Aug 9, 2023 - Development

All talk, little action? 3 recent times Charlotte backpedaled on its big-city ambitions

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Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

When developers with Space Craft look at North Davidson, they see the potential to turn underused warehouse buildings into vibrant housing communities.

  • That’s partly why the company started: To build their vision of a walkable, destination city, akin to Asheville or Charleston. It saw an opportunity along the Blue Line light rail extension, where residents wouldn’t have to rely on a car to get around.

Yes, but: These industrial buildings are within 400 feet of single-family homes. Per the city’s new development regulations, which took effect in June, any new multi-family construction would need to include at least one parking spot per unit.

  • That could add millions of dollars to projects, a cost that would be passed onto renters. It could also add hundreds of cars to NoDa’s roads.

“The kinds of projects that we and other walkability-focused developers have done and have in process in that Mill District, in the North Davidson corridor, are basically just not feasible anymore,” Josh Gresham, general counsel with Space Craft, tells Axios.

Why it matters: Over the last several years, the city of Charlotte has spent significant time and money planning how it will grow into a big, walkable city with ample housing. The strategies were compiled into the 2040 plan.

What’s happening: Now that city leaders have begun to implement the plan through its development regulations, it’s received some pushback, particularly from single-family homeowners. They have either rejected or are rethinking policies that promote dense housing and dissuade people from driving cars.

  • Half of the members who voted in favor of the 2040 plan are no longer on council. Mayor Pro Tem Braxton Winston, one of the most outspoken proponents of urban planning, will not be on council come 2024.

The bottom line: City leaders are attempting to respond to constituents in real time — but in doing so they may be compromising the city’s growth, from housing access to sustainability. They say the city isn’t ready to turn off its car dependency but have also failed to make headway on transit goals, like building new rail lines.

Here are three recent instances when city leaders backpedaled on its big-city goals.

1) When they mandated that parking be built next to the light rail — and for bars

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Construction happening on The Joinery, Space Craft’s zero-parking apartments near NoDa. Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

Parking minimums are the number of spots the local government requires developers to build for a project. 

  • It used to be that in Charlotte’s transit-oriented zones, which are along the light rail, only bars or restaurants within 200 feet of single-family homes were required to build parking spots.
  • The new UDO, implemented in June, went even further. Now if a bar or restaurant is within 400 feet of single-family housing, it is required to have parking spots. Plus, now, all multi-family housing must include one spot per unit.

Council member Winston previously pushed to remove parking minimums for businesses that serve alcohol. He said mandating parking encouraged drinking and driving. 

By the numbers: A 100-unit apartment building near a single-family zoning district would now be required to have 100 parking spots. Those spots would cost about $3 million to build, Gresham with Space Craft says. That could tack on about $50 to $150 to a person’s monthly rent. It also takes up tens of thousands of square feet that could be used for more housing units.

  • Gresham calls parking minimums a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” because more parking requires larger parking lots — “and bigger parking lots mean that buildings are farther apart and isolated from the road, from the sidewalk, which makes walking and biking harder, which then means people need to drive and if people need to drive, then you have to end up creating more parking.”

Zoom out: Cities such as Raleigh and Richmond have ended minimum parking requirements citywide.

What they’re saying: Sustain Charlotte is campaigning to remove parking minimums from transit-oriented districts. They attempted to remove them in the latest redraft of the Unified Development Ordinance but lost ground instead, says urban design specialist Eric Zaverl.

  • “We think that’s completely the wrong direction to move if we’re trying to promote transit. We’re trying to get more people to get out of their cars, to give choice and to alleviate some of the congestion,” Zaverl tells Axios.

2) When they considered making it harder to build a drive-thru, but decided that would be unfair to drivers

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The Chick-fil-A in Cotswold. Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

This past spring, the city’s planners suggested elected officials pass new regulations to prohibit drive-thru-only establishments in prominent nodes of town they want to make more walkable. This would be like a restaurant without a dining room.

  • An accessory drive-thru (think a CVS pharmacy window) would still be allowed but would require a conditional rezoning — an extra step to gain city approval before pursuing the project.

This would have affected commercial zoning districts in “Centers Place Types,” or areas the city would like to transition to more pedestrian-friendly. They include parts of NoDa and Plaza Midwood, 7th Street in Elizabeth, Park Road Shopping Center, South Park and Cotswold, where Chick-fil-A is renovating one of its most popular Charlotte restaurants into a drive-thru-only.

Yes, but: In a May meeting, council member LaWana Mayfield was concerned about limiting drive-thrus. “What does that look like if I want to go visit a friend that lives over there and say I want to pick up something quick? I won’t have access to a drive-thru?” she asked.

  • Tariq Bokhari called it a bureaucratic step and said the city hasn’t invested enough in its “no car” dream. Ed Driggs acknowledged staff was responding to a goal the majority of council endorsed, but he said he felt people who depend on cars were being punished.

On the other side, Winston emphasized this change would not prevent drive-thrus from existing — it only excluded them in certain places. He and Dimple Ajmera were the only two “yes” votes.

3) When they, on multiple occasions, hesitated on policies that promote dense housing

To the right, a multi-family home on Pecan Avenue. Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

When council voted down the drive-thru text amendment in May, it also shot down a change that would have allowed multi-family in those “Centers Place Type” commercial areas. That would encourage a mix of uses, necessary to create 10-minute neighborhoods, staff said.

  • Council will reconsider the text amendment without the drive-thru rules this fall.

Staff is also looking at a change to its controversial policy that allows for more duplexes and triplexes in traditionally single-family neighborhoods. One idea is to require single-family housing in new projects where duplexes and triplexes are built.

  • “You’re really trying to put similar types of development next to one another and then allowing for different product types within the overall development,” Charlotte planning director Alyson Craig explained at a development committee meeting this past Monday.

What they’re saying: Winston called the proposed requirement “exclusionary zoning.” He said the local government would be limiting the market’s ability to respond to housing needs.

  • “It seems very arbitrary for us to tell people the type of housing that they can and can’t have,” Winston said. “There’s lots, literally decades, of evidence to say that that adds to housing in-affordability, segregates communities and is a bad form of specifically urban development.”

The other side: Other sitting council members think the controversial policy to eliminate single-family-only zoning will inequitably affect lower-income neighborhoods. Most high-income neighborhoods have homeowner association regulations or deed restrictions that prevent multi-family housing anyway and supersede the city’s guidelines.

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