The City of Charlotte needs a new zoning ordinance and it needs it now. That was the prevailing opinion of a panel of experts at the 2016 Future Charlotte discussion, hosted by the Mecklenburg Times at Maggiano’s Italian Restaurant on Friday at South Park Mall.
Panelists included Shannon Binns, founder of Sustain Charlotte; Walter Fields, president of the Walter Fields Group; Ed McKinney, interim planning director for the city of Charlotte; and Joe Padilla, executive director of the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition.
McKinney opened the hour-and-a-half discussion on the topic by laying the groundwork of where the city was in the process of rewriting the zoning ordinance – a document that will be used to determine planning decisions in the Queen City for decades to come.
“The zoning ordinance is a tool and we need to make sure this tool achieves our vision. Does it achieve the kind of economic opportunity that we want to see, does it provide the kind of choices in housing that we want? And we need to make sure the zoning ordinance is trusted,” McKinney said. “We’ve got a council, many of whom don’t fully trust the ordinance we have today, and members of the community that are part of the process that don’t fully trust what we have today.”
McKinney explained the last update was done sometime in the 1990s when Charlotte’s population was a little over 400,000 people. The city has more than double that population today. He also said the planning department today was dealing with a lot of urban infill problems that simply weren’t addressed – or even on the radar – back in the 1990s.
The city has spent the last nine months setting basic points to build the zoning ordinance, McKinney said. These include:
- Ensuring the ordinance is built upon a place-based land use policy framework
- Making the ordinance a tool that will be a hybrid ordinance, with places in the city that require more attention to design and form rather than the land use
- The new ordinance will be a unified development ordinance because zoning alone isn’t the only thing that developers must deal with at the city in order to get a project built
“These things already exist in many ways at the city, but sort of in their own silos,” McKinney said. “This is a chance for us to bring all of those things together.”
For his part, Fields said there were some “ghosts in the machine” that were still affecting the city’s planning even though they were parts of the current ordinance that were written in the 1980s.
“The plans serve as a guide and the zoning ordinance is a tool for implementing those designs,” said Fields, who works with developers to help present their projects to the city. “For me, the ordinance is a way to make sure the city can implement its vision for the area. But many people are questioning, what exactly is that vision any more? We haven’t had much of a vision project since about 1993.”
Fields said the city needed real leadership with a clear vision for the future before it could tackle such a monumental project like the new zoning ordinance.
“For the last decade we had these bigger plans that were getting sort of dated,” Fields said. “The city of Raleigh just recently updated their new unified development ordinance. But before they did that they completely redid the city’s comprehensive plan. Now the UDO and the plan are in close agreement. The planning and policy development to go along with a place-based ordinance should go along with the development of the ordinance.”
Padilla said he thought the city’s current ordinance had given rise to several successes in the area.
“The zoning ordinance we have today has produced a highly desirable and livable community. It needs some tweaks, though,” Padilla said. “There is a lack of predictability. It doesn’t reflect the current demands that the development community puts on it. There are uses coming online that were never even categories in the zoning ordinance.”
Padilla pointed out data center projects that were not even mentioned in the zoning ordinance as a land use until about three years ago. Also, as more microbreweries like Old Mecklenburg Brewery and others pop up around the city, planners found there was no category for them either.
“They weren’t really nightclubs, and they weren’t quite restaurants,” Padilla said. “There needs to be a consistent evaluation of the code for things to tweak like this. You can’t just fix a zoning ordinance and then sit it on a shelf for 10 years and say that’s it. The market moves too fast for that.”
The panelists lauded McKinney’s goals, but said they were tired of all the talk and no action.
“I was on a panel, very much like this one, to discuss updating the zoning ordinance with the city in 2007,” Binns said. “These are important discussions but the time for talking is over. That was over nine years ago and nothing has been done. We are now looking at this current process taking until 2019. Do any of you know how much growth is going to come to Charlotte between now and 2019? We are rushing headlong toward the future and we are not designing things or planning for the future.”
Binns pointed to the way the city planning was still based around automobiles as the primary means of transportation. And he said this had the unintended consequence of adding to the cost for many of the apartment projects around the city.
The city’s current ordinance requires at least one parking space for each apartment unit in a building. If a developer sets up a 128-unit project, that means there must be at least 128 more parking spaces built.
“This is the kind of thing that can really impact the availability of affordable housing in the city,” Binns said. “That many spaces cost a lot and the developer then has to recoup that investment by raising the rent. We are building apartments that only those who are doing well enough to have a car can afford because the cost of parking that car is built into the apartment project due to our ordinance requiring parking spaces.”
Binns said he’d like to see the city take what he called a much more 21st century approach to planning, and leave behind the auto-centric design standards of the 1950s and 1960s.
“We should stop designing the city based around having to drive a car,” he said. “If we really want to design for the future we should focus less on the people driving cars and more on the mother walking with a stroller. If we did that, we’d see a real change in our city.”