Columbus, Ohio USA

Living up to a Legacy
Rich Sensenbrenner inherits his grandfather's commitment
to build and better the city of Columbus

April 2003
Story by Cindy Bent Findlay

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Rich Sensenbrenner has a big legacy to live up to, and he knows it. The youngest Columbus City Councilman ever to gain office is also the grandson of legendary Columbus Mayor M. E. "Jack" Sensenbrenner, who held office for more than a decade through the 1950s into the 1970s. Jack Sensenbrenner was responsible for many of the policies that shaped the city as it is today. Rich seems to have inherited not only his grandfather's desire to build and better the city, but his zeal and determination, as well.

"It's my grandpa's city," he says, "and I don't want to see it destroyed."

For his dedication to preserving the quality of life in Columbus's urban neighborhoods, and specifically, his hand in the Short North's revitalization, Sensenbrenner was awarded the Short North Neighborhood Foundation's 2003 Community Leadership Award.

"Rich not only sees the value of the city, but has actively moved to help the city recognize that urban spaces are vital and important. He's worked very hard to support the vitality and livability of urban settings," says SNNF president David Brownstein.

Sensenbrenner's mission in office is to create a better Columbus, a more livable city that preserves the best of its neighborhoods and grows in a sustainable, people-friendly fashion. It's a cause that hasn't always earned him accolades. Sensenbrenner is often, by his own admission, in the minority on votes concerning zoning issues, especially when developers seek variances or exemptions from the city's painstakingly developed Urban Commercial Overlay - a plan that Sensenbrenner fought for tooth and nail.

In fact, Sensenbrenner was the head of the city's development committee but was removed by Council president Matt Habash in January. Media pundits and others speculated at the time that Sensenbrenner was removed because by sticking to his guns on zoning issues, he had rubbed too many powerful developers and the attorneys who represent them the wrong way.

"Sometimes his ideas can be in conflict with the short-term rewards that developers can have," says Jack Lucks, president of Continental Real Estate, the firm currently working to develop the much-awaited cap over I-670.

"I am a developer, I know where he's going. He can step on the toes of short-term profits, sometimes, where the rubber meets the road, but I love him for it," says Lucks. He says he believes that the ideas Sensenbrenner champions will lead to a healthier Columbus in the long run.

Specifically, Brownstein says the Foundation selected Sensenbrenner because of the work he has done to push through projects such as the arches over High Street, or the I-670 cap with shops and offices that will link, instead of divide, the Short North and the Convention Center area and downtown.

Brownstein, Lucks and others laud Sensenbrenner as a catalyst in those and other projects which probably would have foundered without his political leadership.

At one point, for instance, after nearly a decade of work to create a unique solution to bridge the I-670 gap, the Ohio Department of Transportation almost proceeded without the plans for the cap in their blue-prints. Sensenbrenner, says Brownstein, put his foot down and refused to let the project go any further with the city.

"The plans, as they were about to be finalized, didn't include the cap," says Brownstein. ODOT was going to let it die, not make it happen. And Rich stood up and said we have to. No one was there when he did it. He was in a place to act and had the commitment. It would have been easy to sit back and not do anything."

"Obviously, it wasn't just him, but I remember being at a meeting with people from ODOT, the city, and developers, and Rich looked everyone in the eye and said, "We are not leaving this table until this problem is solved," says Lucks. "He continued having meetings until every question was answered, every "t" crossed and "i" dotted. And every one of those questions could have drifted and missed the deadlines."

It's this commitment to following through and helping neighborhoods like the Short North achieve the best possible environment, says Brownstein, that convinced the SNNF board that Sensenbrenner was the proper recipient of this year's award.

Sensenbrenner believes strongly in what is commonly called neotradition-al urban planning. It's a philosophy that starts with an examination of the physicality of what makes a city desirable- how the shape of buildings, streets, sidewalks and the rest of the urban environment either add to or detract from residents' lifestyles.

Also commonly known as New Urbanism, proponents of these concepts believe that cities and counties must tightly control the shape of development that goes on within their borders, and not simply encourage endlessly sprawling growth, if they wish to be livable environments down the road.

One of Sensenbrenner's first efforts on council, for example, was to push a program to plant trees throughout streets in city neighborhoods, because trees contribute so greatly to a human feel to urban environments.

But neotraditional planning goes far beyond tree planting. Control over how every aspect of a city's residential, commercial and industrial property is developed is central. Architectural review commissions that dictate how one constructs the facades of buildings so that they fit in with the rest of the neighborhood is a central tenet of neotraditional planners, who wish to retain the historic character that is often one of the most attractive aspects of their communities.

Zoning that dictates streetscapes that are pedestrian-friendly by controlling the scale and shapes of buildings, the types of businesses permissible in the neighborhood and how they are placed on lots is even more contentious. This can sometimes cost developers extra money to redesign, for example, a new Kroger to move ugly parking around back and create a different style of façade than usual.

But the resulting communities are often among the most desirable places to live in a city. Sensenbrenner points to the Short North as a fine example of a neighborhood which cared about its quality of life, took control of its development, and is now a grand place to live - with, by the way, skyrocketing property values.

For years, Sensenbrenner has stuck to his guns, insisting that smart growth is better for everyone than rapid, unplanned sprawl.

"One thing our politicians don't understand - every time they allow crap to be built, they lose friends, not just make them," he says.

Even more impressively, he's often successful at getting his views heard and enacted.

"He's extremely effective," says Lucks, "because he's tenacious, he's there till the job is done. And he's the least adversarial person I know and still makes his point. I've seen him lose some battles, I'd be so angry I'd be biting my lip. Rich, he gives a little smile and says, 'We lost a real opportunity last night."

Short North Neighborhood Foundation President David Brownstein and Executive Director Gwynne Rukenbrod during the Short North mARTi Gras event held at the Crown Plaza in Columbus last month.

"One hundred years from now, when your grandkids walk across that [I-670] bridge, there's going to be something there to interact and live with because of Rich. Obviously he wasn't the only one who created it, but if he weren't there to drop the hammer, it probably wouldn't have happened," says Brownstein.

Everyone likes to compare Sensen-brenner to his grandfather, but he says growing up, it was his parents who instilled in him a strong work ethic and a sense of honesty.

Sensenbrenner grew up in Troy, Ohio, the youngest of five children. His father Ed was minister (now retired) of the First Presbyterian Church there and his mother Lois raised the family and volunteered in the community.

Sensenbrenner went to The Ohio State University, graduating in 1986 with a B.S. in Accounting and then an M.B.A. in 1991. Sensenbrenner is a C.P.A., and his chosen profession is accounting, not politics. His first job was as an entry-level accountant in the city auditor's office, and he eventually became City Treasurer. He's now the director of financial management for Columbus College of Art and Design.

Sensenbrenner fell into his position on City Council almost accidentally. In 1996, Maury Portman, a fixture of local politics for decades, stepped down and asked Sensenbrenner to fill his position.

"I was in the wrong place at the right time," he grins.

He began his urban planning crusade at about the same time, and with about the same level of intent. He credits Don DeVere, former head of the Neighborhood Design Assistance Center, and Portman with pointing out the value that old buildings and smart growth had for cities. He also credits an education by new urbanist legend Andreas Duany, whose firm [partly through Sensenbrenner's doing] authored the Urban Commercial Overlay.

Sensenbrenner and his wife Janet, a pharmacist, live in German Village and love the city. When asked, he says his future is still largely up in the air.

"Right now, I have a wonderful position with CCAD. It's a great organization to be involved with, working with great people, so as long as they'll have me, I'll be there," he says. He adds that he likes the work on the Council because he can do it part time.

On the other hand, Sensenbrenner still has big dreams for Columbus. He'd like to see it become an urban Mecca like Portland, or Chicago. He's now working as hard as he always has to bring light rail to Columbus, allowing the city to grow and help ease traffic congestion which could choke its growth. He's established bi-monthly breakfast meetings with community and government leaders to again, sit down at the table and not get up until it's done.

"As long as I'm in office, I'll keep fighting to dramatically raise the bar in what we require developers to do," he says. "I don't know. You can only do this for so long. But Maury did it for 30 years. I might try, if the voters keep putting me here. Plus, I don't have anything better to do with my time," he says with a grin.

©2003 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.