ON THE LEVEL: Debra Campbell: We won’t be Atlanta

Charlotte’s assistant city manager and former planning director talks about the city’s past, present and future development

By: David Dykes//April 15, 2016//

ON THE LEVEL: Debra Campbell: We won’t be Atlanta

Charlotte’s assistant city manager and former planning director talks about the city’s past, present and future development

By: David Dykes//April 15, 2016//

Listen to this article

Assistant City Manager Debra Campbell believes Charlotte is about places – a lot of places and many different types.


To her, bringing them together under the city’s umbrella – while maintaining their diversity – is a critical challenge as planners chart Charlotte’s future.
A new zoning ordinance will be one of the tools they use. And Campbell says the success of that ordinance will result in attractive options for residents on how they want to live and work.
Campbell has been with the city since 1988 and was named to her current post in September 2014. She is the former planning director.
Although her name has been mentioned to replace Ron Carlee as city manager when he leaves the job later this year, Campbell declined to talk about the prospect.
In her current role, she provides executive oversight for the city’s planning and transportation functions, including the Planning Department, Department of Transportation and the Charlotte Area Transit System, commonly referred to as CATS.
Her experience includes urban planning, transportation/land use integration, transit station area planning and development, neighborhood and business corridor revitalization and housing and community development.
Prior to Charlotte, Campbell was with the Chattanooga, Tennessee, Neighborhood Enterprise as a housing consultant and the Chattanooga Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission as an urban planner.
She has both a bachelor’s degree in urban planning and a master’s in public administration from Middle Tennessee State University.
Campbell sat down for an interview with The Mecklenburg Times, discussing the challenges posed by Charlotte’s growth, a new zoning ordinance being drafted and how planners can prepare for future development.
Here are excerpts from that interview.

BB&T Ballpark

You’ve seen, in nearly 30 years with the city, a lot of growth.You’ve seen busts and booms. Is this an unprecedented growth spurt?
It really depends on how you measure ‘unprecedented growth.’ If it’s numbers, I would say no. I think the ‘80s, ‘90s, early 2000s were when Charlotte truly grew from a quantitative perspective. But from a qualitative perspective, I think we are growing now in a manner that is more related to a more compact, walkable, mixed use (city) – those things that we think truly are sustainable over time in terms of a development pattern.
How we are developing now, I believe over time, will make us a more livable, a more desirable and economically competitive community…because we are providing lots of choices – choices in terms of mobility, choices in terms of lifestyle – whether you want to live in an urban location, a suburban location, an ex-urban location. This community has all of those choices, opportunities for small-business development, large-scale… big box. We are growing in a manner now that provides more opportunities for a broader range of people who may want to come and live, work and do business in this city.
When you look back over your nearly 30 years, is there one thing you wish the city had done differently in preparing for this growth, or dealing with the growth, especially springboarding from the ‘80s and ‘90s?
It’s hard to say one thing. I wish that we had done a couple of things. I wish that we had invested in a more robust transit system earlier because transit has helped this community transform itself from a suburban, auto-centric community to more of a transit-friendly (one) – again, a development pattern that’s a lot more compact. We’re able to have more people live within a smaller geography and it would have reduced the amount of open space that we had to convert to kind of low-density, single-family development. So, investing in transit earlier.
I wish that we could have understood – truly – the impact of gentrification sooner. If we could have understood that revitalization – although it is almost 99.9 percent of the time…very, very positive – it has to be done in a responsible manner. We…were not aware of the true impact it can have on people’s lives. Not on the physical landscape but on people’s lives, to be displaced in areas that you’ve grown up in for all your life.
Thirdly, I wish that we could have been a lot more concerned about protecting the historical assets that we have in the community because we don’t have a very good reminder of where we’ve been.
Are you talking in terms of buildings?
I think it’s more related to buildings.
In terms of transit, is the city just too far behind with traffic now? The comparisons are made between Charlotte and Atlanta, that it’s just too far gone.
Not at all. We are behind, for sure. But too far behind to make a difference? I would say absolutely not because transit helps us, not necessarily with congestion relief. It give us opportunities for choices which ultimately may lead in a person not having to utilize their car, or have as many cars. It just provides the opportunity to grow differently such that services – where you live, where you recreate, where you want entertainment – all of that can be closer in and you don’t necessarily have to get in your car for a trip.
Comparing us to Atlanta is not fair. We are a much larger city – and I’m talking about the corporate boundaries of the community. We are a much larger city than Atlanta. Our development pattern, our government, our approach to transit was really around a growth strategy and I don’t think Atlanta’s was. Atlanta in the past – I would say probably in the past decade – has really begun to understand the relationship between transit-oriented development and MARTA (the city’s transit system). Originally, it was more just transportation focused. We obviously understand the need to have it as a transportation option but more, quite frankly, as a growth and economic development option.
Switching to the zoning ordinance. Park and Woodlawn is a vignette of a development challenge. You’ve got a rapidly growing corridor. Different types of building. A lot of people moving in – multifamily, single-family. Single-family homeowners say we’ve lived here for decades, don’t do this to us. Developers say it’s a great location, it’s central, but you’re adding more cars. Do you see that Park and Woodlawn corridor as something that could be addressed with a new zoning ordinance, or is it just too established?
I don’t know that a new zoning ordinance necessarily is a panacea for addressing the issues in Park and Woodlawn. The vision that (city) council adopted for Park and Woodlawn creates a mixed-use center and the fundamental basis for the kind of transition that you see happening at Park and Woodlawn is because several years ago – in the early 2000s – we identified what we call ‘centers,’ areas that would be much, much higher density, much more compactly developed and that would have, again, a mixture of different type uses and served by transit. It may be local bus service; may not be rapid transit, but it would have access to a much more robust transit system.
The challenge for Park and Woodlawn is the transition from a fairly low density…area to a much higher density so you visually see the change in intensity. For the adjacent single-family, our biggest challenge for Park and Woodlawn is making sure that we place the more intense development on the borders of the neighborhood and not internal to the neighborhoods because I strongly believe that a single-family neighborhood and a more intense mixed-use center can coexist.
The issue is just how you transition. How do you make sure that the larger buildings don’t cast shadows, that the larger buildings don’t have access into all of the single-family neighborhoods so that people feel ‘all those people are cutting through my neighborhood’? But they’re all public streets. It is more about how we design, making sure that there are lots of ways to get in and out of those more intense areas without adversely impacting the lower density, single-family neighborhoods.
Those single-family neighborhoods over time, and those property owners, and those residents, will benefit from access to those more intensely developed areas because, again, they will have choices – they will have a choice whether to get in their car and have to drive to a sit-down restaurant or have the capacity to walk.
At Park and Woodlawn, you have convenience stores, an apartment complex, an office building and a shopping center. Do you see continuity there?
An urban context should have all of those different types of experiences. It should have higher density, lower density, as long as, again, from a mobility, from an access (standpoint) – as long as those things can coexist and work together rather than being in conflict with each other, that’s not bad. That’s a good thing. And visually, certainly I wish that service stations were designed better. But over time, I think they will be and embrace the context that they’re in. They may not have as many pumps. They may not have the need to have as many pumps as they do now. It’s OK  to have all of those different types of intensities and uses and I also think that over time those things will change and the market will dictate what that change will be.
What the plan has to do is make sure that the public realm – and when I say the public realm I’m meaning any type of open space, street trees, sidewalks – those are the city’s responsibility to make sure that even though you have these different types of uses that they can coexist and that the neighborhoods and the people within those buildings have access to the services that they need.
How do you take everything you’ve just been saying and wrap it into a new zoning ordinance without falling into social engineering?
The new approach to the zoning ordinance is about a place-based approach.What that means is
we need to define the character of the place that we are trying to regulate. Our current zoning ordinance – it talks more about what kind of uses are allowed – a long list of these uses are allowed and if these uses are allowed, these are the kinds of development standards that are required.
The new approach to the zoning ordinance will be ‘here are characteristics and features of this place’ because we’ve got a lot of different types of places.
You just talked about Park and Woodlawn. That is a center and that center at Park and Woodlawn should have descriptions of what are the attributes, characteristics, features of a place called a center.
Then the zoning ordinance says ‘and here are the development standards’ like mass, capping the height, how it transitions back into a single-family neighborhood – those are the things that the zoning ordinance will do. The new approach to the zoning ordinance…will be more about form than it will about uses.There need to be both. It will be kind of a hybrid document.
The goal of a zoning ordinance is to yield the type of physical environment, the social experience of the place. That’s what the zoning ordinance should be regulating.
When I say the social experience, that is more about when you are in this place, what do you experience? Do you experience buildings closer to the street? Do you experience buildings much, much further from the street, and how much further from the street?
What we’re trying to do with the new zoning ordinance is to achieve a level of consistency throughout the community. Right now, a lot of the standards, the policies that are in our area plans are achieved through a negotiated process…But when they are the base minimum standards, there is no question. There is no negotiation. Every developer has to meet this standard. That’s what I think the zoning ordinance will do for us – bring continuity, bring some level of certainty and allow a lot of flexibility. That’s what I hope it will do for Park and Woodlawn as well.

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