First test for City Council newbies: What to do about Charlotte’s growth?

City council member wants you to hold his feet to the fire

Braxton Winston’s activism last year was captured in an iconic photo of him standing in between a police line and protesters, shirtless, with his fist raised in the air. He was one of hundreds of people who protested in Charlotte, demanding the po
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Braxton Winston’s activism last year was captured in an iconic photo of him standing in between a police line and protesters, shirtless, with his fist raised in the air. He was one of hundreds of people who protested in Charlotte, demanding the po

When Charlotte City Council’s five new members take office in December, they’ll find themselves swimming in a sea of jargon and zoning rules. They’ll be facing tough questions on affordable housing and confronting thorny problems about density in established neighborhoods, traffic and how to regulate Charlotte’s growth.

With almost half of the 11 members brand new to office, and a sixth who was appointed to fill a vacancy earlier in January, City Council is experiencing the most turnover it has seen in years. And the decisions new members make will shift how the city grows and changes for the next generation.

“The learning curve will be steep, obviously, even for those of us who have served on a lot of city committees in the past,” said Tariq Bokhari, a Republican elected to replace defeated mayoral candidate Kenny Smith in District 6.

Tariq Bokhari Observer archives

“There’s definitely a learning curve. I’m not naive to that fact,” said Justin Harlow, who will represent District 2. “Five of us, we’ve never legislated before.”

New council members, who will be sworn in Dec. 4, have started meeting with city staff and incumbents to get a handle on their jobs. They’ve received thick binders of information about the rezoning process, city departments and the other bread-and-butter machinations of city government to get up to speed.

The newcomers will be joining six incumbents who won re-election this year and Mayor-elect Vi Lyles, who sets the council’s agenda but doesn’t normally vote except to break ties. Democrats have a 9-2 majority on the council, and Lyles is a Democrat as well. While there’s broad agreement on problems, such as the rising cost of housing and increasing congestion, there’s likely to be disagreement on the solutions.

For example, Bokhari said he would push to implement new technology to streamline and simplify the development process, lowering costs for developers and ultimately costs for renters and homebuyers. The new Democratic members, on the other hand, said they were interested in exploring measures such as subsidizing property taxes for people threatened with displacement in gentrifying areas, paying more tenants’ rental assistance and creating land trusts to buy older housing, preserving it from demolition. They’re also interested in dramatically increasing the amount of bond money the city raises every two years for affordable housing construction, from $15 million to as much as $50 million.

“We’ve got a huge affordable housing shortage,” said Harlow. “We’ve got a few things on the plate we can try to tackle it.”

Justin Harlow Observer file photo

But new City Council members are also likely to find themselves frustrated by some of the things they can’t do. A law passed by the state legislature in 2015 prohibits cities from regulating the appearance of single-family houses, meaning City Council can’t specify design elements like what kind of siding can be put on new houses (such as limiting vinyl) or ban big, front-loading garages (so-called “snout houses”).

State law also doesn’t give cities the authority to require a certain percentage of new housing be set aside for affordable units, a policy known as mandatory inclusionary zoning. Any attempt to pass such a local policy in Charlotte would likely lead to a harsh reaction from the state legislature in Raleigh.

The new council doesn’t count any real estate professionals as members. Groups that lobby City Council about development said that’s not necessarily an impediment – the new council might be more open to new ideas.

Joe Padilla, executive director of the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, said his group endorsed Smith for mayor because of his background as a real estate broker. But he said REBIC will work with the new council, including educating them on the basics of how development deals come together. Padilla also said he hopes the new council will cut through some of the clutter of different policies regulations that have sprung up around subjects such as trees, sidewalks, stormwater and affordable housing.

“We’re headed into a period where the city is going to be looking at some significant changes,” said Padilla. “Sometimes the feeling that those of us in the real estate and development community have is there is not as much prioritization as there should be. There are so many things we’ve been focused on.”

Shannon Binns, executive director of Sustain Charlotte, said he hopes the new council members will be receptive to expanding bicycle lanes and transit, encouraging less car-dependent growth, capping the maximum amount of parking near light rail stations to make it less attractive to drive and making new developments more walkable.

The group promotes environmentally friendly development patterns, as well as biking and mass transit. All five new members are under 40, and some, such as District One’s Larken Egleston, have participated in Sustain Charlotte programs like Biketoberfest.

Larken Egleston Gambol Photography

“We’re hopeful, given that the new members are younger, they’ll be more excited about the type of growth we advocate for, as well as improving transportation choices,” said Binns. “There seems to be a stronger interest in compact development, walkable development, which we advocate for as well.”

44 new Charlotteans a day

Charlotte’s population is growing by 44 people each day, fueling the city’s building boom. That means rezoning votes on whether to allow new apartments, office buildings, hotels and townhouses are a constant – and often contentious – source of work for City Council.

Charlotte staff are also more than a year into an effort to rewrite the city’s decades-old regulations about land use, building designs, sidewalks, trees, stormwater and other development-related issues. That huge effort is expected to start wrapping up by 2019, with a first draft of a new, unified development ordinance, though the current council has already complained that the years-long process is confusing and slow.

If the current timeline holds, then the new council – including five freshman members without a professional real estate background – will be the body that’s ultimately charged with guiding, and voting on, the new development ordinance.

It’s arguably the most consequential change in development rules in decades for Charlotte, and current council members have expressed frustration with the project’s pace. New council members said they want to speed it up, as well as find a planning director for the city. The interim director has been in place since 2014, and searches haven’t found a permanent replacement.

“That’s got to be a top priority,” said Egleston. “A city of our size that’s changing as rapid as it’s changing and going through a complete rewrite of its zoning code...can’t have somebody who’s not empowered by having that job (permanently).”

Binns, the Sustain Charlotte director, said the new council can bring more urgency to the regulation rewrite, which has been overtaken by the speed of the building boom.

“I really hope we can find some council members who will put a deadline on this process,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be any urgency about getting this done.”

Matt Newton Observer archives

Some City Council members have very specific development concerns to address with their constituents. Egleston was propelled to victory over incumbent Patsy Kinsey in part due to anger over City Council’s rejection of a new pool planned at the VanLandingham Estate.

Matt Newton, who represents much of east Charlotte, said finding someone to develop the long-vacant Eastland site will be a main focus.

“Eastland is the lynchpin,” he said. “Other areas of town have thrived and we’ve been left behind.”

braxton winston_04
New Charlotte City Council at large member Braxton Winston during interview at the Government Center. Diedra Laird

Braxton Winston, a protester-turned-politician who won an at-large seat this year after leading police shooting protests in 2016, said planning has to go beyond zoning and land use. That must include a comprehensive transportation plan, ways to help people find work that lets them afford housing and balances growth with preservation, Winston said.

“It really starts with getting smart about things,” said Winston. “I definitely am excited to bring new flavors, new leadership, new energy. It’s a work in progress.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo