Friday, November 13, 2015

One N.C. city aims to protect older buildings with a height limit. (Hint: Not Charlotte)

Tall new buildings surround Romare Bearden Park in uptown Charlotte. Photo: Nancy Pierce
As discussion in Charlotte continues on how to protect the unique character of some older neighborhoods from intense development pressure, [Can Plaza Midwood save the places that matter?] one N.C. city is using a tool that's been available all along. That city is Raleigh. [With height caps, Raleigh hopes to protect historic buildings]

It's not a tool beloved by people who make money from building tall buildings. By limiting the heights of buildings, the city is, at heart, limiting the profitability of any development on that dirt. Note that overall, Raleigh wants to encourage tall buildings downtown, and density.  But with a cluster of 19 old, iconic buildings along its main downtown street, Raleigh wants to add a level of protection.

Most of the buildings that will get the height limits are on the National Register of Historic Places and Raleigh historic landmarks.  Under state and federal law, neither of those designations can prevent a building from demolition.

Charlotte also has height restrictions in some of its zoning categories, especially the transit-oriented and mixed-use development districts. But those height limits are so tall that they don't, effectively, deter demolitions of older buildings, and there is an "optional" zoning that lets the city OK pretty much anything if the developer can make a good case for it.) Of course, the single-use-only districts have de facto height limits as well.  (My graduate student, Jacob Schmidt, recently analyzed the proportion of mixed-use vs .single-use zoning inside Charlotte city limits. More than 90 percent of the land area is zoned for single-uses.)

But if you own a property in uptown Charlotte zoned UMUD (uptown mixed use district) you can build as tall a building as the FAA will allow. That's right -- the only limits on height are based on whether airplanes might run into the towers. The
development-encouraging UMUD zoning was developed during the 1980s, when businesses were fleeing to the suburbs and the city wanted to encourage development uptown. At the time, it was a much-needed tool. UMUD zoning, coupled with several uptown bank leaders' determination to keep uptown healthy, prevented uptown from dying completely for a couple of decades. So while Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston-Salem and other N.C. downtowns are finally reviving nicely, with their older buildings intact, in Charlotte the side effect was to demolish virtually all the older buildings, including designated landmarks. With some welcome exceptions, our uptown is mostly shiny and new. 

I have heard at least one planner say that at one point the idea of uptown height limits was mentioned in a planning department meeting. But it was quietly buried.

It will be interesting to see, over time, how or whether Raleigh's use of the height-limit tool makes a difference in its downtown development.