Newly-elected Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, a graduate of East Mecklenburg High School and UNC-Chapel Hill, has a strong work history in the Queen City. Her resume includes stints as director of the Mayor’s International Cabinet, executive director of the Charlotte World Affairs Council, and chair of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners.
Roberts, who holds master’s degrees in international affairs from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Toronto, also was a diplomat for several years with the U.S. Department of State, serving in the Dominican Republic as a consular officer and, later, as a political officer on the Mexico desk.
Roberts, a Democrat, has won many community awards and has been active with several regional groups, including ArtsTeach, the Centralina Council of Governments, the Charlotte Chamber, the Girls Scouts Hornets Nest Council, Keep Mecklenburg Beautiful, and the Women’s Commission.
She recently sat down for an interview with The Mecklenburg Times, discussing her views on the rapidly-changing city, what she’d like to accomplish in her two-year term, and developments in the real estate community.
How would you describe Charlotte and what do you want the city to be known for?
I think that Charlotte is a lot of things. It’s a New South City. It is a can-do city that has a tradition of punching above its weight to aspire to do things in a new, different, and inclusive way. Charlotte is rapidly changing, not just in real estate, but in culture, attitudes, and demographics. Depending on what week you look, it is either the second-, third-, or fourth-fastest growing city in the country, so in a lot of ways we are an exciting, evolving place. I think that can-do spirit is a big part of the culture because we have had challenges, but there is always the sense that we can collaborate around overcoming them. It’s the kind of place in which people want to talk through things. They aren’t always going to agree, but they do want to talk through.
One of the biggest challenges we have is that people who have been here for a long time just can’t get used to the fact that we’re getting a lot more congested, that all these new buildings are going up, and that there are people coming in from other parts of the country with different perspectives. There are some people who are nostalgic for how it was before when Charlotte was small-townish, and then there are people who just embrace the change.
But it’s interesting that even with rapid growth, there is still a small-town feel. If you go to any big restaurant, park, or sporting event, you’re likely to see somebody that you know. We’re just that kind of a place. When you start talking to people, usually there are two degrees of separation — somehow you are connected to almost anybody you meet. Even though we have some gated communities, we also have some very diverse and inclusive communities. I think we’re going to continue to have a little of that struggle between people who are resistant to change and those who embrace it.
We also have the challenge, as many urban centers do, of poverty and of working to give people even in the urban center the opportunity to rise up out of that, to have a good education, to get training and get a good job. We know it’s a challenge because there was a national survey that talked about it. Although, if you look at the numbers, we’re not that different from Atlanta and other places in the Southeast in terms of that challenge. We have different demographics from a lot of places. Because we are growing, we attract a lot of folks here who don’t have jobs and who are looking or might be in a different socioeconomic structure because they know there’s construction and things going on that attract them. So, we have poverty, but it’s also grown out of our incredible change and growing demographics.
I think that our can-do and collaborative aspect, that government and business are not at war with each other here and want to work together, that rich and poor are not at war and want to help each other, that Latinos, African-Americans, whites and Asians are not at war but want to help each other succeed, (is an important characteristic of Charlotte).
We also have a sense of obligation of giving back. If you look at our corporate entities here and all the things they have funded in the community, our faith tradition, whether it be Jewish, Christian or Muslim, all the charities that are supported, all the outreach to youth and seniors and the homeless, there’s a real sense of community spirit in Charlotte that not every city has. There’s a real heart and compassion. I think that’s a special characteristic of our city. It’s uniquely Charlotte.
How do you see the city changing over the next 20 years?
Physically, it’s changing. We’re building the light rail to the north. We’ll have the next leg of the streetcar in 2019. We have the Gateway Station that will have the new Amtrak station and high-speed rail. It also will be for the Red Line commuter rail. Right now there is not a plan to fund the Red Line, but there will be because the demand and the population are there. There are the multi-story commercial and residential buildings that are going up, which is not something that is typically Charlotte and will transform the city. We just approved the Colony rezoning (Synco Properties’ request to build a mixed-use project in SouthPark) and the total square footage of retail, residential and commercial will be bigger than the mall. That’s going to be a huge transformation. Even seeing the drawings, I can’t imagine what it’s going to look like. (The developers) have thought about it very carefully to ensure that it is friendly to street-level activity. We’re really seeing the development of density along our transportation corridor, which is something that people are resistant to. But then when they see it and it kind of blends in, they learn to accept it. Just five years from now, Charlotte is going to look different.
We just got an update on the council retreat on some of the (city’s) changing demographics. We have a lot of retirees moving here, but we also have young people moving here looking for financial, innovation and high-tech jobs. Health care is now our largest employer, so we’re diversifying from our banking base.
As you get the retirees and the younger people, you get more demand for entertainment and more disposable income, especially from the young people on entertainment. So you get a company like AvidXChange, a software engineering and payment processing firm, they are growing from 200 employees to 800 or even 1,000 employees, right next to the N.C. Music Factory. It’s because people who are doing software engineering want to have entertainment after work. So they have it right there next to the office building. That’s a whole new model for Charlotte. The old model was the cul-de-sacs where everybody lived. People lived and worked in different places. Now the people want to stay close. And young people don’t want cars and I hope that continues to be the trend because it will keep our congestion down.
So we’re talking about new kinds of protected bikeways – we don’t have one yet – where you have a median between the bike path and the street. There are a lot of young people who want that. There are folks who are totally into this dense, urban living and love it. We have a great aquatics center, an incredible library, theater and music venues where you can see all kinds of entertainment, so you really don’t need cars to live Uptown. You can walk to Memorial Stadium to see the Hounds play or jump on the streetcar to get there. Look at South End, it’s seen incredible, phenomenal growth.
What are your top priorities?
There are a number of things that I want to work on. A lot is about spreading opportunity in every corner of the city. We’re looking to do that in a number of areas. I want to expand transportation access and reduce obstacles for small business, particularly minority, women-owned, and small businesses that don’t have the same resources of a big company to bid on things. I want to make sure they have the information, the access, and the training necessary to fill out the paperwork. I want to make sure that we get the information to the areas that need it. Part of that is also supporting entrepreneurial activities and looking at how we can get entrepreneur hubs out in the communities so that they don’t have to come Uptown to access resources.
I have a fond spot in my heart for youth because I care a lot about education. I’m not working in the schools but we can be a partner to the success of the schools because our workforce depends on that and it is also a crime reducer on the front end. A lot of the property crime and petty theft is from young people between the ages of 16 and 24. The question is finding ways to fill in the gap with positive after-school programs, whether it’s through tutoring or youth employment. We have 300 people in the Mayor’s Youth Employment Program and I want to triple that to 1,000. I want to increase the number of partners and participants. It’s going to take some time, but I want to ensure that we’re involving the business community in a positive way so we can help those youth find a path.
I also think we have some great opportunity around the innovation economy. We have companies, such as AvidXChange, Packard Place, and Red Ventures, and UNC Charlotte with a great informatics center. We’re starting to recognize that information technology is the growing sector. It even applies to medicine and biotech. I’d love to have us really expand that area and become known as the innovation city, a place that is acquiring new ideas and employing young people working on coding and high tech. That’s something I’d love to focus on.
Housing is a big concern. We talked at our retreat about setting a goal of having 1,000 more affordable housing units per year over the next five years. If we can actually do that depends on the federal programs that are available, the National Housing Trust Fund, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership and all these groups working together. We’ve learned we’re about 34,000 units short of affordable housing. Just a few years ago that figure was at 17,000. One of the reasons is that wages haven’t kept pace with housing prices. One out of three people in the Charlotte area pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing. One-third are using too much of their money to put a roof over their heads.
Charlotte doesn’t require developers to put a certain amount of affordable housing in their projects. No. They have a carrot, not a stick. There is an incentive that you get more density if you want to do a certain percentage of affordable housing. But no developer has used that incentive yet.
There has been conversation about requiring it but you can’t technically do that because of state law. But there are ways that you can work to incentivize affordable housing and make a list of options (the developer) would have to do, let’s say, five of 10 things and affordable housing could be one of them. Those are being discussed but no definitive paths are being taken right now.
Affordable housing can be a choice, if you have several choices. We’re going to redo the zoning ordinance, which will be a multi-year process, but we are at the point where we can be more selective and say, “This doesn’t really fit with the area plan and doesn’t make the best use of space, so we’re going to turn this (rezoning) down for now unless you do X, Y, and Z.” We could have a menu of options where (the developer) could add to the greenway, or put in affordable housing, that would change our minds about the rezoning.
What are some other changes you’d like to see? If you listened to the council meeting on the night we approved the Colony rezoning, a lot of council members said their reason for approving it was that the developer was putting in 55 units of affordable housing voluntarily. They said that was such a great first step in getting more affordable units out there. A lot of people were very supportive of that.
When we do rezonings, 80 percent of them are conditional. We’re out of whack with the way we’re growing and what is needed. The retail, affordable housing, walkability, being environmentally friendly, LEED certification, electric plug-ins in the garage, having a greenway as part of the property—there are a lot of things we can be creative about.
Gartner Consulting has been looking at ways to streamline the permitting process between the county and the city. What do you see as the timeline for change on that?
As soon as possible. I had someone who does multifamily tell me that it costs more to put up the same building here than it does in South Carolina. We should figure out why and get the red tape out of there. We’re still looking for a permanent planning director and there is a lot going on at once, but I want to have it as soon as possible because we want to be business friendly. If it’s more costly to build here, that cost gets passed on to rent and housing and that doesn’t help anybody.
What are your thoughts on potential increases in development and rezoning fees in the 2017 budget?
It’s too early to say. We have so many moving parts. We need to look at our capital plan, our need for infrastructure, and our need for fire trucks and police officers. There’s a lot of pressure on the budget and we don’t know what Raleigh is going to do, so it’s just too early to talk about.
You had said when sworn in as mayor that there would be some “action” on Eastland Mall during your term. Could you expand on that?
There’s a discussion about adding a school, which is needed in that part of town. There’s also discussion about a park, and I absolutely want to do that. There’s a desire for mixed use for the rest of the property that would include office, retail and residential. It wouldn’t be all housing because that would overburden that part of the city. Nor would it be all retail because you’ve got to have the right balance. There are several people who are interested. We haven’t had any formal presentations or proposals and different council members have different views on how fast we should go, but (the redevelopment) is a major priority. Whether something happening means all 80 acres at once, probably not. But at least get the school finalized and maybe get some other part of it, whether the park or private part of it, designed and in negotiations by the end of my term. We cannot wait more than two years.
You have advocated a regional approach to our transit future. What would you like to tell those in north Mecklenburg County who might feel sidelined by the City Council’s directive to Vi Lyles on how to vote at the recent Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization meeting on toll lanes?
You must remember that it was really a state decision. We have a complicated system of government. The state negotiated the contract and presented the contract as a fait accompli to the regional groups. The regional groups just said that managed lanes were the best way to manage congestion, if done the right way. They didn’t have any input on how it was going to be done.
But the way the contract went out limited a lot of options for 50 years. So people in north Mecklenburg had a right to be upset. We’re all upset. But I’m not going to end up paying more than $100 million (to cancel the contract) to get nothing in return. That’s not the best use of tax money.
So we want to keep that project going and hope it’s successful. We’ll know in three years when it opens, which is pretty amazing for 26 miles of highway. But I also want to continue the Red Line, because people need options. The Gateway Center is funded, so the station where the Red Line is going to come in will be built. That’s also where the Amtrak station will move, so that will have an impact on the high-speed rail from Charlotte to Raleigh.
We’re hoping that we can find developers who are willing to take on part of the Red Line, whether it be through a tax district or through tax-increment financing, and that we can find private partners to help pay for part of that. There’s also negotiation with the railroad company (Norfolk Southern Group) that have been ongoing and a challenge.
But I want to tell people of north Mecklenburg that we share with them. When there’s a SWAT team that’s needed and paid for by Charlotte taxpayers, we don’t charge Huntersville. If we send our Hazmat truck paid for by fire department taxes in Charlotte, we don’t charge them. There are a number of shared services that people don’t think about because they just assume that emergency government is there.
So there are good reasons for Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson to be right next to big Charlotte. Take, for example, the Panthers. We paid for the stadium. I bet a lot of them come and watch games there. We paid for the arena for the Hornets. We paid for the museums. We paid for the Levine Museum in a huge public-private partnership and we’re still supporting that. People in Huntersville and Davidson aren’t paying a bit of that tax. But they can come here any weekend they want and enjoy that. So, in looking at the balance of things, I would take the bet any day that we actually pay for more that they use instead of vice versa. We don’t get a lot of transit tax from them because they’re not big communities. We shouldn’t think about this as a zero sum game. We’re all in this together.
I’m going to have lunch with the mayors of Cornelius, Huntersville and Davidson and we’re going to talk through and continue to be in touch on not just transportation but emergency management, development, companies we’re trying to recruit, and school systems, and all the things that connect us.
What would you like Charlotte residents to know about you? That I am 24-7 committed to making this a better city for everyone, every day.