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Reinventing the subdivision

City considers new requirements for neighborhood construction, but developers worry about costs

Euclid Avenue in the Dilworth neighborhood has features similar to those being proposed in changes to the city's subdivision ordinance. The changes call for wider sidewalks, wide planting strips between roads and sidewalks -- with trees planted on the strips -- and space for on-street parking. Photo courtesy of the Charlotte Department of Transportation

In the next few years, Charlotte’s suburban streets could look different.

Blocks could be smaller. Sidewalks could be wider and further away from the road. There could be more trees along the roads.

The changes would be included in the city’s subdivision ordinance, part of the Urban Street Design Guidelines developed by the Charlotte Department of Transportation. Mike Davis, manager of CDOT’s Development Services Division, said the changes were based partly on a 2004 visual-opinion survey that asked Charlotte residents which features they liked about certain streets.

The council is expected to make a final vote on the changes Dec. 20. Before that, a public hearing will be held in City Council chambers Nov. 15.

But developers are concerned that the changes will have unintended consequences by raising the costs of construction, which would make homes less affordable, and leaving developers with less space in which to build.

Under the changes, residential blocks, for example, cannot be longer, on average, than 650 feet in most areas — so long as none of the blocks are longer than 1,000 feet — which is down from 1,000 feet, with no averaging, in the previous ordinance.

In addition to the new block-length requirements, sidewalks will be required to be built on both sides of the road, be between 5 and 8 feet wide instead of 4 and have an 8-foot planting strip between the sidewalk and the road.

The proposed changes would require developers to build neighborhoods that could be more appealing to residents surveyed by CDOT; according to CDOT, those surveyed said the streets they liked best had wider sidewalks and more trees.

Davis argues that the changes are not going to be as drastic as some builders seem to expect. “It’s an extra foot or two of concrete,” he said of the wider sidewalk requirements.

But developers say the extra work required in developing the sidewalks and planting strips would make houses more expensive.

“I’ve had to grade wider and I’ve had to tear out more trees,” said Karla Knotts, co-owner of Charlotte-based residential development and homebuilding company Knotts Development Resources. “It’s not just one more foot of concrete. It’s excess grading.”

In addition to the new costs incurred with the extra grading — leveling the land in order to build the sidewalks — developers say the space to build on would shrink as well. Blocks will be smaller, and wider planting strips and sidewalks mean that developers would have less land on which to build.

As a result, a builder would not be able to put as many houses on a site, which means fewer people on which to pass building costs.

“It’s compounding,” Knotts said. “It may just be a marginal or incremental increase, but if everything is a marginal or incremental increase, it adds up.”

The proposed changes to the ordinance would lead to an estimated 30 percent increase in initial building costs on a typical site, Knotts said, compounded by the loss of a third of the housing units to be built on a site after the buildable space has been decreased.

Davis admits that CDOT does not have a clear picture of how the ordinance might affect development costs, but he expects some of the flexibility measures in the ordinance, such as the block length averaging, will help keep them down.

“The only way that we’ll really be able to get a handle on that would be over time,” he said.

Congestion concerns

The Urban Street Design Guidelines were developed with traffic in mind, Davis said. The point of the smaller blocks and wider sidewalks is to make the neighborhoods more connected. More streets mean more route choices for motorists instead of funneling to the same arterial streets. The new network is supposed to help alleviate congestion for motorists, which in turn helps make areas more bicycle-friendly, while sidewalks give pedestrians a place to walk.

“We have to be proactive and plan for the growth that we expect to see in the next few years,” Davis said.

Davis points to the area known as Route Four — the ring around Uptown that consists of Interstate 85, Billy Graham Parkway, Eastway Drive, Wendover Road and Sugar Creek — as an example of an area where connectivity can prevent traffic congestion.

“What’s cool about the area inside Route Four is that it’s where we have the greatest number of people working, greatest number of people living,” Davis said. “It’s where all of our civic amenities are. And despite all that activity and population and need for mobility, it’s where we have the least congestion.”

In developing the ordinance, Davis said he has frequently allowed for public feedback. Meetings were held June 15, July 13 and Aug. 18 to hear from developers and address their concerns.

As a result of those hearings, some flexibility measures have been added, such as the option of meeting the block length requirements by averaging.

But developers question whether the block size requirements need to be changed. At an Oct. 11 City Council meeting, Danny Pleasant, director of CDOT, said that in many neighborhoods, such as Dilworth, the average block is 800 feet long despite the rule that the maximum is 1,000 feet. Knotts and Andy Munn, public policy director at Charlotte-based Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, counter by asking whether it’s necessary to make new length requirements if developers are already building at the preferred size.

Munn said the goals of most of the provisions — a greener, more pedestrian-friendly environment — are things that developers know homeowners want and that developers will be incorporating anyway.

‘’I’m the guy who says, ‘If the market will take care of it, then leave it alone,'” Munn said. “Why do we need local government to enforce more ordinances?”

‘We’ve come a long way’

Munn said he was pleased with the new averaging option. When the original draft of the changes to the ordinance was first proposed, the block size restrictions were too limiting, he said.

“We’ve been working with staff on flexibility, and we’ve come a long way,” Munn said. “The block lengths averaging could be a way to achieve the sort of flexibility we need.”

But he added that there were still concerns about making blocks smaller. By restricting block sizes and increasing the size of the planting strips and sidewalks, building space will be smaller, yards will end up shrinking and houses will likely become smaller, he said.

“You’re going to have tiny little boxes that are very short,” he said. “I say that kind of tongue-in-cheek, but you’re really losing a lot of flexibility when you consider these ordinances.”

Davis responds to developers’ concerns about space by pointing out that the ordinance does not require a certain amount of space between the sidewalk and houses, so houses aren’t necessarily required to be moved back. But Councilwoman Nancy Carter said she was concerned that there will not be enough space for a driveway, resulting in cars parking in front of the sidewalk.

“You can make meandering sidewalks, where you push them back if we need space for a tree and push them down (closer to the street) at a driveway,” she said. “But that increases costs.”

Council pushback

Councilman Andy Dulin argues that the ordinance’s requirements, despite their goal of encouraging people to travel by foot or by bike rather than in a car, are not very “green” when considering how much space will be taken up by sidewalks and roads.

“They say they want more green space and yet they’re adding more asphalt,” he said.

But Davis said the amount of asphalt and concrete being used is not changing — just being redirected.

“If you create a network of local streets, where you’re putting that asphalt is more here and there,” he said. “But if you didn’t have that connectivity, you would be putting more asphalt out there in thoroughfares, in huge intersections, to deal with the traffic.”

Caitlin Coakley can be reached at [email protected].

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