Planned Apartments Near Scioto Audubon Park Put Columbus Council, Metro Parks in Conflict

The Columbus City Council unanimously passed a zoning change Monday that sets in motion the approval process for a 750-apartment complex on private land Downtown adjacent to Scioto Audubon Metro Park.

The vote came after council members expressed dismay with Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks for not agreeing to cede a strip of park land that city officials say is needed for a new entrance to accommodate 1.5 million additional car trips a year to and from the project.

The dispute puts the city and park system on a collision course that could ultimately force part of that new traffic flow — some 4,100 trips a day on average — through a road that winds through the center of the park. That’s because a narrow strip of the parcel would only accommodate a one-way entrance, meaning all residents would at least exit through Maier Place, the two-way park road.

“It will put our 750,000 visitors into a negative situation that we will all be held accountable for,” Metro Parks Executive Director Tim Moloney warned the City Council.

Columbus seeks easement for improved access to apartment complex

Several council members pointed a finger back at Moloney for standing in the way of a traffic solution that could provide new housing — including a voluntary 10% of the units designated as “affordable.” There is no requirement to do so because the property isn’t in a zone to qualify for what have become routine city property-tax abatements for similar buildings. For six months, they have pushed for the parks district to sell an easement allowing for the one-way entrance to accommodate two-way traffic.

Moloney said he’s prohibited by state law from negotiating the transfer of parkland to private developers, a notion that Council member Rob Dorans questioned. Dorans cited numerous easements the park district has granted over the years, including some to privately owned utilities.

Moloney said those easements were for the public good, and that a transfer can’t be for a use inconsistent with the public purpose for acquiring the land. In this case, he said, that would be for a private driveway to service a privately owned apartment complex.

However, The Dispatch reported last year that in 2017 Moloney backed a proposal to sell a parcel in the center of Clear Creek Metro Park that was the site of a stone mansion on a secluded wooded lake. The Metro Parks had acquired that land from a donor who specified in her will that it be forever held as a public nature preserve.

Reached Tuesday, Moloney said with Clear Creek the district was trying to dispose of a house that wasn’t being used, whereas with Scioto Audubon it is trying to not disturb sections of a new park that is being used by thousands of visitors.

“I did not like how I was treated last night,” he said. “…Metro Parks really isn’t part of the housing solution. We’re in the park business,” adding that the city put a deed restriction when the district initially obtained the land stating that it can only be used as parkland or the title returns to the city.

Dispute centers on dog park land

“This is a brownfield, a toxic property that is adding nothing in its current state,” Dorans said Monday of the Downtown property. He noted that the parcel in question, which hugs railroad tracks on the east side of the park, will require extensive environmental cleanup by owner Zimmer Development, of Wilmington, North Carolina, which is proposing the 750-unit apartment complex.

Moloney told city council that the land needed for the new driveway to connect Whittier Street with three, new seven-story structures would be carved from a new dog park at Scioto Audubon, which he said would be overwhelmed by residents from the new complex.