Monday, June 28, 2021

40 years that built today's Charlotte

The early 20th century's "Watch Charlotte Grow" Drum and Bugle Corps. Because Charlotte always wants to grow. Photo courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.

At 9 a.m.Tuesday, I’ll be on a panel of four long-time Charlotteans on NPR station WFAE 90.7, discussing what Big Things have influenced Charlotte in the past 40 years. It’s part of WFAEs celebrating its 40th anniversary. Learn more here. I hope you can listen in, or better yet join us in person.

My fellow panelists – historian Tom Hanchett, documentary filmmaker Steve Crump, WCNC’s Larry Sprinkle – and I aren’t likely to agree, which should be part of the fun. But since I had to reflect and ponder anyway, here’s what I listed as the most significant things shaping Charlotte since 1981. Note: To me this did not mean the biggest news stories, such as the DNC or the Jim Bakker televangelist expose for which the Charlotte Observer won a Pulitzer. I went for things that seemed, in hindsight, to have been essential in shaping the city we live in today. Here are my Top 10. They
’re in NO priority order, lest someone start quibbling that one was more significant than another.

Harvey Gantt elected the city’s first Black mayor in 1983. I admire Gantt for all he’s contributed over the years, but I don’t know that he had more influence than any other mayor. Nevertheless this was a significant milestone for the city’s racial atmosphere and hugely significant in shaping the city’s image as, well, not as racist as a lot of other places in the South.

The 1989 merger of Piedmont Airlines with USAir. This created a huge East Coast airline with a major hub in Charlotte. (Though I still miss the down-home customer service of Piedmont.) Ask business leaders and they’ll verify that the multiple flights in and out of Charlotte make this a very attractive place to start a business, grow a business, or relocate a business.

The 1996 launch of the historic Charlotte Trolley in 1996. The nonprofit used historic Charlotte streetcar #85, rescued from a field in Huntersville and restored. It was run by volunteers along the tracks starting beside Atherton Mill, near what’s now Luna’s restaurant, ending at Morehead Street. This little fun run became a big demonstration project that people would ride rail transit, even when IT DIDN'T GO ANYWHERE. This, arguably, was the spark that lit the fire that eventually became today’s white hot development market in what’s now called South End.

The 1998 transit tax referendum (and a 2007 re-vote). Yeah, the tax doesn’t produce as much money as needed, everyone now agrees. But this was a major affirmation that Mecklenburg voters were willing to tax themselves to build mass transit. And of course

the Blue Line has it sparked major transit-oriented development. See previous item, re South End.


The influx of immigrants beginning in the 1980s into the 2010s. This has changed the flavor of the city, broadening what had been a white-bread-and-steak-and-potatoes town, where a friend once joked that the only ethnic restaurant was the now-departed Athens all-night diner. Charlotte acquired international food, lively cultural nuances, and just got more interesting. Our new neighbors from other lands also changed the city's economics. We have mom-and-pop small groceries and pupuserias, taquerias, falafel and dim sum joints. The influx of young workers and their families has affected the city’s demographics: they kept the average age in Charlotte lower than many places. A less cheerful effect was that undocumented workers, fearful of being deported if they spoke up, could be more easily exploited, cheated of fair wages, and forced to work in unsafe situations. etc.


The 1999 ruling from federal Judge Bob Potter.  Potter, who years before had fought school desegregation, scrapped the 30-year-old federal court order that made CMS integrate its schools. So schools resegregated, and we are living with the results today.

The UMUD uptown zoning (late 1980s? I’m still trying to verify this).
Zoning, you say? Ugh. Hear me out. In an era of strictly suburban-style zoning, barely out of the Urban Renewal era, Charlotte adopted uptown zoning that was remarkably permissive. As businesses were deciding they should leave the center city, the city wanted to make life easy for those that wanted to be uptown. It adopted the Urban Mixed Use District zoning. You could build as high as the FAA would let you as long as your building didn’t get in the way of airplanes.


I think this permissive zoning, beloved by both Charlotte Center City Partners and its predecessor, the Charlotte Uptown Development Corp., may have been as significant, if not more so, than the various banker CEOs building office towers. Here’s why: Yes, it made it more attractive for businesses that might have been on the brink of moving to the burbs. But it meant every scrap of dirt was already zoned for a skyscraper. Property owners, a.k.a. land speculators, all wanted to think their piece of dirt would host the next office tower, so they tore down any older buildings they owned and built surface parking lots to get some income. It also put huge upward pressure on land values. UMUD zoning is a key reason uptown Charlotte lost its sense of the past, the physical reminders of memory and meaning.


And it’s a major reason uptown has little affordable housing beyond what was in pre-existing Housing Authority developments. 


By automatically giving every piece of property virtually unlimited development rights, there’s no way to offer incentives for things you’d want uptown, such as  ... affordable housing. Or parks, or other public-spirited amenities. When you already have a truckload of carrots, offering a carrot is no incentive.


The 2010 election that flipped the state legislature to all Republican. (Note to non-policy-wonks: In N.C., cities can’t do anything the state legislature hasn’t given them permission to do.) These werent old-school, get-it-done, bipartisan-when-needed Republicans like Jim Martin, but Tea Partiers who began demonstrating their dislike of mass transit (eventually whacking virtually all state funding for transit systems) and general hostility toward cities. This has had huge repercussions in many N.C. cities, including Charlotte. A few examples: the attempt to take Charlotte airport operations away from the city; gutting the states liberal annexation law; undermining public education by giving public money to private schools and expanding charter schools; and the infamous HB2, a.k.a. the “bathroom bill.” And it means there’s no hope of mandatory zoning laws requiring a percentage of developments be affordable housing, or other tools used in other states. I could go on but I’ll stop.

Pro sports. NBA. NFL. Charlotte became
big league just like Oklahoma City, Jacksonville and Indianapolis, etc. Seriously, its an image thing but to many people that image matters.

The Great Recession of 2007-2010. It hit Charlotte harder than many places, since a massive part of our economy is based on real estate and development, not to mention mortgage banking. It wiped out a lot of wealth among first-time home-buyers, many of them people of color, who lost their homes to foreclosure. It distorted the development market because for about half of the 2010s, about all developers could get financing for was multifamily. And now we have gazillions of starter home subdivisions that have turned into rental properties.

No, I haven’t mentioned the pandemic. We don’t know yet what its effects will be. Reading this over, I should have had an item about Charlottes disinclination to rein in sprawl. To be fair most U.S. cities have not been successful at this. Charlotte basically didnt even try.