Opinion

Here’s what Charlotte really, really needs from its 2040 plan

Charlotte's 2040 plan is coming. What will be in it?

What does Charlotte really, really need from its 2040 comprehensive plan?

That’s what we asked a dozen community leaders from different walks of life: Architects and planners, developers and brokers, activists and academics. The Charlotte Future 2040 plan is meant to be, well, comprehensive, covering everything from growth, new construction and zoning regulations to parks, transit and affordable housing. It’s a tall order, and, as with any big plan, there’s a danger of adding so much that the final product lacks focus. 

[Read more: Charlotte looks ahead two decades to plan growth]

So what should the city focus on? In their own words, here’s what these local leaders had to say (Interviews and written responses have been edited for readability and length):

A plan that doesn’t sit on the shelf

David Furman
Architect, principal, Centro City Works

We, as a community, are really good at visioning the future, and laying out ideas for the type of city we would all enjoy living in. What I would like to see as part of the process is a concrete implementation strategy, to keep the document from just checking the box that we did the academic exercise, and putting it on the shelf with all the other vision books we have created.

If we are serious about solving for a more diverse and inclusive housing stock, and a future with minimum car storage (which will be here by then), and other design problems we would like to see solved, then we should not just talk about the novel concepts, but also figure out a real process for getting these objectives actually done. 

And we need to cap the freeway between South End and downtown...Oh yeah...That was in the last two versions.

What do we need? A big, bold goal

Brian Leary
President of commercial and mixed-use development, Crescent Communities

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men (or women's) blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and (daughters) our grandsons (and granddaughters) are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.” Daniel Burnham, the 1909 Plan of Chicago. 

Brian Leary

What does Charlotte really, really need in its plan? Vision, courage and above all, passion. 

One can’t read Daniel Burnham’s famous quote and not sense these traits emanating from the speaker. A “comprehensive plan update” by its very name and nature fails to stir people’s hearts, if even their notice. We must set a defined list of superlative goals for our people and for Charlotte: Most walkable? Most bike friendly? One hundred percent of the city’s population within a half-mile walk to a park? Making Charlotte a global address for arts and culture? 

These goals (and others) can be measured and have already been proven in cities nationwide to positively correlate to civic prosperity. These goals should fit within a mission of providing each and every Charlottean an equitable opportunity to access the physical and natural resources necessary for the highest quality of life. 

An abstract mission is hard for most people to see in the present and even harder to measure in the future. Thousands of trees, miles of bike lanes and paths, hundreds of murals, or options to move about town, to live near where we work and play, to and benefit from a thriving and diverse economy…these are things we can see and benefit from in the present that will allow us to, in turn, realize a brighter future.

A range of choices: Apartments, condos, townhouses, duplexes, single-family

Brenda Hayden
2019 president of the Charlotte Regional Realtor Association/Carolina Multiple Listing Services, Inc.  

The greater Charlotte region has been one of the fastest growing areas in the nation over the last decade.  In fact, the Charlotte Growth Factors report projects that Mecklenburg County will grow by more than 570,000 new residents between 2010 and 2040, adding some 19,000 new residents annually.  Local housing data sources over the past three years show trends pointing to population growth increasingly occurring in the suburbs in the 16 counties surrounding Charlotte, where a myriad housing choices are available at various price points.

Brenda Hayden

With that in mind, it is of utmost importance that Charlotte-Mecklenburg leaders and elected officials continue to approach growth from a regional standpoint.  They must work with the surrounding counties to ensure that infrastructure, connectivity and housing supply are in place so that future homeowners are able to take advantage of all the region has to offer in those areas where they live, work and play. 

It is also important that we continue to build and support aggressive economic strategies that grow jobs and the economy and improve quality of life for both the urban core of Charlotte as well as the rural suburbs that surround it.  National housing statistics show that the share of first-time homebuyers fell to 33 percent in 2018, and it remains below the historical norm of 40 percent of recent primary homebuyers in the market.  This has in turn affected the overall rate of homeownership, which has been in decline since 2004.  

The 2040 comprehensive plan needs to first and foremost ensure that a wide range of housing options exist for residents at all income levels.  It is particularly important that there are opportunities for people purchasing in the affordable price range, or roughly 80 percent of the median income.  This would include compact, urban-style mixed uses, large and small multifamily complexes, condos, townhomes and duplexes, as well as traditional single-family homes.  

Secondary priorities, which generally complement homeownership in all its facets, should focus on increasing transportation choices, commuting and connectivity, and greenways and trails that promote connectivity to parks and open spaces.  All of this should be done with an eye toward regionalization and healthy, measured, well thought-out expansion plans for the entire community, rather than just Charlotte alone.

Retrofit the suburbs

David Walters 
Architect, professor emeritus, UNC Charlotte.

David Walters
  1.  First and foremost,we must address the question of how we make the city more sustainable and resilient – environmentally, socially, and economically. Because we are a successful business city we tend to be far too self-satisfied about our overall condition.
  2. The 2040 plan has to focus its main energies on the suburbs, and deal with retrofitting thesuburbs to create more diversity and sustainability -- by promoting pockets of density and mixed-use. These nodes must accommodate a wider range of housing types: Duplexes,triplexes, quadplexes, townhomes and small condo or apartment buildings of six to eight units. This is the so-called “missing middle.” We have to get real about allowing a wider range of different types of households to build their lives in the suburbs.
  3. We are hopelessly under-equipped to deal with the looming climatic and demographic changes coming in the next 20 years (and beyond). We are far too car-dependent in all aspects of our daily life, and we have built large swaths of our city where it’s impossible to live effectively without a car. These same areas are zoned single-family, which excludes a whole variety of contributing citizens from obtaining footholds on the ladders of economic and social opportunity. Why can’t the people who teach our kids and protect our streets live where we live? Because exclusionary zoning – for expensive single-family homes - keeps them out.
  4. It will take several decades of proactive public policy to work with and steer the private sector into meaningful partnership. Despite what many commentators keep saying, the private sector alone cannot solve the housing crisis.
  5. Public sector policy must lead. I know some people call that “socialism,” but public sector policy played a vital role in building the “American Dream” in the decades after World War II (freeway program, mortgage insurance, tax policy etc.). That agenda was embraced by the American public and was not called socialism. 

A cost/benefit analysis for regulations

Joe Padilla 
Executive director, Real Estate & Building Industry Coalition. 

Joe Padilla

One of the most important things Charlotte needs in its 2040 plan is a vision for how to ensure a wide range of housing options exists for residents at all income levels and all household sizes. We need to provide for housing ranging from condos and apartments to detached single-family homes, townhomes and duplexes. We need to focus on the ‘missing middle’ – housing at medium densities that can provide homeownership opportunities for first-time buyers as well as those looking to downsize.

The comprehensive plan also needs to identify and prioritize policy objectives with some recognition that each one has a cost that will ultimately be borne by a homebuyer, a renter or a business owner. Until we get serious about conducting a cost-benefit analysis on every policy proposal, and consider its impact on affordability, we’ll continue to see housing costs escalate and drive increasing numbers of middle- and working-class residents out of our community.

Finally, the plan needs to incorporate an aggressive infrastructure investment strategy that includes a wide range of transportation options, from wider roads and sidewalks to new transit lines and bike lanes. It also needs to identify a realistic approach for funding these necessary improvements in a way that recognizes the reality of reduced state and federal dollars, and relies instead on local and regional sources of revenue.

Build more equitably - and take transit seriously

Ray McKinnon
Pastor, South Tryon United Methodist Church; Charlotte Housing Authority commissioner

What we need most in this plan is an intentional eye toward equity, an intentional eye toward including folks who are already here - while not excluding the growth that I think is important. You can’t stop 80 people per day from moving to the area, but you can ensure we’re not going to disregard the folks who have historically lived here and have helped to make this such a desirable destination. 

Ray McKinnon

I also think it’s totally important that when we think of transportation we decentralize cars and truly invest in connecting our city to become less car-dependent and more mass-transit dependent. 

I think it’s important to keep top-of-mind the folks who have made Charlotte so desirable, and to preserve the communities that are there. Not in an exclusive way, because growth is inevitable, but to not place barriers in the way of folks who currently reside in these communities from being able to remain there. What we don’t need to do is to do the reverse of white flight, pushing folks out from the center city, out from these close-in neighborhoods.

As neighborhoods are developed, property values increase, they become more desirable, so what they have to pay in property taxes can be something that pushes folks out. Rents will increase, and then a person who has been able to afford in this area, there’s a gap. Are there connections we can make in the city or with nonprofits that can ensure we close those gaps? If folks have lived here for 30 years, and they’re working multiple jobs, they shouldn’t have to become victims of the success of the communities they helped to build. 

We have to see transportation as more than just this idea that it’s desirable for development. It is a lifeline for folks who are maybe at a lower socioeconomic place, who rely heavily on public transportation. 


‘A huge opportunity I hope we don’t waste’

Heidi Pruess
Chair, Mecklenburg Park and Recreation Commission 

I do think the 2040 plan is a fantastic opportunity, if it works out. One of the places I see this opportunity is some awareness of the fact that the city of Charlotte gave up anything to do with parks and recreation years ago when the city and county decided to divide services. 

Heidi Pruess

City planning has not been able to be as hand-in-glove with where parks and recreation fit with planning because of that separation. It would be really great to see in this 2040 plan more about parks than just ‘Look at this other plan.’ We're so disjointed with all these other plans.

How is it that families get to recreate on the weekend without piling a whole bunch of stuff in the car and driving for half an hour? It should provide some mechanism for how do we include parks and recreation. There’s this opportunity for us to realize what it takes to have the kind of park and recreation system we want. That's a huge opportunity I hope we don’t waste.

If you really have a well-organized plan, a meaningful plan, it would also have an implementation component to it. For example: How is it we’re going to connect communities? “We’re going to connect people to where they live, work, go to school by a solid greenway plan, by a solid framework of sidewalks.”

If there’s a “how-to” approach in a plan rather than just “we want these things,” that’s key. I think the how-to is important.

That how-to piece could keep this from being another plan on a shelf, if it’s done in a meaningful way. It’s a big ask, but honestly because of the fact that we’ve done so much planning in our community, folks here are ready to have this conversation.

Preserve “social texture” while allowing development

Astrid Chirinos
Executive director, Simmons YMCA; former president, Latin American Chamber of Commerce of Charlotte 

The east side has been one of the anchors of Charlotte. It was one of those places everyone would come, to the point that's where they put Eastland Mall. People in this side of town want to keep that character - grow, but keep the essence.

We need to expand and strengthen what we have now. We need to create economic development engines that don’t lose that character. It is very important to keep in mind the social texture of an area and work to enhance it, as opposed to repressing it or changing it. We need to be mindful of that, from our city government to our developers and our HOAs and community groups.

I think what’s important is to take into consideration who lives in those areas.The solution for the east is not the same as the south and the north and the west.

We have infrastructure, but we need to make sure it works for all. Not just some. It’s important to be able to have the right platform for accountability and equity. We have a tendency to create all these things, but if you don't provide the access to it, equitable access to it, along with the sustainability, the accountability to keep it going, it's just a Band-Aid.

How are we going to be intentional in using an equity lens? What is the equity test for us? If we don’t continue to build equity, we’re going to go back to being worse than 50th out of 50 (in economic mobility). We don’t have time. This is one of those tipping points.

Design for people, not cars

Shannon Binns
Executive director, Sustain Charlotte

To serve the long-term interests of every Charlottean, these efforts must embrace the tenets of sustainability in order to extend and expand community prosperity. All too often the temptations of short-term gains compromise long-term benefits. For this reason, the plan should seek to modernize our approach to community development and look beyond the planning horizon of 2040. It should consider the needs of future generations a century from now.

Shannon Binns

The vision we adopt will influence the degree with which our community enjoys shared prosperity. Therefore the process for crafting the vision must be equitable and transparent. We applaud the commitment to that goal exhibited thus far by the planning department and other city leaders.

To achieve true sustainability, key goals of Charlotte Future 2040 must include, a focus on the needs of people and an emphasis on building a complete community – rather than advancing development at the lowest cost.

This will require clear goals to create a community that is:

  • Safe. Roadways and developments designed for people not just cars.
  • Efficient. A compact development pattern that protects our natural ecosystems and reduces cost of maintenance and public services.
  • Competitive. A robust, well-trained work force that is well connected to jobs.
  • Affordable. A place where a diversity of housing and transportation options increases affordability and reduces strains on existing infrastructure.
  • Active. Premier parks and greenways distributed throughout our city that offer the opportunity for enjoyment and a healthy lifestyle.
  • Connected. Closes the gaps between people and places, neighborhoods and amenities, and opportunities to celebrate the diversity of our community.
  • Low Carbon. A compact development pattern, a mixture of land uses, safe bicycle and pedestrian networks, and an efficient transit system will all be critical to becoming a low carbon community and reducing our contribution to climate change.

The goals above run contrary to Charlotte’s post-World War II development pattern, which focused on the separation of land uses, moving cars, and short-term financial gains for some. But the city lives long after our lives end; we owe it to future generations, and their prosperity, to keep longer-term goals top of mind.

The 2040 comprehensive plan recently approved for Minneapolis shows what Charlotte could do. Minnesota’s largest city will prohibit zoning that limits many neighborhoods to single-family construction, abolish parking minimums for new construction, and allow high-density buildings along transit corridors. This will lead to more affordable housing, fewer carbon emissions, more economic mobility, and less neighborhood segregation by race and class. Facing opposition similar to what we are likely to see in Charlotte, civic and political leaders in Minneapolis came together, resolving to build their city around people, not cars, from now on.

Affordable housing, technology and implementation

Rob Brooks 
Architect; one of the authors of the #ShapeCLT Millennial Plan at UNC Charlotte

We asked people in Charlotte that same question, with three chalkboards. One of the prompts was “I wish Charlotte had,”  or “I wish Charlotte still had.” We got thousands of different responses. We looked at those and found commonalities between them, but it really depends on who you ask.

What I saw was people want affordable housing, especially in today’s market. Affordable housing and economic mobility are probably the hardest, but also the most important. But you can’t just put affordable housing and economic development on a plan like you can put a light rail station or a physical park. It’s harder than that, because it’s something you can't touch.

We need to design the 2040 plan to create more ecomonic mobility, and affordability housing is part of that. Public transit helps with economic mobility. If people living in affordable units can’t get to work or they can't get to a grocery store, it doesn’t work. We looked at things like free public WiFi. Downtown Belmont has just launched free public wifi, so why can’t we? We need to look at technological ways to enhance economic mobility. We need to focus on ways to implement newer technologies in the city.

The planning process with City Council and the Planning Commission needs to be more integrated. You can’t have a good plan without a good political structure to make it happen.We have to reevaluate our system.

Above all, clear priorities and focus

Tobe Holmes
Planning and Development Director, University City Partners

Tobe Holmes

The 2040 Plan really, really needs to garner commitment to unwavering priorities and defined areas of focus.

The words of NYC’s Parks and Recreation Commissioner, Mitchell Silver, still ring loud from his visit last year, “Do you want to be a deal-making city or a planning city?” Without a doubt, deal making is part our city’s DNA. And while there is not necessarily a correct answer, this question does represent the countless options, trade-offs and realities that the work of the 2040 Plan needs to consider in order to set a steadfast and shared vision for future investments and policy goals.

All too often visionary planning efforts attempt to be everything to everyone with an outcome aimed at achieving unanimous approval rather than consensus. We aim to direct resources with intentionality, but a litany of vaguely worded goals leaves us wondering what to measure decisions against. Hopefully, the 2040 Plan will not follow that model, attempting to speak to everyone’s personal vision of the QC.

I believe the ideal outcome is a set of clear goals developed through inclusivity, where we collectively recognize the trade-offs that were made along the way, and we all understand why it is the best path for Charlotte’s future. Regardless of where this work leads – one thing is certain; it will take a consistent and concerted level of effort to define our collective priorities and then to see them through implementation. It will take
tremendous discipline and capital, particularly if it asks us to change our persona from say – being a city built on deals to a city built on planning.