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Council discusses development issues, challenges, opportunities

Overall, Charlotte is booming.

Development in Charlotte is surging, challenging the city's land-use and transportation goals. Meridian Place, being developed Goode Properties along Monroe Road, is one of several transit-oriented projects that combine apartments, retail, restaurants and office space. Photo by David Dykes

Development in Charlotte is surging, challenging the city’s land-use and transportation goals. Meridian Place, being developed by Goode Properties along Monroe Road, is one of several transit-oriented projects that combine apartments, retail, restaurants and office space. Photo by David Dykes

The city in recent years has added 28,000 housing units, 52,000 vehicles, 8 million square feet of commercial space, 1,160 hotel rooms and 100 retail establishments.

But with the growth have come concerns about traffic congestion, school capacity, affordable housing and environmental implications.

That was the message to the Charlotte City Council on Monday night as city officials attempt to carve opportunities out of priority concerns.

During a council workshop at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, the challenge was evident in numbers presented by Assistant City Manager Debra Campbell.

City staff members processed 80 more rezoning petitions in 2015 (135) than they did in 2011 (55), Campbell said. Those included cases for residential, institutional, industrial, office-business and urban uses.

The purpose of the workshop was for council members to discuss specific issues and concerns related to rezoning petitions that staff members feel can be addressed in the short term.

And while the city is developing a new zoning ordinance as well as updating its transportation action plan and expanding the number of bike lanes and sidewalks, the council spoke about what should be added to the list of ways to improve the handling of rezoning petitions and establishing a framework for future development.

It was an opportunity, Campbell said, for the city to hit the “reset button” and examine its regulatory tools. But it’s also a chance, she said, to reexamine broader, long-term policy objectives.

Among the comments made:

*Ed Driggs, representing District 7, said events are outpacing the city’s regulatory environment and there is some planning “disconnect” when the city says a project isn’t consistent with an area development plan but staff members find it reasonable and in the public interest. City officials need to meet more often with developers to give them direction and explain how recommended changes can be in their interests, he said.

*At-large Councilwoman Claire Fallon said the city gives so many variances that building can seem “willy-nilly.”

*Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles said some homeowners are concerned about the effect of nearby development on the value of their homes, and that zoning decisions should take neighborhooding communities into consideration. She also said it’s the city’s responsibility to address issues such as stormwater runoff and the degradation and urban pollution it can cause.

*Councilwoman Julie Eiselt, elected at large, asked if the city is simply repairing stormwater pipes or looking 20 years ahead to the system’s needs.  She also said with the city being carved into segments, policymakers must look at the capacities for schools and traffic.

The issues amount to “a hard problem to solve,” Eiselt said.

But council members said they weren’t certain what their role should be in school-capacity issues.

Council member Greg Phipps of District 4 asked how the city could counterbalance increasing capacity for vehicular traffic with plans to improve “walkability” and “bikeability.”

“I don’t know what the answer is,” he said.

Councilman John Autry of District 5 said the city’s transportation network isn’t meeting the needs of many residents and the answer isn’t just widening roads.

He fears that without adequate transportation, more concentrated pockets of poverty could result in neighborhoods where job growth is sluggish and residents don’t have the means to travel to work.

“I wish we had a magic wand,” Autry said.

The council for some time also has been wrestling with long rezoning meetings that often have run past midnight.

Council members have taken proactive steps to avoid those marathon sessions, including scheduling a 10 p.m. “hard stop”  to end those meetings. Remaining zoning hearings can be taken up at special overflow sessions.

At-large Councilman James Mitchell said the rezoning workload is taxing city staffers yet they’re told by the council that “this train must continue to run.”

He worries that the good times for Charlotte could evaporate if development isn’t handled correctly to support the city’s land use and transportation goals, Mitchell said.

It’s a “tough challenge for all of us,” he said.

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