How the 2040 plan divided Charlotte

How the 2040 plan divided Charlotte

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Council members sparring for months. City staff issuing conflicting memos. Supporters sporting yard signs like it’s election season, and opponents firing off mass email campaigns.

What’s happening: The 2040 plan, a non-binding document designed to be a vision for how Charlotte will grow for the next two decades, has become the most polarizing issue in the city in recent months. Charlotte City Council will vote for or against the plan this Monday.

  • The plan is about guiding Charlotte’s future, and it covers everything from environmental sustainability to access to transit to its most controversial proposal: allowing duplexes and triplexes in areas zoned for single-family. [Read the 134-page plan policy here, and see its other components here]

The big picture: The crux of the conflict over the plan is whether Charlotte should keep growing the way it always has. Nearly all of the city’s leaders have made a point of stating that the status quo needs to change, but debate hinges around how to do that.

  • Supporters of the plan say that it’s a step toward spreading the benefits of growth more equitably.
  • But others are concerned it could have unintended consequences.

Charlotte for years has embraced the mentality that development in of itself is a benefit. Every Fortune 500 headquarters or apartment building means more jobs and tax revenue for the city, and a greater profile for Charlotte nationally.

Not everyone has benefitted, though. The cost of housing continues to skyrocket, displacing longtime residents and locking low- and middle-income Charlotteans out of opportunities to build wealth.

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  • There are communities that have been fighting for equity for decades,” says Rickey Hall, board chairman of the West Boulevard Neighborhood Coalition. “This is an opportunity to get it right.”

Yes, but: Developers and the real estate industry lobbying group have cautioned that the plan threatens to raise the cost of doing business in the city and drive investment away.

  • Karla Knotts, who owns Charlotte real estate company Knotts Development Resources with her husband, tells me she worries the plan could make building (and buying) homes more expensive. “It does not take a genius to read this document and start putting dollar signs next to their ideas,” she says.
  • Requirements around pedestrian connections and tree canopy, for example, limit the amount of land on a particular site that can be developed, she said. That increases the cost of what is built in the project, she said.

Flashback: The city released the first draft of the plan on Halloween, but it was not until early spring that major opposition from neighborhood groups and developers came into focus. Then, as it became clear that a majority of council had concerns about the plan, the vote, originally scheduled to take place in late April, was delayed.

Neighborhoods began voicing their concerns and emailing council about the plan, and in particular, its provision to allow other housing in single-family areas.

  • Charlie Welch, president of the Myers Park Homeowners Association, told WFAE in early March that he was concerned that allowing multifamily housing on any single-family lot would negatively affect the character and integrity of the neighborhood.
  • Others argue the single-family provision could worsen gentrification and the housing affordability crisis.

All of that disagreement has boiled over into marathon council debates over the plan for three months, filled with personal attacks.

Photo: Screenshot from City of Charlotte’s livestream

  • At a meeting last month, council member Braxton Winston, fed up with the hours-long discussion, told his colleagues: “If you guys want to be mayor, run for mayor. You guys have been disrespecting the mayor all night.” Council member Victoria Watlington shot back: “That’s really rich coming from you, of all people.”
  • Council member Tariq Bokhari openly called for the firing of city planning director Taiwo Jaiyeoba on Twitter Thursday, on what he called the “grounds of ethical failures.”
  • Last week, Mayor Vi Lyles adjourned a meeting after hours of fighting. “What I have heard in this room in the last two months has been really pretty remarkably lacking respect of each other,” she told council members.

And little has changed in terms of coming to an agreement over the plan during that time. The final draft is expected to be approved in a narrow 6-5 vote.

Though we’re nearing the end of the 2040 saga with Monday’s council vote looming, the debacle has exposed the deep divisions between city leaders.

Billy Maddalon, who was appointed to city council in 2013 and is running again for the District 1 seat, tells me he’s never seen council behave like this before. It reminds him of the gridlock in Congress.

  • “(Historically) they figured out how to be a consensus operation, so they would wheel and deal … and figure out how to come to the public dais and agree on what they’re going to agree on,” he says. “Some of the folks on council have a hard time separating the people from their ideas or their perspectives. It doesn’t have anything to do with who is right.”

It’s a far cry from the hopeful image that was projected when the “first majority-millennial city council in America” took office in 2018, garnering national attention. Now, some of those same council members are disparaging each other in public.

Justin Harlow, the only member of that majority-millennial city council who is no longer in office, told me that virtual meetings implemented due to COVID-19 have made it harder for council members to build relationships with each other.

  • The mayor is up there trying to be the classroom teacher,” he said. “You know we’ve gotten to a place where it’s like, wow, we’ve really got to reel it back a little bit.”

What’s next: After the 2040 plan is passed, council will take up the Unified Development Ordinance, which will actually implement the goals outlined in the 2040 plan through development regulations.

The bottom line: The debate over how Charlotte should develop, and how to spread the benefits of that growth equitably, is far from over.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include a tweet from council member Tariq Bokhari Thursday.

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