Time for a new vision for Charlotte?

Slide of neighborhood with trees from Ed McKinney presentation to Planning Commission

What kind of city is Charlotte? If we had a shared story, what would it be?

As the City of Charlotte explores how to reorganize and update its various overlapping development ordinances into one Unified Development Ordinance, the question arises whether Charlotte also needs a comprehensive plan – or at least a refreshed vision of its future.

In a Nov. 20 letter to Charlotte City Council, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission urged that “an aspirational vision” be created as part of the city’s process to create a Unified Development Ordinance (UDO).

Related: As growth booms, commission urges speedier UDO process


The Atlanta City Design: Aspiring to the Beloved Community, released in September (image above), resulted from a two-year process. It states, “Our hope is that this document will help all Atlantans discover their city, see its future in a new light, and fall in love with this place we call home.”

Legacy 2030 – The comprehensive plan for Winston-Salem, Forsyth County and all its municipalities (read it here), updates the 2001 plan, It won two national planning awards from the American Planning Association: a National Planning Achievement Award in 2013 for its outreach efforts and the 2014 Daniel Burnham Award for a Comprehensive Plan.

2030 Comprehensive Plan: Designing a 21st Century City – Raleigh City Council adopted the plan in 2009, updating its 1989 plan. Starting in 2007,  the city held nine citywide public workshops. Since then the city has rezoned and remapped parts of the city to bring its zoning in line with a rewritten Unified Development Ordinance (UDO), adopted in February 2013

The letter also said the commission – an appointed, advisory body – “strongly supports” development of a Unified Development Ordinance but has concerns about the project’s slow pace amid booming growth and development in one of the country’s fastest growing cities. 

As part of the larger discussion about the ordinance and what it should say, Interim Planning Director Ed McKinney at last month’s planning commission work session offered a preliminary glimpse of what such a vision might be. He proposes that a refreshed vision for the city should make up an expansive preamble to a document planners are drafting, a Place Types Policy. With that policy in place, the city would then craft its new Unified Development Ordinance. The current timetable calls for a draft of the ordinance by early 2019 with adoption in 2020.

McKinney opened with a presentation, “Our Charlotte: The Shared Story of our Future.” (Download a PDF of the presentation here.) His opening suggestions for ways to characterize Charlotte:

  • “A city on a river”
  • “A city of creeks”
  • “A city in a forest”
  • “A city with a center”
  • “A city in a region”
  • “A connected city”
  • “A city of neighborhoods”
  • “A city growing in & out”
  • “An historic city”
  • “An inclusive city”
  • “A resilient city”
  • “A global city”

Planning commissioner Keba Samuel praised McKinney’s vision: “This is spot-on,” she said, “and I wish we would have had it three months ago.”

Charlotte does not have a current document specifically called a comprehensive plan, which looks at all parts of the city and advises ways to manage growth in different areas. Charlotte’s last comprehensive plan, the 2015 Plan, was adopted in 1997. Instead, for a development vision planners point to the Centers, Corridors and Wedges plan, updated in 2010, which is supported by a series of community plans, district plans and area plans. Some plans date to the early 1990s, although more recent ones include the 2017 North Tryon Vision Plan, the 2015 Prosperity Hucks Area Plan and the 2015 University City Area Plan.

Charlotte’s plans are policy statements; they offer the city’s vision and are treated as guidelines, not requirements. The zoning ordinance, by contrast, holds the legal requirements for development, setting out a myriad of detailed instructions such as setbacks from the street, how much parking is required, lot sizes, etc.  A developer is required to follow the ordinances, but isn’t required to follow the plans.

The planning commission, in its Nov. 20 letter to City Council members, addressed the lack of a comprehensive plan, saying, “The city’s dispersed and outdated area plans and land use policies make ‘a vision’ hard to ascertain.” That’s why the commission is encouraging the planning department staff to develop an “aspirational component as the preface to the UDO.”

The latest adopted version of the Centers, Corridors and Wedges Growth Framework,” from 2010, designates ”activity centers,” such as SouthPark, uptown and Ballantyne. It aims to protect low-density, single-family neighborhoods in the “wedges” between the corridors but also allows some moderate- and high-density development there.

Some of the city’s most popular destination centers, such as South End and the UNC Charlotte area (outside of University Research Park), are considered “corridors.” Other popular areas such as Dilworth, Plaza Midwood and NoDa are split between “corridor” and “wedge.” The document doesn’t specifically distinguish differences between a historic neighborhood like NoDa and a newer center like Ballantyne.

At the planning commission meeting where McKinney offered his thoughts about the city vision, planning commissioners were invited to add comments on sticky notes. Here’s a sampling:

  • From “A city of creeks”: How to make the creek network better known?
  • From “An historic city”: Acknowledge segregation.
  • From “An inclusive city”: Not for the poor.
  • From “A city growing in & out”: Inequity growing too.
  • From “A city with a center”: Acknowledge other strong business centers like University and Ballantyne.