Whittier Development Moving Forward Despite Metro Parks Concerns

Columbus City Council voted last night to approve a 780-unit development on the Whittier Peninsula. The project, from North Carolina-based Zimmer Development Company, would bring three, seven-story buildings to a 17-acre slice of land wedged between the Scioto Audubon Metro Park and two sets of railroad tracks.

The development has been in the planning stages for about three years and has already received votes of approval from the city’s Development Commission and the Brewery District Commission (although it will need to return to that board for final design approval). An earlier proposal for the land from the same developer called for a much denser project, with a mix of office and residential uses and a tower that renderings showed to be about 30 stories tall.

Tim Moloney, Executive Director of the Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks, spoke out against the latest iteration of the project at the council meeting, citing as his primary objection the large amount of car traffic it would create on Maier Place, the park’s main road.
Metro Parks also released several statements on social media last Friday about the proposal, saying in one that the potential traffic from the development could “cause a disruption to the wildlife that live in the area, and pose safety threats to visitors who frequent the park.”

Jeff Brown, the lawyer for the developer, pushed back against that assessment in his testimony, saying that his client had requested an easement – totaling about 6,000 square feet – to allow for a two-way road to be constructed along the railroad tracks that would provide an access point for residents that would skirt the park itself.

Moloney said that he was prevented from approving such an easement by state law, which stipulates that any such agreement need to serve the public good.

Several members of council said they didn’t believe that state law prevented Metro Parks from approving the road Zimmer Development Company proposed, and that such a road would alleviate many of the concerns Moloney cited about cars travelling directly through the park. Rob Dorans, who serves as the chair of council’s zoning committee, pointed to several examples of Metro Parks approving easements to allow for road and utility construction.

“I think about the greater good – the public good – of providing housing,” said councilmember Shayla Favor. “We are tasked right now with trying to provide enough housing for the residents that currently live in the city of Columbus, and we know that we’re falling short.”

“I’m not saying this is the end-all cure, but it is absolutely a solution that is part of a public good that will be provided,” she added, pointing out that the developer has committed to 10 percent of the units in the project being affordable to renters earning 80% or less of the area median income, despite the project not being eligible for a tax abatement.

Landon Zimmer, Managing Partner of Zimmer Development Company, told Columbus Underground that his team has been going back and forth with Metro Parks about the project for three years, and that the reason it was scaled down from the initial proposal was because of their feedback.

“Since day one, we always planned to have an easement,” he added, “and I guess lately they said there was some ordinance or some statute where they couldn’t do that, so we found another way.”

That other way involves cars entering the development from the south (off of Whittier Street), but because there’s not enough room to fit a two-way road on the property without an easement from Metro Parks, those cars would have to exit via Maier Place.

Moloney, when asked if Metro Parks would continue to work with the developer on resolving the access issue if the project moved forward, replied “absolutely.”

“We’ve been working in good faith for three years, and we’ll continue to do so,” added Zimmer. “Metro Parks said they’d do the same, so hopefully we can come to an agreement.”

Zimmer mentioned several additional commitments the developer is making that he thinks will benefit the area as well as the park, such as a $1 million donation toward the building of a pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks, and the remediation of the land itself, which was once home to industrial uses and has never been cleaned up.

The Scioto Audubon Metro Park opened in 2008 after the acreage that it sits on – once home to the city’s impound lot – was remediated.

Also planned is a shared-use path running north from the apartments that would extend under the freeway to Downtown. Zimmer said his company will work with the Ohio Department of Transportation to develop the connection after the agency’s work there on the I-70/71 split project is complete.

Construction of the apartments will likely not start for another year, he added, after all the permits are obtained and the Brewery District Commission signs off on the the final design elements. The plan is for the project to be completed in phases – one building at a time – with the empty land being converted to greenspace that will be open to the public in the meantime.