Can Charlotte residents get used to development that looks different from what they’re used to – new houses on small lots instead of large lots, more apartments and condos? Charlotte Planning Director Debra Campbell, in a recent interview, described that as one of the challenges Charlotte faces in coming years.
Another, she said, is to revise the city’s zoning ordinance so that it helps, not hinders, bringing city planning visions to life. She cited a “huge cavern” of disconnection between regulatory codes, which are legally enforceable, and plans and visions, which are not.
Campbell, planning director since 2004, has spent the past three years watching the city keep growing even during the worst economic downtown since the Great Depression. With a painful joblessness rate– Mecklenburg’s rate in February was 10 percent, worse than many other U.S. cities – people continue to move here. From 2008 to 2010 Charlotte’s population grew by an estimated 46,400 people, almost 7 percent.
• Related article: Charlotte to take a new look at its aging code
Development slowed, but didn’t stop. In 2010 and 2011 Charlotte’s Planning Department approved at least 1,703 multifamily units and 251 single-family lots. That’s a drop from the boom years: In 2004, for instance, her department issued subdivision approvals for 4,307 single-family home lots (covering 1,355 acres) and 2,568 multifamily units.
The changes in growth, demographics and economy bring their own challenges. Can the city grow more compactly, in a way that’s more prudent both fiscally and environmentally? Will Charlotte residents, many of them comfortable with half- or quarter-acre lots in neighborhoods of nothing but single-family homes, adjust to a more urban-style future?
PlanCharlotte.org director Mary Newsom recently interviewed Campbell about growth in Charlotte. An edited transcript:
Q. You’ve been planning director since 2004. You’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly in growth, with “ugly” being the severe downturn. Are you seeing development pick up or are things still as slow?
A. We’re seeing improvement in multifamily [apartments and condos]. We’re not seeing improvement in single-family. I believe that’s for a variety of reasons. We already have a fairly significant supply of single-family that’s vacant. But we are seeing a pretty good uptick in multifamily. For multifamily, it’s been since the end of 2010. And we’re seeing more this year.
Q. What’s the biggest growth challenge for Charlotte that isn’t obvious?
A. It may be the return to smaller-lot development. I don’t know that our community is aware of the challenges in the future to continue to develop in the manner we have traditionally developed, with quarter-acre lots, single-family homes. I just don’t think that’s going to be what the market will want. It may come back to fairly large-lot development, but I don’t think that’s in the near term.
That will be something different, adjacent to a community where the zoning may be R-3 [three houses per acre] and the developers’ desire is to have R-6 [six houses per acre]. That’s the wave of the future: a variety of housing types, smaller-lot development. The challenge is the community’s acceptance of it.
Q. I asked about the ugly. What’s been the “good” in Charlotte since 2004?
A. The good has been a trend, even in our go-go years, toward the mixing of uses and development in areas where we want it to occur – in our transit corridors and our major activity centers, SouthPark for example. It happened a lot sooner than we had anticipated, in terms of the sheer amounts. And Ballantyne has emerged as a truly mixed-use center.
Q. Charlotte’s a city of mostly suburban form that’s trying to become a more urban place. In a 2004 interview you said your pet peeve about Charlotte was that the community didn’t have a clear definition and understanding of what it meant to become urban. Is that still the case?
A. Yes. I think most of our citizenry think of urban as “density,” instead of meaning a compact, walkable, mixture of uses.
Q. With the benefit of hindsight, what decisions do you wish Charlotte-Mecklenburg had made differently in the past 30 years?
A. I wish we had been a lot more strategic in where we allowed retail and commercial development, particularly the “power center” trend in the late 1990s. That commercial model has created a lot of the abandonment and decline of a number of our business corridors. I wish that hadn’t happened, at least as frequently as it did.
Second, I wish we could have started reducing the number cul-de-sacs in new communities. I wish we had gotten that ordinance passed sooner.
Q. It’s no secret that for years in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, there’s been a cadre of local developers that have weakened or stalled all kinds of environmental and growth-management initiatives. In the 1980s it was the attempt to use sewer service to reduce sprawl. They just crushed that. They fought floodplain regulations. More recently they stalled the Urban Street Design Guidelines. Do you see that same influence at work today?
A. I would hate to say – because this would sound extremely naïve of me – that the development community doesn’t have a loud and influential voice in the development and planning process in our community. Are they the end-all and be-all? No, and I hope that they weren’t, even when things were stalled or didn’t get approved as quickly as we would have wanted.
|“I look at this process as more like a chess game...”|
I look at this process as more like a chess game – how can staff create the compelling technical reason for advancing a policy or an ordinance? Often we have been able to develop compelling arguments for certain aspects of an ordinance or a planning policy. For others we think we don’t have as strong an argument, so maybe, so let’s delay that aspect and take a run at it at a different time.
I’m an incrementalist. I want to make sure that not just the development community, but citizens and business organizations and folks understand why there is a need for an ordinance or policy. Certainly I want our City Council to look back and say, as part of their legacy, I’m glad we did that then.
10. What do you see happening that intrigues you elsewhere in the Charlotte region or across the Carolinas?
What intrigues me is more related to processes. For example, as of late a number of communities have gone to unified development ordinances [putting ordinances that affect land development, such as zoning and subdivision ordinances, into one place]. That’s a tremendous process improvement. The customer has one place to go and find all the related things that regulate development.
|“I don’t want Charlotte to just follow a trend because it’s the buzzword in the planning field.”|
I’m also intrigued by residential design guidelines and standards. Obviously there’s an issue in North Carolina whether that’s authorized under zoning codes. I think it is. We have people who think it’s not.
Q. What innovative planning tools have you heard about in recent years that you’d like to see Charlotte consider?
A. Everybody has read about form-based codes. [Form-based codes pay more attention to the size and shape of buildings and public spaces, and focus less on the uses inside and worry less about separating uses from one another.] I don’t know that I’m advocating that Charlotte convert to a form-based code but I certainly think we should investigate the possibility of creating some districts that would be more form-based.
Q. Raleigh’s proposed new code is a hybrid – some of it is form-based zoning, some of it isn’t. Do you think that might be a legitimate choice for Charlotte?
A. Certainly. I think it is something we need to investigate.
We’re asking a consultant to do that for us: to look at what our vision for Charlotte is and then make sure our regulatory tools achieve the development vision we have for our community.
I don’t want Charlotte to just follow a trend because it’s the buzzword in the planning field. I want us to truly look at innovative regulatory tools out there and see whether they support our vision. That’s really, really important to me – to have regulatory and implementation tools aligned with where we want our community to be.
Form-based codes are a legitimate regulatory tool. Our peer communities have looked at this tool – Denver, Nashville. We should definitely consider the possibility, and do some analysis.
Q. Talk a bit more about that study of the zoning ordinance.
A. The first phase is to inventory our planning policy – look through the Centers, Corridors and Wedges policy, through our area plans. Communities here have spent a lot of time thinking about who and what they want to be when they grow up, 20-30 years from now. But what we have found with our existing zoning ordinance is that there’s a huge cavern of disconnect when it comes to our ability to implement a lot of the planning policy.
This policy assessment will look at different types of code – performance-based, use-based, form-based. Raleigh has a combination. Denver, I think, went all the way to form-based; Miami is all the way form-based. I think Nashville has some aspects of form-based.
In the second phase, we would engage the community in a discussion of the pros and cons of each of those approaches.
What I don’t see is a wholesale rewrite of the zoning ordinance. Whatever we do will be done incrementally. We might take a couple of districts, create changes for those districts, see how those work, and move incrementally with other districts, if needed.
Q. What’s your thinking on doing it incrementally, rather than the way, say, Miami did it as a big overall rewrite?
A. First, I really don’t have the staff resources. Second, I don’t know which direction we’re going to go. A text amendment to the zoning ordinance, even a simple one, takes us from six months to a year. So a wholesale rewrite of the zoning ordinance would be a commitment of I’m not sure how many years.
The last time we rewrote the zoning ordinance in ’92 it took us a very long time.
Q. It seemed to me, the last time, that it not only took a long time but there was a lot of scar tissue left at the end of the process.
A. Rewriting codes is probably the most difficult part of the planning profession. It’s technical, not visionary. You don’t have a whole lot of room to make mistakes. You’ve got to have the resources to devote the time. We always are ambitious and sometimes probably naïve in estimating the level of effort – or what’s going to be controversial. Most of the time we think, “Ah, this should be a slam dunk.” And most of the time it isn’t.
For example, transit-oriented development zoning districts. We thought, we’re providing density increases, we’re reducing parking, surely the developers will love this. I mean density by right! You don’t even have to go through a rezoning if the land is zoned TOD. No. The development community found issues with it; the neighborhoods found issues with it. Developers thought we were forcing them to a more expensive type of construction – going from surface parking to structured parking, for instance. And the neighborhoods worried that if you reduce parking it would spill over into their community.
When you are creating something new in the community, how far can you go? It’s generally a transition. I think communities have to evolve and grow into the market, where the community gets comfortable with not having any parking spaces. We can have a vision and we can want the idea, but the market will push back.
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