Westerville News & Public Opinion

Multifamily housing debate: How much is too much?

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Since its housing boom days of the 1970s and 1980s, Westerville has been known as a community that focuses on single-family housing.

Even with scattered multifamily complexes, mostly along arterial roads in the city, today about 70 percent of the city's housing stock is single-family.

But after the recent city approval of three large developments that contain multifamily housing, some city officials think they have a crisis of character on their hands.

How does multifamily housing fit into Westerville? At their meeting June 25, the Westerville Planning Commission tackled the question at the behest of Deputy Director of Planning and Development Kimberly Sharp, whose presentation on the topic sparked a passionate discussion.

Sharp's report, which combined numbers with examples of "unique" apartments, condos and other multifamily options, seemed to create more concerns than answers for the commission.

"I like the idea of, 'Let's be unique,' " commission Chairman Paul Johnson said. "But I don't want to fall into the trap of all this pretty stuff, without asking, 'Is this appropriate?' "

That "pretty stuff" included several different options for what Sharp called the "missing middle housing."

Sharp said this alternative to regular single-family homes and apartments is a key missing option for Westerville housing.

"It doesn't have to be huge apartment blocks with big parking lots in front of them," she said.

But, for the most part, the commission was more interested in a broad discussion about multifamily housing as a whole, and took the conversation toward establishing their likes and dislikes about dense housing options, and what percentage of the city's housing should be multifamily.

"We can argue, debate, maybe never agree on what that balance is, but we have to find a path for the future," Johnson said, noting that while Columbus has more options, that's not his concern. "I don't want to be Columbus. But if we continue the way we're going, there will be no difference between us other than a sign that says Westerville."

But Mike Heyeck, City Council's representative on the commission, expressed his concern over other cities and communities that have been too rigid in sticking with their single-family focus, and isn't sure if the city can continue to control its ratio in their current setup.

"We could sit here and determine that 30 percent of vehicles in Westerville need to be pickup trucks," Heyeck said. "But that has no basis in reality. What we can do is look at where we've come from and where we're going."

Heyeck said the focus should be allowing those who work in Westerville to live in Westerville, and that the city's focus has strayed lately.

"If you think that way, it's a little different than just providing multifamily housing. We need to get back to looking at the city as a business model. ... My beef with multifamily housing is that it's coming first, not following development."

The discussion was largely informal, and no decisions were made. But the city will host a "community design charrette" in August that will invite residents to share their thoughts on multifamily housing and Westerville's direction.

The Planning Commission then plans to review a formal policy put together by city planning staff in September, followed by City Council review in October.

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