Unfinished business for new city of Charlotte leaders

The Observer editorial board

A record number of new apartments are under construction in Charlotte.
A record number of new apartments are under construction in Charlotte. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

When Charlotte’s new mayor and City Council are sworn in on Monday, they will find a number of pressing issues waiting for them.

“Planning and zoning” likely won’t strike most taxpayers as the first major challenge the new leadership should tackle, but few issues rank higher in importance to the city’s long-term health.

That’s because fast-growing Charlotte stands at a critical juncture. The pace of post-recession development is quickening, opening once-sleepy sectors like North Tryon Street to new possibilities. Even revered and – dare we say it, “funky” – local hotspots such as the Common Market in South End are getting squeezed out as developers rush to build bigger, newer properties.

That’s why Mayor-elect Jennifer Roberts and the new council must make it a top priority to bring order to the city’s still-unsettled $5.7 million planning and zoning operation. Former planning director Debra Campbell won promotion to assistant city manager well over a year ago, in September 2014, but interim director Ed McKinney is still minding the shop.

The city paid search firm Waters & Company $14,260 to find Campbell’s permanent successor, but scrapped that search after deciding it didn’t like the candidates produced. Now the city has started looking again, without consultants.

While the city’s search seems stuck in low gear, development is shifting into overdrive. The planning department is struggling to keep pace with incoming rezonings. Barely half of rezoning requests make it through the process within the city’s goal of four months.

This is serious business. We’re building a record number of apartments across the center city, many of which look depressingly similar, and distressingly bland. At a recent board meeting for Charlotte Center City Partners, Tobe Holmes, director of Historic South End, pointed to buildings that lack street-level entrances and fences that cut off the sidewalk. It is time, he suggested, “to rethink some things” in the popular neighborhood.

Without clear leadership on zoning, that pattern will repeat itself. The city is rewriting its 23-year-old zoning code, but the process could take up to four years. The city’s leaders need to heed the mistakes past councils and mayors have made in crafting regional zoning guidelines, only to let them grow stale and instead make seat-of-the-pants, case-by-case deviations at the request of each new developer.

It’s no way to run the second fastest-growing big city in America.

Mayor-elect Roberts and the new council members need to press staff to get a new planning director aboard by early next year, if not sooner. Then, they need to hammer out a new zoning vision and stick to it – even if that means ticking off an influential developer or ten.