A recent Observer headline laid out the challenge: “First test for City Council newbies: What to do about Charlotte’s growth?”
Indeed, Charlotte’s five new council members – along with their re-elected colleagues and new mayor Vi Lyles – have their hands full dealing with exponential growth at the same moment that a massive rewrite of our rulebook for managing growth is seriously bogged down.
Our soaring economy requires never-ending construction that, if not properly managed, threatens our quality of life.
The challenge is compounded as Charlotte’s traditional low-density, car-oriented development pattern no longer fits the preferences of many residents, especially our burgeoning millennial population. And Charlotte’s appalling economic inequity compels us to ensure that new developments offer affordable housing throughout the city.
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Recognizing this evolution, Charlotte set out two years ago to completely re-write its rules governing development. Officials promised a new Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) built on clearly defined place types that reflect the growing preference for sustainable, integrated land use. The new framework would be easier to follow than the old, giving property owners and developers a clearer picture of what is allowed in a given place – and reduce the number of lengthy, expensive re-zonings.
The process began with promise. Residents, developers and business operators gathered to learn about the approach and offer suggestions. A UDO Advisory Committee was created and I was honored to be named to it. In mid-2016, staff said the City Council would be able to vote on the UDO by January 2019.
Unfortunately, the UDO’s evolution seems to have slowed even as development accelerates. Final City Council approval now seems unlikely until well into 2019.
While the UDO timeline stretches out, bad development allowed by today’s rules multiplies. Despite an oft-professed devotion to people-oriented, high-density development along transit corridors, the City Council recently approved a large self-storage facility near the Blue Line’s New Bern station. Equally distressing are the low-density projects that continue to spring up “by-right” (permitted under current zoning and not requiring council action) all over Charlotte in places that should be reserved for high-density, transit-oriented uses. These include a massive service station/convenience store a stone’s throw from the Scaleybark Blue Line station, a sprawling auto dealership on Independence Boulevard directly in the path of the proposed Silver Line, and a flock of fast-food restaurants and other auto-centric facilities where light rail is in place or planned.
To their credit, planning staff recently told our advisory group that in the next six months they will offer proposals to tighten up the Transit Oriented Development (TOD) regulations with interim rules that can be rolled into the final UDO later on.
Throughout this process, we must acknowledge that meeting our development and societal challenges is part and parcel of writing the UDO.
A related concern is that the city has not hired a planning director since previous director Debra Campbell was promoted in October 2013. We need that person in place soon, and he or she must demonstrate a sense of forward-thinking to match the kinds of planning rules that we need.
Most of all, we need to get the UDO finished so staff and council members have a solid, modern set of rules to manage growth.
The council should set a clear deadline for the UDO to be written and voted on. My suggestion? December 31, 2018.
In a city growing as fast as Charlotte, even that is almost too far away.
Binns is the executive director of Sustain Charlotte. firstname.lastname@example.org