Growth & Planning

What Charlotte needs to grow into a great city

Construction on Stonewall Street in Charlotte, NC

In more than three decades since she moved to the city, UNC Charlotte professor Deb Ryan has seen a lot of changes. 

She’s also helped guide those changes, as chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission, founder of the Charlotte Community Design Studio, and a professor of architecture and urban design who led design work and consulted on various plans in Charlotte and cities across the U.S. 

And at Charlotte City Council’s annual retreat in January, Ryan said she thinks it’s time for the city to raise its expectations of developers. 

“We’re not the needy little city we used to be,” Ryan said. 

We sat down with Ryan to ask what she thinks about Charlotte’s growth, and what the city needs from its new developments now. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

You said we’re not a “needy little city” anymore. Was Charlotte that city when you moved here?

Prof. Deb Ryan, UNC Charlotte College of Arts + Architecture.

I remember when I moved here it was in the 1980s, and Tryon [now McColl] Center was still a burned-out shell. It didn’t seem that anybody lived uptown at all. After 5 o’clock it was dead, and just a real ghostland. It was like an office park.

The only thing it really had going for it seemed to be Tryon Street, which has always been a nice street. And so, not unlike lots of cities at that time, it was just not a place people wanted to be outside of coming to work. And, as I used to tell my students, it was one of the most unique cities in the world, because very few cities had bank lobbies on their streets, just one after another, and almost no retail. So it was unique, and not necessarily in a good way. We had a very long way to go.

We were the recipients of really great leadership like Hugh McColl, Jim Palermo and Dennish Rash at Bank of America, and their vision for what the city could become. They understood in order to attract workers they needed to make the city not just more attractive, but livable and full of vitality, exciting. They understood why they needed to invest in the city. I remember Jim Palermo saying once, if we were just investing our money to make the most money, we never would have done it.

But it was the best investment in terms of attracting people to the city. And I’ve got to wonder, actually, after all this time, if it wasn’t a great investment. 

I would bet if you ran the numbers it turned out just fine. 

And so, we had some real leadership shown by the banks. But the city seemed to sort of follow the lead of the banks. It seemed like sort of a patriarchal city in that sense. It’s not that there wasn’t good stuff going on, but there seemed always to be this reticence to get out ahead of things, because we might ask for too much. 

Do you think there’s still a hesitation, an unspoken fear, that if we ask for too much developers might go away and Charlotte’s boom would go “poof” and disappear?

I don’t think we saw ourselves as a potentially great city. And because of that, we didn’t ask people to help us build a great city, because we thought it would be asking too much. And what I keep saying is we’re the sixteenth-largest city in the U.S. We ought to be a great city. That’s what our expectation should be of the people who want to build our city for us.

For me, the difficulty is that we have not been clear with developers about what we want, because I’m not sure we know what we want. Because of that, it’s often been frustrating for developers, because they didn’t know what to expect when they came to town. I think what developers most want is clarity. What are the rules of the game? What do you want? Then they can figure out whether or not they can provide that.

Mitchell Silver came to town years ago and said there are plan-making cities and there are deal-making cities. And we’re a deal-making city. And that’s absolutely true because of all the conditional rezonings. But those are problematic, because the developer comes in and they don’t really know what they’re going to be asked to produce. There’s a lot of wiggle room. 

With the efforts underway to create a new comprehensive plan and unified development ordinance for Charlotte, are you hopeful that we’re moving beyond that era of being afraid to ask for more?

I think [Assistant City Manager and Chief City Planner] Taiwo Jaiyeoba is smart and talented, and will do great things. But he is dealing with this incredible legacy in the city of reticence and fear of controversy. It’s very hard, I think, for him to overcome that ingrained position. A few years ago when I was chair of the planning commission, we started talking about loosening the guidelines for single-family neighborhoods, so you could have duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes.

At the time, for staff, it was a non-starter. They said that the folks in Charlotte would just not hear of it. And so then Minneapolis came along, and changed their single-family zoning. They basically said in terms of economic opportunity, this is discriminatory, we can’t have it and we’re not going to do this anymore. The problem for us was that conversation never made it to City Council, because we couldn’t push past staff to elevate it. Could we have jumped over them? Yeah, but we’re polite in Charlotte so we tend not to do those things. [Under Jaiyeoba, the planning department has started examining the elimination of single-family-only zoning in Charlotte, but the proposal hasn’t made it to council yet.]

But I think that reticence, or that fear of controversy, has for so long defined how the city has done things. We have public meeting after public meeting. We can’t fear the loud and the small. 

Do we need to move past that fear to change development in the city?

Perhaps it’s because of my academic background, but I think controversy is not a bad thing. It’s a good conversation to have. No matter what you do, especially if it’s out of the ordinary or unknown locally, someone is going to object to it. Somebody is going to hate it. From my perspective, we need to think of civic engagement as consensus-building and public education to help people understand the ramifications of their choices. 

Should we allow that new Walmart? Well, let’s look at it rationally. We have to guide the conversation to known ramifications and then decide which matter to us. We spend so much time talking about traffic. You don’t go to Rome or Paris or New York or San Francisco because they’re easy to drive through. That matters, but it should not be at the top of the pyramid in terms of decision-making. And here in Charlotte, too often it has been. 

But that’s like other cities too. 

What does “asking for more” actually look like in Charlotte? 

I think first and foremost it’s a more developed pedestrian environment. For example, we still have cars behind bars, when you have podium parking and the parking is on the first level and the housing is up above. Walking by cars, especially if they’re behind bars, is not a great pedestrian experience. And neither are houses with garage fronts.

Now, this has gotten way better in places like South End. But when they build apartment or condo buildings, the ground floor really really matters in terms of how it activates or doesn’t activate the sidewalk. Requiring ground floor units to actually have access the sidewalk — you might say why is that important? Well, we know what makes streets safe is people on them. So if you have everyone funneling in one doorway on one side of the building we don’t get people on the street in front of it. But if we have multiple entrances on that first floor, then we get people on the street. And maybe we build steps, stoops and porches people want to hang out on.

Then you have people not just walking out their door, but hanging out in front of their home on the street. And that’s what makes it safe. 

We should consider more, even in terms of even where parking lots occur. Years ago, David Walters and others were able to talk the north Mecklenburg towns into requiring all the parking lots to go behind the building. And it was a sea change. An absolute sea change. Here in Charlotte, we don’t necessarily require that. Now, in a conditional rezoning we may ask for it. But if you have a gas station, the pumps can go out front. You can’t do that in the north Mecklenburg towns.

Now, the argument is well if they can’t see the pumps, they don’t know we have gas. Well, that’s silly. But we still sort of have that mentality of putting the building in the back and the parking up front. What we need to do is ask developers to put the parking in the back and the building up front, so we can have that pedestrian environment. 

The city’s going to grow. We’re not going to stop growth, nor should we.