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Digging into Charlotte's unified development ordinance: Preserving historic neighborhoods

Cherry_2015.JPG
Gwendolyn Glenn
/
WFAE
Houses in Charlotte's Cherry neighborhood.

Charlotte’s unified development ordinance is the part of the city's 2040 plan that puts regulations guiding the city’s future development into one document.

A portion of the document focuses on development in historic districts and maintaining their character. This is especially of interest to African American communities that have changed dramatically due to development and gentrification.

The executive director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, Jack Thompson, says there are some pieces of the UDO that can empower residents. One of them is how it addresses infill parcels, such as empty lots.

“The new tools are designed to not arrest the idea of change but temper the impact of potential change moving forward,” Thompson said. “And the concepts spelled out in the neighborhood character overlay and residential infill overlay provide for a pathway to plan for change, and do so in a more sensitive manner than what has been seen in the typical development market in our city up until this point.”

But Rickey Hall, chair of the West Boulevard Neighborhood Coalition, is not optimistic that tools in the UDO will do much to preserve Charlotte’s African American communities. He spoke with WFAE's "All Things Considered" host, Gwendolyn Glenn, in Part 2 of our series exploring the UDO.

Rickey Hall: There's a lot of concern. Unless we put in the necessary anti-displacement or anti-gentrification measures to address the rapidly escalating displacement and gentrification that is currently taking place in historically African American communities, the current process that we have is not ready to address it.

Gwendolyn Glenn: What do you see in this document that concerns you and that could possibly hurt those efforts to preserve those neighborhoods — African American neighborhoods?

Hall: We'd have to be concerned about making sure that the area planning process, that these zoning classifications, don't contribute to the escalation of gentrification that is taking place — that there is not only policy in the UDO to offset it, but there are real dollars to help to mitigate what is escalating property values, tax values and predatory property and housing acquisition that is displacing people. And (it is displacing people), particularly in “the crescent” where the concentration of African American homeownership is.

Glenn: Specifically, what are some of the neighborhoods you're concerned about?

Hall: All you gotta do is just look at the West Boulevard corridor and look at the Wilkenson Boulevard corridor and look at the Freedom Drive corridor and look at the Beatties Ford Road corridor, and there are communities from the east to the west that are significantly changing.

Glenn: What about the Cherry neighborhood, which has lots of huge homes that have taken the place of the cottages and smaller homes that were there? Is there anything in the document that could help that neighborhood survive?

Hall: Well, there is language that talks and speaks to anti-displacement. There are two commissions that are seeking to address it. There's discussions that are being held. But given the level of development that has taken place, and looking at what South End has done to the community, I think there is cause for concern.

Glenn: What about the Johnson C. Smith area where the light rail is coming in that area? Is there anything in this document that could help Biddleville and the Johnson C. Smith area?

Hall: Not as its present state, unless there are real specific efforts to actually help to retain homeownership to offset displacement. We've got organizations that are starting to focus in on it. We've got the West Side Community Land Trust, but it can't keep up with the rate of speculative investment that is going into acquiring properties every day.

The Beatties Ford Road corridor and the other corridors that I mentioned are under severe pressures. And the current process that we have is not ready to address it. The real concern is that if there aren't specific measures within the UDO that give communities opportunity, then developers would have a by-right kind of approval process that then communities have no redress to stop what it would see as unwanted development.

Glenn: Now one section of it, the neighborhood character overlay, says, “Encourage developers to develop properties that are consistent with the character of the neighborhood.” Do you think that's strong enough? Do you think that language needs to have more meat to it?

Hall: I do, because what we're actually seeing now in my neighborhood is that we are seeing smaller houses being torn down and larger houses being built — and many of them that are well out of character of the neighborhood in terms of size, scale, height and physical dimensions. And those units are not consistent with the price points of the current housing. They're actually driving those up and putting pressure on with increased tax value of existing homeowners: they can't afford to hold onto it.

Glenn: And what is your neighborhood?

Hall: I live in the Reid Park neighborhood in the West Boulevard corridor, and I see it all over the West Boulevard corridor.

Glenn: The UDO also calls for — in the historic district overlay — the UDO says that the city designates the boundaries. The Historic District Commission approves changes that owners want to make. If you want to fight back on that — aggrieved parties, if they want to challenge it and they want the transcripts that led up to the decisions — it says they have to pay for the hearing, transcript and any preparation of getting those transcripts.

Hall: That's a disadvantage. That favors the developer. It doesn't favor the community. Now it might work well in an area like SouthPark, where you've got those means, but in communities like the West Boulevard corridor where you don't necessarily have that type of capital resources, then you can't fight.

Glenn: Do you think people in some of these neighborhoods have read this document? Have access to this document? Understand this document? It is a huge document.

Hall: Emphatically, no. I know for certain communities don't understand this voluminous document or this voluminous process.

Glenn: Even if there is a lot that you liked in this document, is it too late to stop some of that development that's in the pipeline?

Hall: Charlotte is growing, and you're not going to necessarily stop it. But I can say that through processes like the advocation for community benefits, advocation for anti-displacement and mandates that are included in the UDO, then we have an opportunity to mitigate it. And I think that it is a process that will continue.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.