A glimpse at Charlotte’s future from a piece of the past

It probably wasn’t the setting Charlotte planners would have picked to unveil their vision for the future: A parking lot off Independence Boulevard, acres of scarred asphalt surrounded by a tangle of some of the city’s least pedestrian-friendly streets.

But in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic, an in-person event at a densely packed brewery along the light rail or in a tower overlooking the skyline wasn’t an option, so chief Charlotte planner Taiwo Jaiyeoba made do. He emphasized that the new plan must address Charlotte’s history of unequal housing, access to jobs and basic amenities such as sidewalks.

“As our city grows, we have to be mindful of inequity,” he said, standing in front of two screens in the Park Expo Center parking lot where details from the plans were projected. Attendees stayed in their cars and tuned into listen on their radios, drive-in style, and took home Charlotte Future 2040-branded bottles of hand sanitizer in goodie bags.

[Read the draft Charlotte Future 2040 plan here]

The vision plan is a sprawling, 320-page document that’s meant to guide everything from how different types of housing are built in different neighborhoods to transit development over the next two decades. Charlotte leaders will be collecting feedback over the next six months, before City Council adopts the plan in the spring.

The plan lays out different “place types,” from neighborhood centers to commercial clusters to parks and nature preserves. Although the plan is big, it can be summed up in simple terms: the Charlotte of the future will be denser, with less segregation and greater equity, more transit options, bike infrastructure and sidewalks, and more commercial uses integrated into neighborhoods so people don’t have to drive as far to get to everything.

It’s the city’s first overall vision plan since 1975, and the goal is to consolidate the dozens of non-binding neighborhood and area plans, regulations for trees, stormwater and more into one place. But there are other important planning efforts happening in parallel.

To implement the vision plan, Charlotte planners are also designing a new Unified Development Ordinance that will replace the city’s outdated zoning code. That’s where concrete, specific regulations will be written. There’s a new master plan for parks underway in Mecklenburg County, and the Charlotte Moves task force just delivered recommendations for an $8 billion to $12 billion transit plan for the city, to be built over the next few decades.

There are a lot of moving parts, in other words. And that’s before you remember the projected 385,000 new residents projected to move to Charlotte by 2040. They aren’t waiting for the city’s plan, and, barring an unprecedented economic meltdown, they’re coming, new vision or not.

Big ideas

Each section of the draft vision plan includes proposed “big ideas,” policy changes that could really alter the city’s trajectory. Some are likely to be controversial, and some expensive, but they offer an intriguing look at where Charlotte could be headed.

The big ideas include:

  • “Allow more housing types in traditional single-family zoning districts to encourage housing diversity everywhere in our community.” This goes with Jaiyeoba’s discussions about eliminating single family-only zoning throughout the city.
  • “Lead the charge to pass enabling legislation for mandatory inclusionary zoning and implement throughout the community.” Mandatory inclusionary zoning, in which developers must include some percentage of affordable housing in new developments, is not currently allowed for municipalities under state law.
  • “Direct at least half of public infrastructure spending over next 20 years to the most vulnerable communities.”
  • “Create a robust program of restorative justice targeting homeownership, creation and growth of small business, and equity building for the Black community, including strategic application of existing tools (e.g. low interest loans, small business assistance, etc.) and development of new tools (e.g. community land trusts, commercial lease assistance, etc.).”
  • “Create a culture of developer-community collaboration through community benefit agreements. Community benefit agreements are a newer type of community investment programs that cities are using to directly tie improvements funded or built by new development projects directly with input and direction from the community for which the new development will impact.”

Listening to Jaiyeoba and other planners over the scratchy FM radio station, it soon seemed apparent that the backdrop for the plan’s unveiling might have inadvertently set the perfect yardstick to measure its eventual success against. Independence Boulevard is one of the ultimate relics of the automobile-driven age, an expressway that slashed through neighborhoods and cuts businesses and pedestrians off with a river of high-speed traffic.

Endless acres of car dealerships line much of the often-congested road, which connects to the I-277 inner loop that dismembered many historically black neighborhoods and acts as a moat between uptown and the rest of the city.

Much of the Charlotte Future 2040 vision plan is about repairing the city’s past mistakes, like segregation, redlining and destructive highway building. In the future, planners hope, Independence Boulevard will be home to part of the Silver Line light rail, with more pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, stitching some of the community back together.

At the same time, planners must also consider the effects of gentrification, development and displacement on the rich immigrant communities and diverse neighborhoods that have made parts of east Charlotte along Independence their home. The proposed vision is also about not repeating the sins of the past as much as it is about repairing them in the present.

What Independence Boulevard and the surrounding neighborhoods look like in two decades could well be an indicator of how well the Charlotte Future 2040 plan worked. Will there still be a sea of empty parking spaces next to a highway that slices a big part of the city in half? Or will the dense vital, mixed-use, mixed-income, transit-, bike- and pedestrian-friendly future envisioned come into being.

Listening to Jaiyeoba’s voice scratching out of a hundred radio speakers above the dull roar of highway traffic, that future sounded tantalizingly close — and also far away.