4 stumbling blocks Charlotte’s big 2040 growth plan had to avoid as it nears approval

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Charlotte City Council members face a high-stakes vote during Monday’s zoning meeting: adopting the 2040 Comprehensive Plan.

The land-use document, which attempts to formulate an equitable yet aspirational path for the city’s growth and development over the next two decades, was originally planned for approval in late April. But deliberations and adjustments devolved in March.

Several years in the making, the plan is widely expected to be approved by a 6-5 vote. In the plan’s final stretch, several Council members recounted to The Charlotte Observer a series of stumbling blocks that imperiled the 134-page document ahead of the vote.

The process pitted Council members against each other and city employees, plus residents they are trying to protect through new affordable housing and economic development tactics.

In hindsight, though, Assistant City Manager and Planning Director Taiwo Jaiyeoba told the Observer he wouldn’t change much about the 2040 planning process — except for making public engagement “broader and even more innovative.”

Disagreements among city leaders were inevitable, he said during an exclusive interview with the Observer Friday.

“Doing something so new, so groundbreaking, so different, it was expected it would be like this,” Jaiyeoba said. “I don’t know how you build unanimity around something that has not been done like this before in a long time...You’re going to have a bumpy ride.”

Life for Charlotteans will not look much different Tuesday morning, even if Council does allow multifamily units to be built in traditionally single-family neighborhoods, among other thorny decisions embedded in the plan.

For its part, though, Charlotte’s Planning Committee unanimously approved the final draft of the plan this week, ahead of the City Council vote.

“I don’t see us torpedoing this whole thing,” said Council member Greg Phipps, who cast a deciding straw vote on the plan last month. “Too much work has been done over the past several years to do that.”

Here’s a closer look at the biggest issues that preceded the vote.

Ahead of their vote on Charlotte’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan, Council members reflect on recent hurdles and feuding.
Ahead of their vote on Charlotte’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan, Council members reflect on recent hurdles and feuding.

COVID-19

Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt said there was one huge hurdle in Council getting to vote on the 2040 plan: the coronavirus pandemic.

“Honestly, the ability to not get together and talk about things has been hard,” Eiselt said of collaborating with her colleagues.

In 2018 when city planners launched public outreach for the 2040 plan, they were operating in a pre-pandemic world, where community meetings and interactive games were all possible. But last Halloween, while contending with coronavirus safety protocols, they released the plan during a drive-through event.

Until last month, most City Council meetings and public hearings happened remotely, with technology glitches only exacerbating strained conversations.

Duplexes and triplexes

Jaiyeoba, the city’s planning director, joked recently that the policy allowing multifamily homes is the “most popular” component of the 2040 plan.

In reality, it is the most contentious, and could be the breaking point for multiple Council members.

The policy, attempting to diversify and expand Charlotte’s affordable housing stock, allows duplexes and triplexes to be built in traditionally single-family neighborhoods. If Council, as expected, accepts the Planning Committee’s recommendation, small footprint homes and accessory dwelling are permissible in those neighborhoods, too.

Opponents, including Council member Ed Driggs, said it will only accelerate gentrification in vulnerable residents or affect the character of their neighborhoods. That’s despite the creation of an anti-displacement commission, charged with developing new strategies and tracking metrics to ensure that doesn’t happen.

”It’s a very radical measure, and it has all kinds of implications,” Driggs said. “The people who like (the policy) are motivated by the feeling that it will address segregation that took place in the past... Right now, the plan says the right amount of single-family (neighborhoods) is zero.”

Council member Tariq Bokhari wants to remove all references to single-family zoning in the plan — until the city can “figure out what we’re doing down the road.”

But Eiselt said some people are overlooking a critical point point. She does not support creating single-family-only zoning designations since they do not exist in Charlotte now.

The 2040 plan supports more flexibility among housing types, she said, though not every parcel of city land will be impacted. “That criteria and standards are being worked on, but they haven’t been approved,” Eiselt said.

Community benefits agreements

Though not as disputed as housing types, there’s another big deal-breaker for some opponents of the 2040 plan.

The final draft, according to Jaiyeoba, tries to better distinguish between community benefit agreements with developers — as a formal tool that leads to projects like childcare or open space — versus more general “benefits to the community,” such as affordable housing.

The murky language, compounded by the prospect of legal challenges against the city, has drawn the ire of Council members, developers and activists.

Tracy Dodson, assistant city manager and economic development, warned in a recent memo that the combination of height restrictions and community benefits agreements could hamper business investment and job growth.

Still, the Charlotte Community Benefits Coalition, which includes about 30 neighborhood groups, has said the wording does not go far enough to ensure equitable development, especially in marginalized communities.

And Council member Driggs is wary that the current plan may signal false promises to residents, including protection from certain developments.

‘Very real and very ugly.’ Charlotte leaders fight over looming 2040 plan vote.

Personal attacks

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles recently reprimanded Council members for their hostile exchanges surrounding the 2040 plan.

“It’s very difficult to listen to the disparaging remarks,” Lyles said. “They extend beyond this issue, but this has made them very real and very ugly.”

The mayor pro tem, who has tried to rally consensus among her colleagues, said she cannot support people who are “verbally abusive.”

“It’s up to the voters to decide if that’s the way they want people representing them,” Eiselt said.

Council member Dimple Ajmera said “mutual respect” has been sorely missing from the 2040 plan process.

“Personal attacks don’t get us anywhere, and we have seen them over and over and over again,” Ajmera said. “Do I think the plan is perfect? No. But that doesn’t mean I start attacking the planning director.”

Yet on Thursday, Bokhari took to Twitter calling for Jaiyeoba’s dismal. “We MUST delay the Comp Plan vote, and as a City we must demand with a united voice the City Manager fire the City Planner on the grounds of ethical failure,” Bokhari tweeted.

Jaiyeoba shrugged off the attack, and City Manager Marcus Jones said he had “complete confidence” in Jaiyeoba and his staff.

What comes next

The irony of the feuding, some Council members suggest, is that the 2040 plan represents just the start of a weightier policy discussion that will continue into February.

That’s raised questions about Council’s workflow, with leaders saying certain policy ideas and zoning changes in the 2040 plan are premature. Monday’s deadline to adopt the plan is self-imposed by the Council, Jaiyeoba said.

Without approval, the city cannot pivot to developing maps for land use in different types of neighborhoods, parks, mixed-use developments and other areas over the next eight months.

“I would like to have more than 6-5 support, of course,” Jaiyeoba said. “But it gives us, as staff, the opportunity to try and bridge the differences between the Council members and even members of the community who don’t support this plan right now. We continue to engage and have dialogue.”

The forthcoming Unified Development Ordinance, which streamlines the 2040 plan and makes its aspirational tenets a reality, promises even more “spirited debate,” Council member Phipps said.

“We have to get out of the gate on the first phase so we can move on to the next phases,” Phipps said. “Those will probably be just as hard-fought. It’s not like this is the end all be all.”

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