What the city’s proposed development rules mean for parking woes and all the ‘beige box’ construction

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"Great Wall of Charlotte"

For well over a decade, Charlotte has been building with reckless abandon, following the rules of an antiquated zoning system that hadn’t been touched since the 1990s. To combat this, the city started the process of adopting a Unified Development Ordinance (UDO). Last week, the first piece of the UDO was publicly released. While it is just a draft at this time, it gives us our first insight into how the planning department and the new planning director intend to streamline today’s cumbersome zoning system. I like what I see so far, but just wonder if it’s too little, too late.

The latest release outlines one of the most complicated zoning designations, Transit Oriented Development District, or TOD-A. As a general guideline, TOD-A, applies to any piece of property within a quarter-mile of a transit station. It strives to create a high density, transit oriented, pedestrian friendly and cohesive urban environment near each transit station. This designation will apply to the neighborhoods closest to each station, as the planning department plans to roll out less intense TOD zoning to apply to further out areas in the spring.

What I like

Big Ideas. It’s not every day you come across something innovative in a zoning document. This is not something we have come to expect from the people who are in charge of guiding Charlotte, as it navigates its urban adolescence. One of the items included is the concept of height bonuses.

While this ordinance more than doubles the allowable height in TOD areas from 120 to 250 feet, it requires that you “check off boxes” in order to meet each height threshold. Just to surpass 65 feet in height, you have to score enough points to do so. Some examples of attributes that score points are the inclusion of affordable housing, public art, open space, enhanced pedestrian experiences, adaptive re-use and you can even score points based on the design merit of your project.

We will see as this ordinance fleshes out just how groundbreaking it could be. They haven’t yet set the benchmarks for each height increase, so it’s tough to say how strict they will be in the end.

No More Parking MINIMUMS, now we are talking about MAXIMUMS. Today, parking requirements actually shift development more than any other metric. Look at Atherton Mill, for example. This project has a tremendous amount of uses in a fairly compact area, but is held back by parking requirements. Visually speaking, from several angles, it will feel like a parking deck that happens to have other uses. Approaching from the south, Atherton will have a parking deck that is 500 feet long by 70 feet high, towering over and obscuring the 1920s Textile Mill that lends its name to the project. If approved/passed, TOD-A would get rid of parking requirements.

Of course, this assumes the developer didn’t want all those parking spaces to begin with. Plenty of developers offer parking as an amenity, delivering their latest project with nearly two spaces per unit, TOD-A combats this by establishing a parking maximum. If approved, structured projects will be capped at one and a half spaces per unit and surface spaces (why is that allowed at all?) capped at one per unit. Similarly to the height bonuses, there are conditions that allow you to add additional parking, for instance if you have retail, restaurants or are planning to offer additional public parking in off hours.

Parking is great, but too many developers are perpetuating Charlotte’s reliance on the automobile. Why are we trying to build a robust transit system if we are going to continue pulling out all the stops for drivers? Just look at Novel Stonewall Station. From any point in that complex, you can access the parking deck within a matter of seconds. However, if you wanted to walk to work, I suggest you pack a snack, because it’s a long and complicated walk to get to Stonewall Street. A building uptown that readily uses its proximity to everything as a sales tool and has its own transit station has no excuse for this.

Novel Stonewall Station via Crescent Communities

Design Guidelines! One of the items I really like about TOD-A is the inclusion of sensible design guidelines. The TOD-A outlines how buildings should be massed and designed near a transit station. The document includes guidelines for primary frontages, secondary frontages, boulevard frontages and main street frontages. This is a big win for those of us that complain about the flat featureless ”beige“ boxes going up on every corner. While the color beige isn’t addressed per se, the material that generally results in beige surfaces, EIFS (fake stucco), is limited to only being allowed on 20 percent of a building’s facade.

An example of the design standard

The guidelines promote durable high quality materials, architectural variety and interesting facades. If a building is longer than usual, it is expected to be unique, broken up into shorter segments, with varying rooflines and perhaps changes in materials. This would keep the I-277 facing side of Novel Stonewall Station, dubbed by locals as “The Great Wall of Charlotte” from ever happening again within a quarter mile of a transit station. The guidelines might also prevent the huge featureless parapet along the Stonewall facing elevation.

“Great Wall of Charlotte” of Novel Stonewall Station facing I-277

What I don’t like

In regards to the ordinance itself, there’s not much I do not like. It hits a lot of needs, it does a lot to safeguard the urban realm for the foreseeable future. Perhaps instead of TOD-A extending a quarter of a mile from a station, maybe it should go a quarter of a mile from the line itself.

The original blue line is already pretty developed, so much so that a quarter of a mile from a station doesn’t dictate much. It has a lot more impact on the Blue Line Extension, especially in the lesser developed Parkwood, 25th Street and Sugar Creek station areas. A quarter mile from a station doesn’t even affect Atherton Mill, but honestly there needs to be a train station there anyways.

I also don’t like that it took two development cycles to figure out this was needed, and that it took three years to hire a planning director. I’m happy with the hire: Taiwo Jaiyeoba has led an impressive career as an urban planner, with stops in the private sector, as well as in the public sector, as the Planning Director in Grand Rapids and Sacramento—two cities who have experienced similar development booms, albeit on smaller scales.

Lastly, I’ve yet to see an indication that the UDO will actually be any less complex. I’ve been following this matter very closely and will continue to do so. TOD-A seems like a great start, but it’s still pretty complicated. It feels like more time is being spent convincing people it’s simpler than actually simplifying the code. Eliminating contradictions, and redundancy is one thing — actually streamlining and simplifying is a whole other matter. There have been advancements in zoning, including concepts like algorithmic zoning, that I hope the city seriously looks into.

I look forward to keeping up with the advancements in the UDO and will continue to keep people updated on its good points and bad points, and whether it does, as promised, creating a simple, but comprehensive guide to building a better Charlotte.

Photos: Charlotte Observer file, Crescent Communities, Kevin Johnson

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