus, which advocates for more density in the city’s core. “And I think at the end of all of this, we do have choices to make as a community. … I believe that we have some of the most beautiful and productive farmland on the planet just outside metropolitan Columbus, and I would like to preserve and protect as much of that as possible—and the only way for us to preserve this incredible countryside is for us to accommodate more of our growth within existing neighborhoods on existing infrastructure and bus lines, in walkable neighborhoods, near existing services.

“And while many people would philosophically agree with that statement, it becomes very difficult when it comes to a specific project on a specific site.”

Wilkos has assembled a slew of data about Columbus—its growth, the number of vacant housing units in different parts of the city, the cost of building a new apartment complex, the demographics of the city’s new residents—which he has presented to many community leaders in recent months. His findings show that as growth accelerates in the metro area, more newcomers are looking to move to Franklin County. That’s a good thing because it prevents sprawl, but the housing doesn’t exist to accommodate the influx.

Wilkos believes some of the answers lie in neighborhoods like Schumacher Place, where new buildings can be added on vacant sites such as 280 E. Whittier, or where new apartments can be built above garages or in carriage houses.

But he also says more development could happen in other communities inside the I-270 belt, including parts of Worthington and Dublin, and the Northland area. Worthington has seen its own development fight, over 37 acres that used to be a United Methodist Children’s Home on High Street. Lifestyle Communities has submitted plans that most recently consider turning the site into a four- and five-story complex with 600 rental units along with commercial space. Some Worthington city leaders and residents have pushed against that development for years.

Another complication: The city of Columbus has not updated its zoning code in nearly 70 years. The last time the code was overhauled was the 1950s, more than a decade before the Fair Housing Act was passed. At the time, federal policies such as redlining, the practice of blocking Black residents from moving into white neighborhoods, was the norm. In 1950, Columbus covered fewer than 40 square miles. Now, it spans 223. The city’s population in 1950 was 375,901.

City planners have begun a comprehensive review of the zoning code, but that will take time—likely years—to complete. Projects like the one on East Whittier Street don’t meet the zoning codes because of their height or density but are often approved through city-granted variances. The zoning code updates will almost certainly allow for more density in neighborhoods near the city core.

“It’s a complicated document, and sometimes it was easier to make minor tweaks to it, but we’ve reached a point now with the growth we’ve had and the pressure from growth that we need to address things,” says Michael Stevens, director of development for the city of Columbus. “But we need to do it in a way that is inclusive and that engages the whole community.”

In the meantime, the city’s population numbers are all over the news, in ways that feel abstract until a person tries to find a place to live. Home purchase prices have skyrocketed in the last few years, and they don’t appear to be slowing. In December, predicted that Columbus would be the country’s fifth-hottest housing market in 2022, projecting that asking prices here would grow twice as fast as national rates. And that’s after they’ve already risen dramatically. The Columbus Dispatch reported in December that asking prices here were up 12.6 percent in the first 10 months of 2021 over last year.

That’s a good position to be in if you already own a house, not so great if you have to buy one. And renters are likewise strapped: Across the city—from King-Lincoln Bronzeville to Olde Towne East to Merion Village, from Canal Winchester up to the Northeast Side—developers are either renovating old complexes or tearing down existing buildings and adding new ones. In the case of renovations, existing tenants often can’t afford the new prices—some nearly double their previous monthly rents.

One example: This year, the Columbus Urban League fielded some 12,000 calls from people who were at risk of losing their homes. Another Dispatch report quoted Stephanie Hightower, the nonprofit’s CEO, saying at a call-to-action event that most of those calls were from Black single moms. U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty, a Democrat who represents much of Columbus, said during that same event that the housing situation in Columbus was both “a health care crisis” and “a social justice crisis.”

Building more housing makes sense—it’s logical that the laws of supply and demand would apply to the Central Ohio housing market. But if the apartments that go up are only affordable to people with near-six-figure incomes, it is clear who the development is really for.

“There’s a number of actors in the affordability and attainability conversation,” says Mindy Justis, also a co-founder of Neighbors for More Neighbors Columbus. “The reality is that supply is an important element, and when I tell a developer ‘50 units less in this neighborhood,’ and ‘100 less in that neighborhood,’ it adds up quickly. And that’s why as a group, we are here to bring that to light that you may think in a micro-manner, ‘Hey I’m just doing what’s best for my next-door neighbor,’ but you’re actually raising my rent three blocks away, 3 miles away, even 30 miles away. You’re regionally stymying supply, which is keeping rent up.”

The city has some incentives for building affordable housing, offering financial subsidies to builders who create rental units for people who make between 60 and 80 percent of the area median income. A family of four in Columbus would need to earn between $50,000 and $80,000 a year to qualify. (Pizzuti did not receive an incentive for the complex on East Whittier Street.)

And development firms are businesses, and their ultimate goal is to make money. Construction costs have risen, too: Lumber prices peaked in May of 2021 at nearly three times their pre-pandemic levels. They’ve dropped some, but in early December, prices were still nearly double pre-pandemic levels.

“Multi-family housing is 30 to 40 percent more expensive to build than it was pre-pandemic, and the cost of a single-family home is up, too: The same model that we would have built pre-pandemic is somewhere between 30 and 50 percent more because of supply-chain issues,” says Melchi, of the Building Industry Association. “All of those things impact housing affordability.”

So back to the big questions: How do we grow? Where do we grow?

The answers, of course, change as the city does. Each person who moves here, all nearly 200,000 of them over the last decade, has plans and goals and dreams for their lives or their family’s future. Many have feelings, ideas and opinions about how the city should grow. Who gets to decide? Who gets to be part of the conversations that lead to the decisions? Who sets the slate of options?

“These are questions that are not often asked of people in a more objective, thoughtful time,” Wilkos says. “When a developer proposes a project on a site, that’s not the time to be having thoughtful conversations with people about our city’s future. … Here’s the math: Tell me where you want to put 119,000 people in the next 10 years. I’m waiting for the moment we can do that and have a non-emotional conversation about growth.”

That moment has passed for the development on East Whittier Street. When Columbus City Council voted on the project in July, both Gischel and Justis spoke about it. “Our best interests should carry more weight with you than developers’ bottom lines,” Gischel told council members. “It’s exactly the type of project the neighborhood deserves,” Justis countered.

Justis’ side won on that day, with City Council approving the development in a 6-0 vote. But Gischel and her allies aren’t declaring defeat. Not only are they appealing council’s decision in court, they hope their movement will spread as other neighborhoods join their organization.

Maybe Columbus hasn’t seen the last of that killer whale onesie.

This story is from the January 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.

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