It was not long after Charlotte Assistant City Manager Taiwo Jaiyeoba finished his presentation to Charlotte City Council at its March 1 strategy session that it started to become clear just how much an uphill battle he was facing in getting approval for the Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan, which will most likely become the defining aspect of his tenure as the city’s director of planning, design and development.
As soon as the topic was opened up for discussion, Jaiyeoba faced a volley of apprehensive questions from council, many of them centered on the proposed Unified Development Ordinance (UDO), a separate but vital document that will help direct the way the Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan is implemented in terms of zoning decisions.
In his presentation, Jaieyoba described how the UDO will replace the current single-family zoning definition with a place type labeled Neighborhood 1, one of 10 place types included in the plan. Neighborhood 1 will allow for duplexes and triplexes in neighborhoods currently zoned exclusively for single-family homes. It will also allow for quadplexes along arterial roads currently zoned for single-family housing, but only if the development is seen as beneficial to the community, such as affordable or workforce housing.
This aspect of the Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan, known as inclusionary zoning, is seen as a way to diversify housing throughout Charlotte and allow for more of the “missing middle housing,” helping to put a dent in the city’s affordable housing crisis.
Larken Egleston went first on March 1, stating that while he’s all for aspirational goals, some pieces of the 320-page comprehensive plan, including the inclusionary zoning aspect, were simply not within the city’s current authority to implement.
Egleston set the tone that evening by stating directly that there was “very little chance” he would be ready to approve the plan by April, as was originally scheduled. Others voiced similar sentiments.
Republican Ed Driggs followed Egleston, stating his belief that “a single-family neighborhood is an American tradition,” despite his acknowledgment that they have been blamed as a key source of housing discrimination throughout American history. Democrat Matt Newton spoke next, stating he was worried that parts of his district in east Charlotte did not have the infrastructure needed to support even a slight increase in density.
In response, at-large representative Braxton Winston defended the plan, stating that any misunderstanding by council was the fault of council, as a draft of the plan had been public since October.
“This conversation reinforces that a lot of people want change but they don’t want to be part of the change,” Winston said, implying that council members were getting cold feet as developers and others in the real estate industry pressured them not to support inclusionary zoning. Later, some council members made allegations that their colleagues hadn’t even read the plan in full yet.
As the March 1 meeting dragged on, District 6 council rep Tariq Bokhari told Jaiyeoba, “I hope this is crystal clear to you that there is no path where we can get this done in the next 60 days.”
Before the meeting wrapped, Mayor Vi Lyles pleaded with council members to get on the same page regarding the plan, as doing nothing was not an option.
“People are going to come here no matter what. We may not build a quadplex or a duplex on any street and just keep them where they are but the people gotta live somewhere,” Lyles warned. “I would not say pump the brakes, I would say figure out how the council can come to a consensus around policy.”
Three weeks later, Lyles would be forced to pump the brakes, as she informed Charlotte City Council with a March 21 memorandum that the plan for an April vote would be pushed back, but would need to happen no later than June 30, 2021, the end of the city’s fiscal year.
A plan comes together
The Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan has been in the works since late 2018, when city staff was tasked with using community engagement to put together a cohesive vision for how Charlotte will approach its rapid growth in an equitable and inclusive manner. There has not been such a plan implemented in our city since 1975.
Over two years, the city held numerous outreach events ranging from town hall meetings to door-to-door canvassing to hosting game nights with a custom-built board game that allowed players to help create a plan for Charlotte themselves.
According to Jaiyeoba, planning staff heard from more than 6,500 voices in half a million interactions through more than 40 methods of engagement during the feedback process, which is still in effect through listening sessions and the ongoing comment process on the 2040 Plan website.
Rebekah Whilden, who works in land use, transportation, and environmental issues, has participated in the creation of comprehensive plans in Clarke County, Nevada, where Las Vegas is located; and in Washington D.C.
Though she was not directly involved in creating Charlotte’s plan, she is married to Sam Spencer, chair of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Planning Commission, and had a front row seat to the process.
She has been an outspoken proponent of the plan since last October, which is when she first read the draft plan in full. Following the March 1 meeting, Whilden created a petition calling on city council to approve the plan rather than push back the vote.
“This is the most outreach that I have ever seen a planning department do,” Whilden told Queen City Nerve. “I think that this speaks a lot to the Leading on Opportunity Task Force report that says we need to start listening to our residents in every part of the city, and that is what the planning department set out to do and I think that they have done. Now, do I think that they could have done more outreach? Yes, and that is part of what the comment process is, is to truly hear from everyone.”
Opposition from different angles
While some developers and real estate professionals have decried the inclusionary zoning aspect of the 2040 Plan, other community organizations have spoken out against it for wholly separate reasons.
Shortly after the March 1 meeting, the Housing Justice Coalition joined with residents in neighborhoods such as Howie Acres, a gentrifying neighborhood in north Charlotte; the Far West Charlotte Community Coalition, which represents residents in unincorporated parts of west Mecklenburg County that still fall under Charlotte zoning jurisdiction; Clanton Park in west Charlotte; and others to create the Charlotte Community Benefits Coalition (CCBC).
The group held a press conference on March 12 to call for a halt to the 2040 Plan process until certain demands could be met. Those demands included more transparency as to who have been considered key stakeholders in the process and what field they work in, the creation of an anti-displacement stakeholder group to oversee the creation of a final 2040 Plan draft, and a more dedicated commitment to community benefit zones in the plan, which would create teams of localized community leaders that are able to draw up agreements with developers about how they are allowed to build in their respective communities.
One CCBC member who preferred to only be identified as Jason said he and his fellow organizers were concerned that the 2040 Plan and the adjoining UDO’s new approach to zoning would simply streamline the process for developers. He pointed out that, while inclusionary zoning had the potential to create opportunities for affordable housing in some places, it was far from guaranteed as an obstacle to gentrification. He cited a 754-square-foot duplex unit in his former community of Plaza Shamrock that in 2017 was listed at $60,000 and is currently listed on Zillow at $264,000.
“If a developer comes into a neighborhood that residents don’t like … if something came through and they’re charging $350-400,000 for a 1,200-square-foot unit and your neighborhood doesn’t want it, what is going to stop that from happening? Where’s the community input?” Jason asked.
While community benefits agreements are mentioned multiple times in the 2040 Plan draft as something to be explored, it remains a broad goal, as the city doesn’t currently have the authority to implement them locally and would have to seek that authority from the North Carolina General Assembly.
‘It will happen’
Local real estate broker Andrew Blumenthal, also a member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission, said he has gone against the feelings of many others in his profession to support the plan because it prioritizes what’s important to him: promoting smart density through urban infill and a mix of housing types in neighborhoods.
“One of the things I’ve always loved about Charlotte is that when you fly into the city, you would never guess that we’re a metropolitan area of over 2 million people because of our canopy cover, because of the way we have these gorgeous neighborhoods with wide streets,” Blumenthal said. “We’re not getting rid of that. It’s not like we’re going to come build apartment blocks everywhere, and frankly it’s not like quads and triplexes or duplexes are really going to tarnish the quality of these neighborhoods.”
In pointing out that any middle housing developments will still be dictated by the market under the plan as proposed, which is rather inevitable without any concrete plans for community benefits agreements or zones of some sort, Blumenthal affirmed the concerns of those community organizations who stand against the plan.
“The fact that these developments would still be dictated by market forces does mean that these neighborhoods may not become as accessible as they should be,” Blumenthal admitted. “But I also think that it will increase accessibility by and large. You’re not going to jump from the bottom to the top, and vice versa, but I think that it will increase the ability to transition and scale up your quality of life. It may not be as rapid and dramatic as some people hope, but it will happen.”
More than 100 people signed up to speak at a March 22 public hearing about the plan, and for three hours the council heard from residents who spoke out on an array of issues, both in support of and against the 2040 Plan.
Planning staff and council members will continue to hold weekly listening sessions in the coming months so that all concerns can be considered in the edits made to the 2040 Plan draft before it goes in front of council for a vote.
At the end of the March 22 meeting, Mayor Lyles said she and Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt had already been meeting with every Charlotte City Council member to discuss ways in which they could move the plan forward without any further obstacles.
“The council has the most difficult work to determine how all of these positions go into the best interest of this fast-growing city,” Lyles said, asking for all sides to prepare for compromise. “I ask everybody who’s watching this to work with finding what you want to see. We know what everybody’s against, we know where the opposition and the hot spots are, but I think now is the time to pivot to what you want to see … There’s some times in a history of a process that you have to say that this is what I can live with, too.”
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