Charlotte council narrowly keeps changes to single-family zoning in city’s growth plan

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Charlotte City Council narrowly voted Monday to tweak but largely preserve a provision in a plan that will guide the city’s growth that would allow duplexes and triplexes across the city.

After sparring for hours, council members took a series of straw votes on specific aspects of Charlotte’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan, a document unveiled in the fall that aims to provide a vision for development in the city for the next two decades. It covers everything from access to grocery stores and other amenities to transit-oriented development.

But much of the controversy over the plan centers around one proposal, which as originally written, would allow for duplexes, triplexes and in some cases quadraplexes on every lot.

Those who support the zoning change say it will help increase the supply of affordable housing and desegregate the city’s neighborhoods. But residents in neighborhoods across the city are concerned it could worsen gentrification or add density in areas without adequate infrastructure.

On Monday, a motion to remove the policy from the plan, which would allow duplexes and triplexes on every lot, failed to secure enough votes.

Five voted in favor of the motion: Democrats Victoria Watlington, Renee Johnson and Matt Newton, and Republicans Tariq Bokhari and Ed Driggs. Council members Larken Egleston, Greg Phipps, Braxton Winston, Dimple Ajmera and Malcolm Graham, as well as Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt, voted against it.

Phipps cast the deciding vote.

But council approved a motion to change the wording in the plan to allow duplexes and triplexes in every “place type,” rather than on every lot. Place types are similar to zoning districts, and will guide land use in a particular area, such as commercial, neighborhood or manufacturing.

City Council will vote on the final draft of the full 2040 plan on June 21.

Fierce debate

Some council members echoed resident concerns Monday, including Watlington, who has been a vocal critic of the plan and is concerned that the policy could accelerate gentrification.

“I’ve been very very clear over the last four months that this blanket policy is going to do more harm than good,” Watlington said.

She noted Monday that many neighborhoods, especially those in wealthy areas, have existing deed restrictions that would supersede the plan that prevent anything other than single-family homes from being built.

As a result, she said the brunt of the impacts of the policy will fall on neighborhoods in the city’s low-income, Black and brown neighborhoods.

This does exactly the opposite of what we would like it to do,” she said.

Newton said allowing duplexes and triplexes by-right would mean that the community is no longer part of the development process, as a rezoning would not be required.

We really do need to preserve that type of single-family zoning,” he said. “We need to do that if not for any other reason than to preserve the rezoning process.”

But there is also a cost to inaction, Eiselt said.

Status quo is not going to make your constituents happy,” she said. “You think it might right here in the moment, by not passing this plan, but we are passing this onto the next generation. And so status quo is not staying the same. It is losing out.”

Graham said the plan isn’t perfect, but fired back at council member Bokhari, who has said he does not trust Planning Director Taiwo Jaiyeoba to implement the comprehensive plan.

“To say we don’t trust the planning director or his intentions — it’s just wrong,” Graham said. “I think it’s time we look ourselves in the mirror and be honest about what we’re trying to do. Don’t confuse the public more than they already are.”

A contentious meeting

The seven-hour meeting was filled with heated exchanges between council members. Substitute motions were filed by both council members in favor of and those opposed to the plan.

“If you guys want to be mayor, run for mayor,” said Winston, who supports the plan. “You guys have been disrespecting the mayor all night.”

“That’s really rich coming from you, of all people,” Watlington shot back.

Some of those substitute motions were ruled out of order, but others were voted on. One such motion would have allowed for a single-family zoning category in the plan, with duplexes on corner lots. Charlotte already allows for both, but those supporting the motion said it would allow for more of the multifamily housing units to be built.

That motion narrowly failed, with the same vote breakdown as the motion to remove the duplex and triplex policy from the plan.

Council members also approved other changes to the 2040 plan. They include:

  • Forming an anti-displacement commission, which will make recommendations for the implementation phase of the 2040 plan.

  • Strengthening language in several parts of the plan around homeownership.

  • Conducting an economic impact analysis prior to the plan’s implementation.

Charlotte planning staff is expected to release the next draft of the 2040 plan, which will incorporate the changes voted on in Monday’s meeting, on May 19.

Building heights

Council also went back and forth on changing a provision that would cap building heights uptown, but allow developers to build above the limits if they provide some type of community benefit.

The original draft of the plan states that buildings can be as tall as 20 stories in uptown, “or when developed with community benefits such as public space and amenities or affordable housing.”

Jaiyeoba clarified in Monday’s meeting that staff is looking at changing the cap from 20 stories to 500 feet, based on the feedback from the development industry. The number of feet per story varies based on the type of project, but 500 feet is likely closer to around 30 stories, at least.

The guidelines for development along transit lines that Charlotte leaders approved in 2019 have similar height restrictions, with bonus height allowed if developers provide certain goals like affordable housing.

But Egleston said the city is hampering its vision of creating a more dense, environmentally-friendly city and preventing sprawl. “There is benefit in the density in and of itself, and I think any language that discourages it is inadvisable,” he said.

Winston challenged Egleston’s assertion that density alone is a benefit. He gave the example of Overstreet Mall, which he said was built for suburban men who wanted to participate in retail without interacting with people who don’t work in a bank.

“Density by itself does not benefit all of Charlotte, it historically has only benefited some in our community,” he said.

Egleston originally put forward a motion to eliminate height restrictions in uptown from the plan.

But a substitute motion from Ajmera was ultimately approved, which called for discussing height specifics for uptown in the Unified Development Ordinance, with options to be able to build higher tied to benefits like affordable housing.

The Unified Development Ordinance will consolidate the regulations that guide development in Charlotte and implement the goals of the 2040 plan.

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