Do Charlotte leaders really know how much traffic a new development will bring?

Traffic on I-77 near Exit 30 at Davidson.
Traffic on I-77 near Exit 30 at Davidson.

With Charlotte in the midst of a record building boom, Charlotte City Council is being asked to approve more and bigger requests from developers for new projects. And when they weigh the costs against the benefits, City Council members rely on estimates from city staff about how many car trips a day, new students for local schools and other impacts those projects will create.

New mounds of red dirt and construction cranes seem to pop up every time you turn around, and many in Charlotte worry about how the city’s infrastructure can handle the influx. Roads such as South Boulevard and Providence Road are clogged at rush hour, not to mention Interstates 77, 485 and 85. Many schools, too, are over-capacity, and each development has the potential to add more students.

So planning staff and City Council are working to identify better ways to understand the effects of their decisions to approve new projects. What they do matters, because it’s often rezoning – an all-important but often stultifying subject – that determines whether that new apartment building or drive-thru restaurant gets built in your neighborhood.

Interim Planning Director Ed McKinney, speaking at a Monday informational meeting for City Council, said staff has been working to “ensure Council has the right information to make decisions.”

When a developer applies to rezone a parcel for a new use – say, changing a tract designated for single-family houses to 300 apartments – planning staff analyze the request and produce estimates of the impacts based on the size of the plan. They’re often very precise.

For example, when a developer applied to build up to 360 apartments at the Pfeiffer University campus on Park Road, planning staff estimated the building would generate 3,900 daily vehicle trips and 28 new students, which would push Selwyn Elementary from 170 percent to 176 percent of capacity. A plan to build 300 new apartments next to Northlake Mall would produce 41 new students and 1,940 vehicle trips per day.

And then there’s the River District, a nearly 1,400-acre development that will bring millions of square feet of offices, shops, and restaurants, along with thousands of new houses and apartments west of Charlotte Douglas International Airport. That development is projected to generate 120,000 vehicle trips per day and 3,047 students.

How accurate will those numbers turn out to be? “There are a lot of questions about the accuracy of those projections,” McKinney said. That’s why city staffers have been examining new ways to better quantify the impact of new developments, he said.

Some of those estimates now in use might be too formulaic and general, he said. The schools, for example, use a formula to figure out how many students might come from a proposed new building. “Not every multifamily project is the same,” said McKinney.

A light rail-adjacent apartment building targeting millennial renters with one-bedroom and studio units probably won’t have nearly as many students as a more suburban, garden-style apartment community with numerous two- and three-bedroom units.

“Those things really dramatically affect the school generation,” said McKinney.

Rather than just present the number of new students and how that would drive up school enrollment percentages, McKinney said staff are looking at characterizing that impact in concrete terms, such as how lunches and gym use would be scheduled.

“We’re working with CMS to find ways to provide you that information,” said McKinney.

And instead of just telling City Council members how many new road trips a new development could generate, McKinney said staff are looking at ways to assess where transportation infrastructure is lacking and roads might be overburdened by new developments.

One challenge that’s not likely to go away even with better information is that while City Council makes rezoning decisions, other key decisions are made by differing governing bodies. So when City Council approves a new housing development, even if they consider how many new students will need a place in the local school system, it’s ultimately up to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education, with funding from the state and Mecklenburg County, to figure out how to accommodate those kids.

Several City Council members said they still want more dialogue with their counterparts on other boards, especially to help identify future school needs.

“I’d just like to see more robust conversations,” said council member Ed Driggs. “I’ve never had a conversation with a school board member in my capacity as a city council member.”

Mayor Jennifer Roberts said another problem is that City Council treats each rezoning request as an individual case, rather than part of a bigger whole. That means you can approve a lot of 200-unit apartment buildings before someone puts together just how many total apartments that equals.

“It’s part of the challenge we have, because when we see individual rezonings we don’t have the whole context,” said Roberts.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo