From his office on the eight floor of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, Charlotte’s new planning director Taiwo Jaiyeoba looks out over the cranes that signify Charlotte’s building boom.
Jaiyeoba – a self-described planning geek who sometimes rides the train or buses for fun – started his job in January, after working as a consultant and planner from cities in Botswana to Sacramento, Calif., and Atlanta. A native of Nigeria who came to the U.S. in 1996, he’s now charged with planning how to handle Charlotte’s growth, as well as rewriting the city’s outdated rules about zoning and land use.
His vision could shape how Charlotte grows for a generation or more, and his appointment comes as the city wrestles with increased traffic, how to fund $6 billion or more of transit needs and a boom that’s led to enormous growth but also caused rent and home prices to soar.
Jaiyeoba, 49, is the first permanent planning director Charlotte’s had since former planning director Debra Campbell was named assistant city manager in September 2014. Jaiyeoba and his wife have seven daughters, and the family relocated to Charlotte in 2015. In an interview with the Observer, Jaiyeoba explained why he fell in love with city planning.
“Once the planning bug bites you, it leaves its effect on you permanently,” said Jaiyeoba. “All of a sudden you realize you can affect communities.”
The biggest task on Jaiyeoba’s agenda: Rewriting the city’s approximately 1,000-pages worth of zoning codes, along with the half-dozen other ordinances that govern what can be built where, what kind of sidewalks are required, tree protections and more. The resulting document, called a unified development ordinance, is expected to be ready for Charlotte City Council to adopt in June 2020, the culmination of a process that started in 2013 with an assessment of the city’s needs.
Here’s Jaiyeoba’s take on some of the biggest issues facing Charlotte, and the role planning will play in them – along with why his love of neighborhoods ties back to “Sesame Street”:
Planning Charlotte’s growth
“I’m a big-picture person,” said Jaiyeoba. “Planning touches everything. Everything.... You can’t just look at this building. How does it affect everything around it?”
Jaiyeoba said one of his priorities will be community involvement in updating the city’s development regulations, starting with a summit on March 24 and a series of meetings to gather input and bounce ideas off people.
“Planning should involve a community. The worst types of planning that we do is planning we do in the building,” he said. “The likelihood is that people will push back if they feel their voices have not been heard.”
Jaiyeoba said he also plans to look to other cities where he’s lived and worked, such as Nashville, Tenn., and Atlanta, to avoid pitfalls, especially around traffic.
“Atlanta’s Achilles’ heel is its traffic,” said Jaiyeoba. “And that’s something we don’t want to run...We do not want to grow without growing smart. The ideal situation is for infrastructure to match development, but it doesn’t often happen that way.”
Charlotte’s development rules
The alphabet soup of zoning rules that spell out what developers can build where – full of jargon like R-3, MUDD-O and TOD – is often inscrutable to people who aren’t professional planners, developers or land-use attorneys. Jaiyeoba said a major goal of the new unified development ordinance is to simplify those rules and replace jargon with clear, simple pictures.
“That backpack over there is filled with the old zoning documents,” said Jaiyeoba, pointing to a bulging black bag. “It’s a back-breaker.
“A picture is more explanatory than 1,000 words sometimes. We’re going to use as many visuals as possible of what we have in our community right now that look like places we want to create,” he said.
Some members of City Council criticized the project’s pace last year. Jaiyeoba said he understands the frustration – as a consultant, clients would ask him why they were throwing resources at a project if the timeline kept slipping – and he’s assigning a dedicated project manager to keep it on track.
“Council is right to be asking that question,” said Jaiyeoba. He said the speed of the process is partially determined by the need to devise detailed definitions for a new series of “place types,” such as neighborhoods, business centers and transit-oriented districts.
“By the time it’s adopted in 2020, we don’t want to come back to the council in two years and say we want to amend this,” he said.
Big infrastructure plans
“I foresee a future where we can actually be asking some things of developers. We’re already doing that to some extent but not on a big scale,” said Jaiyeoba. He said those asks could include paying for more infrastructure. “Why do I have to have a development here, but nobody’s building a sidewalk? Something has to give. Open space? Contribution to a light rail station, or a bus rapid transit station?”
Jaiyeoba said funding major infrastructure projects could also take the form of more local or regional referendums, such as Denver’s eight-county sales tax that paid for its new, regional rail system.
“Funding will definitely be a challenge. We want the big things, but somebody’s got to pay for them,” he said. “I truly believe that if you can show people what’s in it for them and push that value proposition, people will support you. Regional referendums could be passed because people can see what’s in it for them.”
“I worked for an elected official years ago who made a statement I always remember: When visitors come to your town there are two places that stand out for them, your airport and your downtown,” said Jaiyeoba. “I truly believe that we should be connecting the airport, and therefore the west side becomes very, very critical in terms of transit and land use.”
Expanding transit offers the chance to plan for development that will work well around train, streetcar and dedicated bus lanes in Charlotte, Jaiyeoba said.
“I believe transit should not be so much following development as development plans should be in place to support transit,” he said. “What we do now is try to catch up.”
‘Sesame Street’ lessons
Jaiyeoba said his love for neighborhoods grew from two sources: His close-knit community growing up in Nigeria and a television show set in a friendly neighborhood.
“I was a ‘Sesame Street’-raised kid,” he said. “Who are the people in your neighborhood? The people you talk to everyday. A neighborhood is the soul of any community.”
He said one of his priorities will be strengthening the links between uptown and surrounding neighborhoods.
Charlotte is adding about 44 residents a day, according to estimates. But that doesn’t mean they’ll all choose to stay, Jaiyeoba said.
“The likelihood of losing those people will hinge on whether we’re doing things forward, or standing still, or doing things the way we used to do them,” he said. “I have a 23-year-old. daughter who will not move to an environment where she can’t take transit to work.”
“Are we able to keep them?” he said. “We can’t just assume that because they’re moving they’ll stay.”
Taiwo Jaiyeoba, Charlotte planning director
Family: Wife and seven daughters
Education: Master of science degree, urban and regional planning; bachelor of science degree, geography; Both from Obafemi Awolowo University (Ife University) in Nigeria
Most recent job: HNTB Corporation, associate vice president/regional business development
Pronunciation guide: TIE-woe Jah-ee-OH-ba.