Urban Planning

In spite of a pandemic, city planning isn’t slowing down

The city of Charlotte's skyline during the day.

With the coronavirus crisis in its fifth month, Charlotte planning director Taiwo Jaiyeoba has noticed something odd: Despite massive disruptions, his staff is actually completing some work more quickly.

Plan reviews are faster. Advisory committees now meeting virtually are seeing 100% attendance. And developers have asked if they can continue to have the option of virtual meetings to go over their proposals with staff once the crisis ends.

“You think you’re losing something,” said Jaiyeoba, who chalks the efficiency gains up to people no longer commuting uptown, reduced office distractions and being largely able to set their own schedules. “But in another way, you’re gaining something.”

It’s a good thing his department hasn’t slowed, because the amount of work certainly hasn’t. Contrary to expectations that the economic crisis touched off by the virus would bring the economy to a halt, development in Charlotte shows no signs of stopping.

Jaiyeoba

“We are rolling right along,” said Jaiyeoba. “We have not seen any slowdown at all.”

Almost 100 rezoning petitions have been filed this year, about the same as last year. Charlotte City Council wrapped up another five-plus-hours marathon rezoning meeting Monday night. Developers are still pulling permits and building apartments, houses and office towers at a furious clip. On top of that, Jaiyeoba is still overseeing the massive, years-long rewrite of all of Charlotte’s development ordinances, crafting a new 2040 vision plan and working with other agencies like the Charlotte Area Transit System and Mecklenburg County on long-range plans for train lines, parks and greenways.

And in his third year on the job, Jaiyeoba — who has added the title of assistant city manager as well — says he’s ready to push for bigger changes in Charlotte. He’s already discussed the idea of eliminating single-family zoning to encourage greater density and increase the supply of housing. In recent weeks, he’s also said Charlotte should explore charging impact fees to developers to fund more improvements (a potential “third rail” that would require legislative approval, as well as the need to change government policies that have long enabled and encouraged segregation).

“I think it’s time we stop looking at what other people are doing before making moves,” said Jaiyeoba. “We need to start setting trends. 

“I feel, as a planning director who also happens to be in the position of assistant city manager, I have a platform...I believe I’m in the right place to bring this up,” he said.

[Read More: Charlotte looks ahead two decades to plan growth]

All this planning is taking place in a world that’s being reshaped by the ongoing pandemic and renewed calls for racial justice in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and other Black people. The twin crises have put a spotlight on needs such as equity in infrastructure investments, the role of public space in health and the future of cities themselves.

“This isn’t the time to be an obstacle or a stumbling block to good ideas,” said Jaiyeoba. “Bureaucracy and regulation can kill the best ideas, because we’re so slow to respond.”

In the last few months, Charlotte has implemented several pilot programs and changes to public space that, before, would likely have been debated and studied for years. Several streets near parks have been closed to through traffic and given to pedestrians and bicyclists, with more to come (Jaiyeoba said the city is studying Camden Avenue in South End). About 16 restaurants have converted some of their parking to outdoor dining. And a stretch of South Tryon Street is closed to cars through September — and home to a collaborative “Black Lives Matter” mural.

“These are not new ideas. But for some reason, they were so big nobody wanted to move on them,” Jaiyeoba said. Normally, “You take one parking space and everybody freaks out.

“Think of how quick it was for that Black Lives Matter mural to be installed on Tryon Street. All it took was a tweet on June 5, and by June 9 the mural was down. By June 12, the street was closed,” he said.

In light of the pandemic, Jaiyeoba said he’s also studying how to bring the county’s Health Department into the development process. Rezoning petitions are currently sent to departments and agencies such as the Charlotte Department of Transportation, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, CATS and Charlotte Water for comments and feedback about their impact, but not to public health officials.

“Planning and public health need to collaborate,” said Jaiyeoba, who said he has reached out to county health director Gibbie Harris and will meet soon to explore ways to work together. “If I thought of this, I wouldn’t have reached out to Gibbie six months ago.”

Jaiyeoba knows that challenges loom. Impact fees, in particular, are certain to draw strong opposition from builders.

“If the word ‘impact’ terrifies developers, I’m willing to call it ‘community development investments,’” he said. “It’s going to be a Herculean task, but somebody’s got to have that conversation.”

The same three issues come up at every City Council zoning meeting, Jaiyeoba said: More traffic on the roads, crowded schools and inadequate parks. And building more infrastructure will require more money.

“The more we grow, the more those will continue to be issues,” said Jaiyeoba. “The development community needs to partner more.”

Jaiyeoba said Charlotte should also assess the fees it charges developers, and whether those are meeting their goals or are simply burdensome with no clear benefit.

Along with the sense of possibility unleashed by the seismic disruptions of the last four months, new issues have popped up. In crafting new development regulations, Jaiyeoba said the city must be mindful that not everyone can participate in online meetings — particularly low-income people who might lack internet access or the time.

“I don’t know how you overcome the inequity piece, especially for those who are not able to participate virtually,” he said. “If you’re not careful, the remote work environment will exclude some people.”

The city is planning a drive-in movie style event at Bojangles’ Coliseum this fall to unveil the draft 2040 vision plan and gather feedback.

Despite the short-term productivity boost, Jaiyeoba said he knows work-from-home arrangements have been challenging for some of his staff, especially those with children who suddenly found themselves without schools or daycare.

“Some people are juggling being a teacher, a planner, a wife, a mother, a father,” he said. “Sometimes I get messages at midnight, and I just know that’s when people can work. There are times when I wake up in the morning and see messages at 2 a.m.”

Flurries of messages traded between city planners in the small hours before dawn are just one small sign of the nearly innumerable ways work, society and nearly everything else in society have been upended this year.

Jaiyeoba’s next sentence is one many have likely said over the past four months, and one we’re likely to hear again for a long time to come: “That never happened before the pandemic.”