By Alison Kuznitz, The Charlotte Observer
Charlotte now has a 2040 Comprehensive Plan, an aspirational land-use document that’s been years in the making — and the biggest source of consternation among City Council members in recent months.
With a tight 6-5 vote, the City Council on Monday adopted the plan, which Mayor Vi Lyles has said is intended to disrupt the “status quo” and ensure equitable growth over the next two decades.
Others, though, view the plan as an affront to the innate character of Charlotte neighborhoods.
The six Council members who voted in favor of the plan include Larken Egleston, Greg Phipps, Braxton Winston, Dimple Ajmera, Malcolm Graham and Julie Eiselt.
Council members Victoria Watlington, Renee Johnson, Matt Newton, Tariq Bokhari and Ed Driggs voted against the plan.
The split decision was a stark, albeit expected, departure from Charlotte’s Planning Committee’s unanimous vote June 15 to adopt the comprehensive plan. A handful of Council members were optimistic they could garner more votes through a series of private, smaller meetings to work through their differences — yet the count ultimately did not budge.
The lack of unanimity has not troubled some Council members, who say a simple majority is all that’s needed to embark on a new chapter in the Queen City. Other city leaders say the division spells trouble for other weighty discussions, including for transit and affordable housing, that would be expected to align with key tenets from the 2040 plan.
The Council’s pivotal vote, Lyles said, puts Charlotte on a path to reverse previous zoning policies that harmed Black residents and other communities of color.
“We are going to make sure that everyone in this community has a safe place to live, a good-paying job and a quality of life that we would all want,” Lyles said moments after the vote.
Driggs, meanwhile, said the City Council did not “have to proceed on the basis of a notion that we are guilty of something.” He said people who want to preserve single-family neighborhoods should not be labeled as segregationists. A move away from those neighborhoods is the most contentious part of the plan.
CITY COUNCIL SPARRING
If the process had gone smoothly, the City Council could have voted to approve the plan in late April, as originally scheduled.
Yet over the last four months, Council has struggled to gain broad support for the 134-page document, despite public engagement since 2018 that’s allowed residents, developers, neighborhood leaders and other stakeholders to weigh in on the long-term vision for Charlotte.
Eiselt, the mayor pro tem, said she thought the Council found a path forward during the past few weeks, though it “fell apart.” She and other Council members indicated they were not included in a meeting with city staff last Friday afternoon.
The plan led to “very real and very ugly” feuding among council members, as Lyles phrased it last month. Last week, Bokhari took to Twitter calling for the firing of the city’s planning director, Taiwo Jaiyeoba, who shrugged off the attack in an interview with the Observer.
“We don’t have to be best friends, no. I don’t expect that always,” Lyles said Monday. “But I do expect that respect and decorum is what this community is built on.”
The 2040 plan contains lofty goals, like 10 minute-neighborhoods where residents can access key amenities such supermarkets and child care within a 10-minute walk, bike ride or transit trip. And it outlines how mixed-use and affordable housing developments, transit lines and the environment — including Charlotte’s tree canopy — can mature in tandem amid the city’s burgeoning population growth.
“As a community-driven plan, it seeks to address the inequities of the past and unite the city around a shared set of goals for our future,” the document’s new preamble reads. “With that said, the goals, objectives and supporting policies are intended to be achieved citywide and not on every single lot.”
Even with Monday’s vote, the plan is still considered a “living document” that could change in the coming months, particularly as the Council must approve other zoning policies.
“It’s a 2040 plan,” Eiselt said. “Nobody expects the city is going to change overnight.”
Council members anticipate more disagreements as they work on developing maps for land use in different neighborhoods, parks, commercial centers and other areas.
The fiercest 2040 plan dispute revolved around a policy allowing higher-density housing units, including duplexes and triplexes, into traditionally single-family neighborhoods.
The wording, as approved on Monday, also permits tiny homes and accessory dwelling units alongside single-family homes.
Watlington’s substitute motion to remove the provision, pending a land use and economic feasibility study, failed.
Johnson, who favored that approach, noted the plan does not guarantee multifamily units will be affordable — and that the study would likely take just six to eight weeks. Without that type of data, Johnson said, city leaders have no concrete way of knowing if the plan could, in fact, improve equity.
“We believe this is the time to protect neighborhoods,” Johnson said.
Planning Committee chairperson Sam Spencer, addressing the City Council on Monday, said he opposed Watlington’s approach to separate key provisions in the plan.
“Increasing housing supply is a tried and true method of increasing affordability,” Spencer said.
Opponents caution this policy will only accelerate gentrification and harm the neighborhoods Charlotte leaders are hoping to protect. But supporters of the change say it will help assuage the city’s affordable housing crisis and desegregate neighborhoods.
Bokhari offered a “deep apology” to Charlotte residents, saying he “tried so hard” and “fought so hard” against the plan’s adoption. For weeks, he asked for all references to single-family zoning to be removed from the document until more information was available.
“Charlotte is going to become all the bad parts of living in Atlanta,” Bokhari said.
The final draft of the 2040 plan now calls for the creation of an anti-displacement commission to formulate strategies for protecting vulnerable residents.
Graham, who chairs the Council’s Great Neighborhoods Committee, said the plan makes “our community a lot more inclusive,” citing neighborhoods like Druid Hills, Washington Heights and Lincoln Heights.
“I would not do anything that would destroy, hurt or stunt their growth…” Graham said. “The plan’s not perfect. But it moves us forward.”
The city, for now, will not restrict building heights in uptown, another controversial part of the 2040 plan that some feared would hamper Charlotte’s businesses recruitment efforts.
That was scrapped from the plan’s first draft, but the final iteration does stipulate regional activity centers outside of uptown — including the former Eastland Mall site — “should be developed with benefits to the community.”
Jaiyeoba, Charlotte’s planning director, said the plan attempts to distinguish between more general “benefits to the community,” like affordable housing, versus formal agreements requiring developers to provide open space or child care, among other amenities.
Neighborhood leaders and other opponents say the policy’s wording does not go far enough to ensure equitable growth, especially in marginalized communities.
Some Council members are also wary the murky language could signal false promises to residents — and possibly expose the city to legal challenges.
Subsequent planning phases for the 2040 plan, including the Unified Development Ordinance, must be finalized by next year. As some Council members see it, the timeline gives city leaders a buffer to address unforeseen problems.
“A lot of my colleagues say we don’t have the the data (and) we don’t have the answers,” Graham said. “That’s what the UDO is for.”
Photo credit: The Charlotte, NC skyline on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. JSINER@CHARLOTTEOBSERVER.COM