2020 was supposed to be ‘year of the plan.’ What happened?

Back in late 2019 – before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the world – it looked like 2020 would be the year for plans to guide our community’s growth for the next several decades would coalesce.

What happened? Well, the pandemic, of course. But a couple of key plans have also run into deeper issues, illustrating some of the difficulties in planning for future decades in a fast-growing, fast-changing city.

“Next year’s news cycle is already looking pretty crowded, between big-ticket events like the Republican National Convention in Charlotte, the summer Olympics in Tokyo and, of course, the 2020 presidential, gubernatorial and congressional elections,” I wrote in 2019 (Oh, how little we saw coming). “But if there weren’t so much else going on, 2020 might be known as something else in Charlotte: The Year of the Plan.”

Of course, like so much else last year, it was not to be.

Two of the key plans identified in that piece hit pandemic-related delays. Staff working on the Meck Playbook plan – meant to set priorities and spending for parks, greenways and other recreational facilities – pushed back scheduled community meetings and eventually switched to a virtual format. That plan is still underway, and county commission members working on next fiscal year’s budget are considering whether to increase parks spending.

Charlotte Center City Partners’ All In 2040 vision plan for the future of uptown, South End and nearby areas also hit unexpected stumbling blocks. In order to account for the impact of the pandemic and the racial justice protests that rocked the U.S. last summer, Center City Partners decided to “reengage” with the community and collect more feedback. The completed plan is expected this spring.

But the city’s new comprehensive vision plan (Charlotte 2040), the Unified Development Ordinance and Charlotte’s new transit and mobility plan have all run into bigger issues in recent weeks. At a City Council meeting Monday, those issues came into sharp relief.

“The staff has spent over three years working on something that the council has not reached a consensus on,” Mayor Vi Lyles said about the city’s new comprehensive plan. “Now that is what I would call a problem, but maybe it’s an opportunity…we’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do.”

First, it became clear that there’s still a lot of hesitancy among council members about actually voting to adopt the new comprehensive plan (Charlotte’s first since 1975). That’s despite the fact that the vision plan has been in the works for about three years, and the development rules rewrite for nearly a decade. City staff had hoped council would adopt the new vision plan in April, followed by the unified development ordinance next year.

“There is only one path forward at this point: Pump the brakes as hard as you can,” said council member Tariq Bokhari, who called for going back to “square one.”

Council members said they’re worried the community hasn’t been engaged and hasn’t had the chance to give enough input. Deputy city manager and planning director Taiwo Jaiyeoba tried to counter that concern by pointing to the thousands of interactions (many of them virtual due to the pandemic), dozens of open houses or small meetings, and large-scale events like a drive-in movie to unveil the plan draft that city staff have conducted to reach the public.

It became clear, however, that City Council is most worried about provisions in the vision plan that would eliminate single family-only zoning (which current accounts for about 84% of the residential land in Charlotte) and allow duplexes and triplexes throughout existing neighborhoods, as well as quadplexes on major “arterial” roads.

“There is going to be an awakening and a pushback potentially of significant proportions, perhaps the largest we’ve seen in modern history,” said Bokhari.

“The big elephant in the room is the single-family zoning,” Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt said.

Many housing advocates say that increasing the supply by allowing more homes would help blunt rapid price increases. And a more diverse stock of housing (common in older, pricier neighborhoods like Elizabeth and Dilworth), where duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes mix in with single-family detached houses, would allow more young families, retirees and more people from across the income spectrum to live there.

But adding density – even moderate density like two or three houses on a single-family lot – is often an explosive issue. Just ask anyone who’s sat through a rezoning meeting and heard the pitched commentary about townhouses or a four-unit building in a single-family-only area. Current residents are often worried about traffic, the effect on their property values and changes to a neighborhood’s character.

Some City Council members also seemed to indicate that they want more time to digest a dense, complicated policy. They decided to schedule another meeting for the coming days to discuss the vision plan and nail down their philosophies around it, as well as basic concerns and questions with the plan.

“Would everyone be willing to read the document?” asked Lyles.

After the Monday meeting, council members continued debating the issue online. Braxton Winston tweeted that single-family zoning is “a tool of segregation,” pointing to its history amongst racist housing practices like redlining that excluded many Black people from owning homes and creating generational wealth.

Single family zoning is a tool of segregation. If you are fighting to maintain single family zoning you are advocating for segregation. Stop being racist, Charlotte.

— Braxton Winston (He/Him) (@BraxtonWinston) March 2, 2021

Council member Victoria Watlington, however, posted on Facebook that she is worried about the impact doing away with single-family-only zoning districts will have on lower-income neighborhoods already facing gentrification and displacement.

“If you think for one second that abolishing single family zoning exclusivity on ALL lots will not incentivize investors to tear down their properties (half of which in my neighborhood are owned by out-of-state LLCs) and build (multifamily) rentals, I would encourage you to drive through Westover Hills, Revolution Park, Camp Greene, Lakeview, Parkview, Grier Heights, and a host of other neighborhoods throughout the Crescent in which land is relatively cheaper,” she wrote. “So, in actuality, the people who will bear the brunt of a seemingly progressive policy are–you guessed it, the same folks who have been advocating for more affordable home ownership (and thus, wealth building) opportunities to enable upward mobility.”

Watlington wrote that the single-family zoning changes are a “dealbreaker” for her.

Transit plan question marks

Blue Line Light Rail Charlotte NC
The Blue Line Light Rail extension. Photo: Nancy Pierce

The city’s transit and mobility plan, recommended by a task force chaired by former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt late last year, is also running into multiple roadblocks. The plan, touted as an $8 billion to $12 billion proposal to build out Charlotte’s transit network, add greenways, and improve roads and sidewalks, depends on local funding from a new, 1-cent sales tax.

To get that local funding (which would need to be matched by state and federal grants), Mecklenburg voters would have to approve a referendum at the ballot box. But just getting it on the ballot would require legislative approval (a tough sell at the North Carolina General Assembly) and county commission approval (which some commissioners have expressed hesitancy about). Mayors in the northern towns, which have been waiting decades for the Red Line commuter rail – still blocked by Norfolk Southern – have also said they’re opposed to a referendum.

On Monday, Lyles said Charlotte “stumbled” by naming the task force “Charlotte Moves” and not getting more buy-in around the county. But with the 2021 elections almost certain to be pushed back a year due to the U.S. Census Bureau’s delays in publishing redistricting data, it might well be a moot point, since the prospect of any vote this fall looks extremely slim.

Instead of a sales tax increase (which would take Mecklenburg’s sales tax up to 8.25%, the state’s highest), City Council could decide to fund a transit plan via a property tax increase. The Charlotte Moves task force rejected that idea, however, and council hasn’t shown an appetite for such a measure.

“Property tax was not something that was necessarily desirable for a lot of residents,” Jaiyeoba said.

And if the sales tax referendum is pushed back to 2022, transit plans might look quite different anyway. Council member Braxton Winston questioned why the city isn’t looking to build a rail corridor to the booming Steele Creek area and southwest Charlotte. And City Manager Marcus Jones said staff plans to present updated cost estimates to City Council later in March – which could differ significantly from the $8 billion to $12 billion, back-of-the-envelope calculations the city has used thus far.

“The task force was setting a vision at a very high level,” Jones said. “We are refining our legislative ask and also refining the financial assumptions. We’re trying to flesh this out with confidence so we know the numbers we place before you are good numbers.”