What the architect of Charlotte’s future is leaving behind

What the architect of Charlotte’s future is leaving behind
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As he prepares to work from the Government Center one last time Friday, Charlotte planning director Taiwo Jaiyeoba is thinking about another time he walked through those doors.

It was just after the city’s narrow approval in June 2021 of the 2040 plan, designed to unite Charlotte around a vision for its growth but that tore council members apart. A security guard stopped Jaiyeoba on his way in. With tears in his eyes, he thanked him for advocating for affordable housing.

  • “There are some of us, the only way we can afford to live here in Charlotte is for somebody like you to speak up,” he told him.
  • Jaiyeoba jumped into the elevator and started to cry once he reached his office. It was a reminder that, behind all of the bitterness over a visionary document, there were real people struggling to get by, who needed something to change.

What’s happening: That was more than six months ago. Now, as he prepares to leave for his new job, Jaiyeoba still thinks about the security guard, and the stories like it that remind him why he does what he does.

Why it matters: Charlotte’s growth has injected billions into the region, and many have benefited from it. But it’s also exacerbated an affordable housing crisis, pushed out small businesses and threatened neighborhoods.

That’s a big problem for one person to tackle, even if they do run the planning department of one of the 20 largest cities in the nation. But for the last four years, Jaiyeoba has made it clear that he’s going to try.

  • He oversaw major initiatives like the 2040 plan, and as part of it, a contentious initiative to eliminate single-family-only zoning. It was something that had only been done in a few cities and was designed to combat a history of zoning policies that perpetuated segregation.
  • There were other ideas included in the plan, too, like community benefit agreements, or contracts between developers and neighborhoods to provide needed amenities.

Those are the reasons he was revered by some advocates and disliked by others, from other neighborhood groups to developers, who worried the plan would increase the cost of development.

  • Now, his supporters worry about who will pick up the mantle.

The big picture: Time will tell how effective the changes Jaiyeoba pushed for will be. The 2040 plan was aspirational, but it will be put into law through the upcoming Unified Development Ordinance.

But Jaiyeoba believes he made a difference.

  • “I just feel fulfilled that I left this place in a better place than I met it,” Jaiyeoba told me.

To those worried about where his departure leaves the efforts he’s been fighting for: The accomplishment Jaiyeoba says he is most proud of is the team he put together.

  • The current deputy planning director, Alyson Craig, will take over as the interim director. Hiring her and others in the department was deliberate, so that the work didn’t rely on any one person, Jaiyeoba says.
  • “The fact is that it will be a failure, frankly speaking, if after someone walks out of the room, nobody picks up that responsibility and moves on,” he said.

Some of Jaiyeoba’s victories are less tangible right now. He acknowledged that the sales tax he helped push for to fund transportation investments may or may not be on the ballot this year. But he believes he helped shape a difficult long-term conversation.

  • “I like to be able to look back five years from now, and feel that we made a difference in some of the things that we championed, (although) they might have been controversial. But we started a conversation around, you know, building an equitable city.”

Yes, but: He’s not without regrets.

He says the city should not have assumed that just because they engaged the community before releasing the 2040 plan, that those same people would stay engaged. Many would just start to pay attention at that point. Especially when it’s something like a comprehensive plan that Charlotte hasn’t had in more than four decades.

  • And if not for COVID-19, Jaiyeoba said he would have liked to take residents to communities that are trying out the ideas proposed in the comprehensive plan.

He’s tried to take lessons from those experiences to better the planning process in the future.

  • He suggested the next director take elected officials and residents along with them to planning conferences, so they can hear what other communities are doing.
  • The department is starting a citizen planning academy, so that when the time comes to revise the 2040 plan, there will be a group of residents who understand and champion it.
  • And he says the process they are taking for the Unified Development Ordinance, which will consist of three drafts with opportunities for public comment before council votes in July, is a direct result of the lessons learned from the 2040 plan.

My thought bubble: It’s also rare for a city staff member to connect with people through Twitter the way Jaiyeoba did.

What’s next: Jaiyeoba is preparing for the professional, and personal, transition. His family of nine has gone through a move like this before, when he was transferred to Charlotte in 2015, so he says they’re taking it well.

Even from 92 miles up Interstate 85, he says he’ll be rooting for Charlotte.

“I’ll be in Greensboro cheering on the sidelines, because the success of Charlotte is our success as a state, especially in the urban areas in the state as well,” he said.

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