Massive real estate development is nothing new for Columbus, Ohio. Starting back in 2002 with then-Mayor Michael Coleman, developers have been offered jaw-dropping tax abatements and incentives to spur construction throughout the city. According to sources within Columbus, the downtown area has been cleared of all “undesirables” for years to make room for major developers to come in and build “luxury” apartments. One of the more recent projects to fit this mold is Borror’s Xander on State Street project and White Castle project — the latter being home to Borror’s luxury corporate offices.
These projects promise affordable housing in exchange for tax abatements and zoning permissions, but often don’t live up to their end of the deal. This hasn’t gone unnoticed, and Columbus has been warned that tax incentives for large developers have been far too generous. With the annual median income of African American families at less than $45,000 per year and a poverty rate of over 30% (each) among black and Hispanic residents, it’s an uphill battle for less-advantaged demographics to access the rental market. As of 2017, there were 200,000 out of 340,000 families in Columbus who were financially insecure, and as of 2018, over 55% of Columbus residents were renting — all ingredients for a recipe of exclusion of minorities and total market control by developers.
Any semblance of Columbus’ culture and true identity was wiped out a long time ago to make room for developers and transplants. It’s almost easier to compare Columbus to a business rather than a city. And the way the business of Columbus operates is with “donations” from wealthy people looking to do business in Columbus. Between 2017 and 2019, Borror affiliates alone gave over $50,000 to “Friends for Ginther,” despite the fact that Mayor Ginther ran for reelection unopposed. That’s in addition to over $400,000 in donations from various other developers. Private companies also funded Ginther’s State of The City address in February with over $60,000 — money the city was later pressured into giving back. Columbus is the only major city in Ohio that accepts private sponsorships to fund its State of The City. United Healthcare, the city’s healthcare administrator, donated $10,000 to be a presenting sponsor during Ginther’s State of The City address — barely one month after being awarded a contract with the city worth $199.8 million for medical expenses.
Borror isn’t the only company to benefit from these donations to city officials. Wagenbrenner Development — or Thrive Companies — stands to benefit enormously from Columbus’s decision to create four new tax-abatement zones while in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Two of these zones would support large-scale mixed developments called Grandview Crossing and Quarry Trails, which Thrive is developing. Kaufman Development and Wood Companies have also given large sums of money according to campaign contribution reports.
Other development projects seemingly designed solely for the upper class in Columbus, Ohio have been undertaken by The Edwards Companies in the form of a $55 million German Village project, and Kaufman Development who are in the second phase of their $120 million Gravity Project.
Many of these projects are mixed-use developments which offer both “boutique” apartments as well as commercial space that can be used for retail. Coincidentally, Borror has applied for a medical marijuana license. The idea of big business getting involved in the medical marijuana industry is nothing new, but multiple construction companies in Central Ohio have applied for medical marijuana cultivator sites, spurring questions as to their true motivation. Though, it could be reasonably suspected that these developers are hoping to put medical marijuana dispensaries in their ground floor commercial space in order to boost income. However, in addition to the gentrification and spatial mismatch that these developers are bringing to Columbus, they’re also doubling down by pushing small businesses out of the medical marijuana market, a problem being seen throughout the nation as laws on medical marijuana relax.
The growth of a city does not always equal prosperity for its inhabitants. In the case of Columbus this is clear when examining the still-widening pay gap between African American households and white households. While these projects seem beneficial to the community at face value, the many side effects of these new developments become clear upon closer examination: gentrification, spatial mismatch, tax inequality and less affordable housing. Additionally, the amount of money coming in from developers leaves the door wide open for politicians to ignore blatant abuse of the system and systematic exclusion of specific demographics while granting controversial development projects.
As long as developers keep on pumping money into Columbus and funding local politicians, we can’t expect to see real change and the people who will suffer are the ones whose voices will never be heard because of the color of their skin and their socioeconomic status. Growth has to happen the right way, with the voices of the people in mind. Until then, it seems the only groups that will benefit from this situation will be politicians and developers.
Matthew Mainen is a Washington, DC based political analyst. He has a J.D. from Stanford Law School and an M.A. from Tel Aviv University.