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Neighborhood Watch

by Jill Walker

April 4,2005

It’s official. Charlotte has finally decided that it is time to grow up, instead of just out. Of course, we will continue to grow out. And you can’t really blame the developers for that. It’s been an investment no-brainer.

But there’s been a remarkable swing in the focus of development in Charlotte and it’s been very exciting to witness the evolving transformation of our urban core. We tossed the “D” word back and forth long enough and it seems to have finally stuck. “Density” is our new destiny.

Aside from the super-sized downtown condo project announcements, accumulating like notches on a bedpost lately, many changes are occurring in the neighborhoods surrounding downtown. City leaders (whoever they are) have wisely decided that neighborhoods such as Wilmore, Elizabeth, Dilworth and Cherry, all minutes from downtown, need to do some growing up themselves.

While the density dance is a worthy one to pursue, it can be more problematic than a high school prom. From the moment a project becomes a twinkle in a developer’s eye to the day that project receives the approval of City Council - neighborhoods, planning staff, developers and architects are all pretty much left with a rezoning hangover.

And that’s not about to change any time soon. Most of the projects that will increase density in the neighborhoods mentioned are in areas that have zoning designations that were put in place a long time ago, when the vision for how Charlotte should look was quite different.

The rezoning process is a rather cumbersome one, although no more so in Charlotte than anywhere else in the country. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. Much is at stake when a developer tears down a few older homes and introduces a four-story condominium or a retail project that will generate a significant increase in traffic. Spillover effects can reduce the value of surrounding residential properties and seriously erode their residents’ quality of life.

One major challenge Charlotte faces now is to create sufficient density in and around the transit corridors to assure the success of the upcoming light rail lines. That is the mantra that City Council, Planning Staff and Planning Commission probably repeat in their sleep. And any developers that rally to this immediate need will most certainly be given the benefit of the doubt.

So it is imperative that all stakeholders get an opportunity to weigh in on proposed projects in a timely manner. Sure, there are many transaction costs associated with the public process, but the more we act to promote a healthy dialogue – a voluntary exchange of ideas and information – the more we are apt to avoid major mistakes.

It is incumbent upon neighborhood associations to involve themselves in the rezoning process. While the number of development projects in Charlotte has grown significantly over the last decade, the size of the city’s planning staff has remained the same. In addition to the myriad of plans and policies that they implement on behalf of Charlotte’s ever-changing vision, they review and recommend (or not) all rezoning requests. And their recommendations will not necessarily coincide with a neighborhood’s.

Dilworth’s neighborhood association, to which I belong, has developed a rezoning procedure that all developers must follow in order to receive our support (when it is required) for their project. It involves a series of presentations similar to those required by the city, but geared to the neighborhood, creating a forum for dialogue, critical thinking, problem solving and, hopefully, transparency.

Having lived in Dilworth for twenty years, and having participated in our neighborhood association for most of that time, I have witnessed many rezoning projects and can say unequivocally that the process has come a long way.

We all know that it is through good old American innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit that Charlotte will recreate itself. And that developers do have a financial stake in building projects that respond to consumer needs. We also know that, more than anything, money is the prime motivator, and that developers aren’t in the business of dreaming up projects solely to satisfy all the needs of the surrounding neighbors.

That is why it will always be incumbent upon individual citizens and their neighborhood associations to take an active role in charting OUR city’s future.

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