Development

Charlotte searches for a new planning director as growth gallops on

Proponents and opponents of a rezoning petition that would allow subsidized low-income apartments at Weddington Road in 2014. The petition passed. The incoming Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Director will face many issues, including a total overhaul of the rezoning process, gentrification remaking older neighborhoods, a record wave of apartment building and traffic and transportation needs piling up on Charlotte’s major thoroughfares.
Proponents and opponents of a rezoning petition that would allow subsidized low-income apartments at Weddington Road in 2014. The petition passed. The incoming Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Director will face many issues, including a total overhaul of the rezoning process, gentrification remaking older neighborhoods, a record wave of apartment building and traffic and transportation needs piling up on Charlotte’s major thoroughfares. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

When Charlotte picks a new planning director, that person will step into their office with a long to-do list.

Officials had aimed to have a permanent director in place six months ago, by May, but the first search didn’t pan out.

“We had three good candidates in the last round but the interview panel unanimously decided that we didn’t have the right candidate; and therefore decided to continue the search process,” said city spokeswoman Traci Ethridge. The city had paid executive search firm Waters & Company $14,260 for recruiting help, but city human resources staff restarted the search for candidates without outside consultants.

Now, the city hopes to have a permanent planning director by the end of the year. City Manager Ron Carlee is overseeing the process and will make the hiring decision. The city declined to make anyone available for an interview.

Interim Planning Director Ed McKinney has held the post since former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Director Debra Campbell was named assistant city manager in September 2014.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Director oversees planning, zoning, land use and development for Charlotte and unincorporated areas of the county. The department has a $5.7 million budget and more than 60 employees. The new planning director will have the chance to put their stamp on the city’s face for decades to come, as development floods into Charlotte and building booms.

Walter Fields, a longtime Charlotte planning and development consultant, said he wishes the selection process had been more open after the first slate of candidates was discarded.

“Since then, no one seems to know or be willing to say what’s going on. I find it sort of strange,” said Fields. He stressed that the planning staff has continued to do good work, but said the lack of a permanent leader in place could make it harder for them to take on larger projects.

The new planning director will face competing demands from diverse constituencies. Developers are frustrated the rezoning process has bogged down and often takes many months. Neighborhood groups are upset that the legislature banned protest petitions, which they could use to oppose developments. Many now feel they don’t have a voice in what gets built next door. Gentrification is reshaping old neighborhoods. Charlotte City Council is planning to launch a total rewrite of the zoning code, a four-year process that could fundamentally change the ground rules for using land.

And through it all, Charlotte is expected to keep shooting up like a teenager hitting a growth spurt, with a record number of apartments under construction, office towers sprouting across the city and traffic threatening to grow worse.

Growth comes with challenges

One of the immediate issues facing the planning director will be the rezoning process, which has been gummed up by a surge of new projects. Barely half of rezoning requests – requests to change the use of a piece of land, say from houses to retail – make it through the process in the city’s goal of four months. Nearly one in five takes seven months or more for a decision. That can raise costs for developers, and city officials want to speed the process up.

“Managing the flow of incoming applications is going to have to really be priority number one for anybody coming in. We certainly don’t see any slowdown on the horizon,” said Joe Padilla, executive public policy director for the Charlotte-based Real Estate & Building Industry Coalition.

Fields said he hopes the new planning director will step back and look at a comprehensive plan for the whole city. He worked on a citywide plan 30 years ago, but said since then, much of the planning has been focused on individual areas – and many of those are now out-of-date. And major infrastructure projects that were once just a dream, like the light rail, streetcar, airport expansion and I-485, are now a reality.

“We do little pieces of plans, a plan over here, a plan over there...We haven’t really stepped back and looked at the big picture for a long time, and a lot has changed,” said Fields. “Those are fundamental planning questions that need to be addressed in fairly short order.”

I don’t know that we know right now what we’re needing to fix and why...We sort of have one foot on the boat and one foot on the dock.

Walter Fields, longtime planner, on Charlotte’s overhaul of its zoning code.

Rewriting the city’s zoning code will be a longer-term project. The ordinance, which sets the rules about what land can be used for, is 23 years old and runs to 830 pages, with 109 separate zoning designations. The code is widely seen as outdated and focused on separating uses such as office and residential.

That goes against the current trend of mixed-use developments, which feature housing, retail, offices, restaurants and other uses all combined in the same project. The overhaul is set to kick off early next year.

“It’s critical, before any rewrite starts, to have a director in place,” said Padilla.

Some want to see a planning director focused on implementing the plans the city already has. Martin Zimmerman, an urban transportation planner, said the city’s development plans for transit corridors continuing to get more dense and urban while infill development grows close to uptown is already coming true.

“We’ve got the vision. We need somebody who can implement it effectively, vigorously and equitably,” said Zimmerman. He also thinks the new planning director should focus on raising the standards for urban design in Charlotte – think requiring more street level retail and pedestrian-friendly corridors – and tie those standards in with the overhauled zoning code.

Tom Low, an architect and former member of the city’s planning commission, said he thinks it will be important for the new planning director to understand urban design and the nitty-gritty of creating new projects, not just high-level policy. And he said the new planning director should connect with people outside the development community.

“The architects and planners don’t connect with the public,” said Low. “It’s going to take someone who’s very dynamic to fill that role.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

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