Karl Douglass: The greater good

April 6, 2013 

It is compelling to watch a debate between two people. It is even more compelling when the debaters are people who often agree.

Such is the case in the debate about revitalizing the Liberty District.

On one hand is Tax Commissioner Lula Lunsford Huff. Lula is not just a citywide elected official; she is also the keeper of a legacy. Lula is no stranger to public service and working in the public interest. Her contributions, as well as her family's contributions, to Columbus in general and Black Columbus in particular are undeniable.

On the other hand is Mayor Teresa Tomlinson. Teresa has been an unwavering proponent for smart growth and infill development. Before she was elected, Teresa was a champion for rebuilding Midtown. Since being elected, she has broadened the conversation about redevelopment throughout the city using new tools, new voices and new ideas.

In spite of all that has been written and said, the debate about revitalizing the Liberty District is not about who does or does not want to provide better housing opportunities to the residents of BTW. Nor is it about who cares about the history and well-being of the Liberty District and who does not.

Rather, at its core, this debate is about four words, "highest and best use."

In real estate development, highest and best use is defined as the use of land that is financially feasible, legally possible, physically possible and yields maximum profit. When that definition is applied, the land that fronts Victory Drive and is bordered by Veterans Parkway, 5th Street and 6th Avenue does not pass the maximum profitability test. Traffic counts, proximity to South Commons and costs of site development suggest that the highest and best use of those 8 acres is retail development. The only way to make those blocks available for retail development is to relocate the apartments.

However, if you apply a different definition of highest and best use, specifically a definition that does not include maximizing profit, the debate looks a lot different. Not maximizing profit does not mean there is no profit; but, it does mean a developer accepts either less profit or a longer wait for profits from a development. When that is the case, the conventional wisdom about when and where retail should be developed in the Liberty District can be challenged.

The debate about revitalizing the Liberty District is a debate about definitions. Lula and her allies hold one definition of highest and best use. Teresa and her allies hold another. It is a reasonable disagreement.

More important than the disagreement, though, is the fact that both sides genuinely want an outcome that is best for the community.

There is conflict about what that outcome should be, but the goal is the same for all parties. If everyone agrees that this matter needs to be resolved in a way that moves our community forward, all parties must keep their eyes on the common goal.

Karl Douglass, Columbus native and resident, is a frequent commenter on local, state and federal politics. Follow him on Twitter@KarlDouglass or facebook.com/karldouglass.

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