Steve Kenat’s Thoughts on Cincinnati’s Connected Communities Proposal

At the forefront of nearly every architect, designer and engineer’s mind is how our collective work can create accessible, affordable and vibrant communities for all. But how exactly does that vision come together?

Zoning.

While it may not sound like the most glamorous of topics, zoning laws are incredibly important for fostering development, adding or removing population density, facilitating pedestrian and human-centered design, increasing affordable housing and strengthening neighborhood business districts.

That’s why a series of potential zoning code policy and process changes proposed by Cincinnati’s Connected Communities initiative—designed to help Cincinnati grow into a more people-focused, diverse, healthy and connected community—recently spurred such public interest. More than 2,000 people have commented on the proposal, while hundreds of others queued up to offer feedback during a recent City of Cincinnati Planning Commission meeting during which the changes were discussed.

We asked Steve Kenat, SHP Principal and Director of Community Development, to weigh in. As an architect and urban designer, his work has been focused on the urban neighborhoods of Cincinnati for almost 30 years. He has also been invested in the Connected Communities process, having participated in several workshops and community input sessions since the effort kicked off in 2022. He points to housing as one of the biggest opportunities rezoning might have on Cincinnati’s future.

“For Cincinnati to remain competitive among peer cities, we must grow in population and opportunity. We need to support density and mobility among citizens, offering choices that create multiple rungs in the housing ladder to serve families and individuals at all socio-economic levels and all points in their lives.”
– Steve Kenat

Having worked on many housing developments in his career, including multi-family, mixed-use, market-rate and mixed-income projects, Steve is no stranger to the challenges zoning laws can place on developers. For example, delays associated with variances or even by-right construction permits have slowed the ability of housing developers in the market to deliver. Current required off-street parking has added unnecessary costs to projects, creating parking lots and structures that increase ambient temperature and stormwater run-off.

“These are all significant causes of housing affordability challenges in our city—worsening the impact of inflation and labor and material shortages in the industry,” he notes. “Further, it risks the quality of newly constructed buildings that suffer in material quality and creativity, especially those designed as affordable housing solutions, rather than delivering buildings that will be loved and maintained for the future.”

In addition to improving the pace of delivery and projects themselves, the principles of the Connected Communities zoning revisions benefit neighborhoods in other ways:

  • More mixed zoning can bring residents back to neighborhoods that previously focused almost exclusively on industrial development—especially when it better connects residents to jobs.
  • Relaxed zoning in single-family districts will allow choice for additional housing types to create more “middle housing” like duplexes, quads and Accessory Dwelling Units or ADUs (think of a converted space above a garage, an apartment in the basement or attic of a home, or a small detached “mother-in-law suite” in a backyard, for instance) that does not jeopardize single-family housing or compromise the character of existing streets or neighborhoods.
  • Allowing additional height along commercial and mass-transit corridors will make those districts more successful by creating more living opportunities and amenities for area residents and leveraging the buying power of traffic moving through neighborhood business districts.
  • Vibrant business districts slow traffic (a bit) by giving people a reason to stop. They make streets safer for patrons, pedestrians, and bicyclists and grow the economy with entrepreneurship, businesses and employment opportunities.

Whether the zoning changes recommended by the Connected Communities proposal will be approved—having been accepted by the Cincinnati Planning Commission, they must now be voted on by Cincinnati’s City Council—remains to be seen. But one thing is certain according to Steve. “At the end of the day, the architecture, design and engineering industry wants the same thing for Cincinnati that all its residents and community members want: a more connected, affordable and desirable city. ‘Connected Communities,’ is a great start, but it’s not the end!”

SIDEBAR: Zoning 101

One goal of zoning is to protect and promote community character by organizing land into clearly defined districts based on the type and intensity of use. While land use planning uses broad categories—such as residential, commercial and industrial—to separate different uses within a community, zoning further divides these categories into districts based on intensity. This separation allows communities and individual neighborhoods to regulate growth and development and preserve community character. In addition to uses, zoning codes also regulate site layout and design details, including lot size; density; building placement, height, and bulk; setbacks; provision of adequate light and air; parking; landscaping; and signage. Source: Ohio Department of Public Health