Monday, October 28, 2013

Regional planning and sticker shock

Will stickers on a map matter? Photo: City of Charlotte
After suggesting in print that people should attend last Thursday's regional planning workshop, part of the CONNECT Our Future effort, it was only fitting that I, too, go. And a good time was had by all. Except ...

We were assigned tables as we went in, and I ended at a table with two other Marys - Mary Hopper, recently stepped down as director of University City partners and a former chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission, and Mary Clayton, a transportation planner with Parsons Brinckerhoff. Also at the table were three UNC Charlotte urban design grad students, and a handful of other folks.  I am not sure that the table was representative of the population at large, but whatever. It was a good collection of people.

Our table moderator, Nadine Bennett, a planner with Centralina Council of Governments, which is administering the $5 million federal grant that funds CONNECT, asked us all to talk a bit about who we were and what we thought the region's biggest issues are. Just about everyone said "transportation." And just about everyone said, "We don't want to become another Atlanta."  One of the graduate students was, I am not making this up, from Atlanta, and she was particularly forceful on this point.

Bennett said that she had been the moderator for, I think, 17 different tables during a two-month series of workshops in 14 counties and at every one of those tables, people had said, "We don't want to become another Atlanta."
In other words, regardless of the interesting, lively, cultural vibe in Atlanta, its image in this part of the country is of one giant traffic jam and minimal public transportation.  Not sure that's accurate, but that's obviously what people envision.

The workshop exercise itself  involved placing stickers on a big map of Mecklenburg County, showing where we think new metropolitan centers (towers), activity centers, transit-oriented centers, etc., should be.  We had a small number of "walkable neighborhoods" that we could stick here and there on the map.  It was never clear why we couldn't work toward making every neighborhood a walkable neighborhood. And it wasn't clear why we were restricted to Mecklenburg County, because if anyone understands the reality that a metro area's issues are not hemmed in by county lines, it would be the regional planners at the Centralina COG.

It was fun placing the stickers. Without a young child in the house my exposure to stickers has dropped and you forget how much fun they are. But as with most regional planning exercises of this sort, whether it was the RealityCheck 2050 workshop last June, or last week's event or even the drawing up of area plans, I emerge frustrated. From what I see, in this city in this state, what's in a plan seems to make little difference in shaping what ends up happening.

Do plans matter?

That's for a lot of reasons. One is that national tax policy as well as the financing availability for developers both play a big role in how developments are structured. It is even tougher than before the downtown to get financing for mixed-use developments.

Another obvious reason that plans don't get followed is that the plans themselves can be disconnected from the legal requirements for developers. Ordinances address such things as setbacks, allowable land uses, how many buildings can sit on how much land, etc. Those things shape the results. Some cities create land use plans that have the force of law. Others adopt a comprehensive plan and then systematically amend their ordinances to enable what the plan calls for.

Charlotte doesn't do it that way. It adopts plans, then hopes developers will follow them. Unless the plans are 20 years out of date. In which case the planners may recommend in favor of a development that doesn't follow the plan. Plus, sometimes plans have vague language which means nobody can tell if a development is following the plan or not. In any case, regardless of what plans say or what planners recommend, it's elected officials who decide rezonings.

Less obvious: by-right zoning

A less obvious reason that plans may make little difference is that a lot of development takes place with no rezoning needed. Consider the vast, 733-student, gated and fenced apartment complex going up about a half mile from the planner University City light rail stop. No public notice or rezoning took place because the land was already zoned to hold suburban-form apartments.

Multifamily is a good use for a transit station area. But this design is not. Transit station areas are supposed to have walkable streets and connecting streets (walkability is closely related to short, connecting blocks, says Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City.) Transit station areas are not supposed to feature a 733-space parking lot between the light rail station and the residences, nor large wooded buffer areas -- a suburban-style design. (An updated zoning ordinance could have prevented this.)

Charlotte's Sharon Road West light rail stop. No other counties have opted in. Photo: Nancy Pierce
Last Thursday night, I had to leave before all seven tables reported out, but after five tables, all had recommended dramatically improving the area's public transportation choices.Is that going to happen? A 14-county region means dozens of elected officials, and so far, none of those counties has offered to pay for public transit, because it would mean taxing the voters. If there's a groundswell in the region for a transit tax, it's not loud or well-reported on.

To be sure, the Salt Lake City region's remarkable series of transit construction projects (building 70 miles in seven years) is reported to have emerged from a regional planning process, Envision Utah.

Can CONNECT produce any region wide consensus the way Envision Utah did? I'm hopeful. But not optimistic.