Monday, May 10, 2010

The sad secret behind Charlotte plans

Just got back from a City Council committee meeting where that darn Michael Barnes – the District 4 representative who is running for district attorney – kept asking some impertinent questions.

The topic at hand was a draft of the Catawba Area Plan, which the planners are working on to address an area in the west of part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, up next to the Catawba River and north of I-85. Part of the plan's aim, it says, is to encourage "developments that are compatible with the surrounding natural environment" and to "integrate environmentally sensitive design elements" by incorporating natural features, minimizing paved surfaces, "preserving and creating open space and greenways" and using green design to try to reduce storm water runoff. Excellent goals, to be sure.

Barnes asked the planner, Alberto Gonzalez, to describe what the city's doing to encourage developers to save more trees and for open space protection. Gonzalez replied that they'd encourage cluster development, where a developer puts houses closer together than usual in order to leave a bigger chunk of undeveloped land in a subdivision.

Barnes: Are we doing anything to increase the tree save on the interior of a development?
Gonzalez: The plan encourages developers to save more trees. ... "There's only so much we can go in terms of requirements."

After some more back and forth about the proposed revisions to the city's tree ordinance (the revisions are for commercial, not residential development) and the tree canopy study the council heard about last week (see report here, starting on page 72, see my recent posting here, and see editorial here) Barnes pointed out, " 'encouraging' clearly doesn't work."

What he was getting at what this simple reality that many people don't understand. Charlotte's plans and policies talk a lot about the need to be environmentally sensitive, or pedestrian-friendly, or any of a number of other laudable goals. They have absolutely no teeth.

What has the teeth are the ordinances – the subdivision ordinance, the tree ordinance, the zoning ordinance, and so on. Until those ordinances require what the planners say they are "encouraging" then we don't get much of it.

Yes, the planners "encourage" developers to do things during the rezoning process. But remember, approximately 75 percent of residential development here doesn't go through any rezoning. And remember, too, that every rezoning, even those that are in direct conflict with any area plan, automatically "update" the plan. Sweet, eh?

Even the Catawba Area Plan PowerPoint presentation itself noted that in the "summary of citizen concerns" was this: "Need strong tools (regulations) to implement environmental recommendations." (To see the PowerPoint presentation of the Catawba Area Plan that was given at the meeting, follow this link. To read the draft plan, follow this one.)

"I suggest we should start demanding more, so this city looks the way we want it to in 20 years," Barnes said.

Spoken like a guy running for countywide office ... But that said, he certainly hit on a good point.


J said...

Well said. Developers have only their pocketbooks and future bonuses in mind. Why else are new homes howadays so damn close together with no slivers of native woodland saved at lot backs. Unnatural earthmoving messes up drainage and then another house blacks that natural grade so each house is 15 feet from the next and lots are barely 1/10 acre. Poor construction, bad insulation on top of it, and it reveals new construction is a false "dream" of a good American dream realized. Set up laws telling THEM how they MUST WORK in OUR area, not us "deal" with the "oh-darn its" in their wake. We NEVER learn--and developers know its easier to say "oops, sorry, but that's how we make money/do business.".

Jessica said...

Good post, Mary.

Karl said...

Wow...I'm speechless. My jaw is still open after reading an article from the Charlotte Observer that may rub the 'Uptown Club' the wrong way.

It's these type news reports that Charlotteans long for. Get rid of the fluff pieces that have historically been printed and start doing some hard-hitting, investigative journalism and you'll see your readership grow once again.

Edwin said...

As someone who has worked in the enigineering field designing these subdivisions, J, I can assure you the developers do not "mess up" the drainage. We are not allowed to route stormwater out of it's existing drainage area. When roads and building pads are designed and built, we must make sure things still drain and grade accordingly. Developers do not generally want to do any more grading than is absolutely necessary. Often times, especially when working on projects in already developed areas, we have to fix existing drainage problems with our designs - sometimes even problems that exist downstream from our sites but it a part of doing business. While there are unsrcupulous developers out there (like the guy trying to demolish the fire station on South BV) most are trying to make a living and do some good in the area as well. The developers do the grading and building but engineers do the design and first and foremost adhere to the guidelines set forth by the city and county.

Nancy said...

Saving trees is important but even moreis saving waterfront for the use of all. The riverfront subdivisons should be in back of public space. All waterfront should have public access, at least with a trail easement. Making riverfront acreage private with just tiny bits of access for the general public is poor planning. Great cities have long, contiguous public waterfronts.

A.J. said...

This isn't an "article" is a blog post. Big difference between the two.

Brendan said...

Is the sad secret behind the plans the fact that plans require ordinances? I don't think that is much of a secret. Ordinances are the ONLY way to enforce city plans. And developers are going to do whatever it takes to make it as cheap as possible while also being as legal as possible. This may often times lead to visually unappealing neighborhoods, but rest assured, those neighborhoods have been engineered to appropriate code.

Whether or not the code itself is adequate is a different story entirely, but a political one, not one for the developers. Of course developers get their hands in the political process, why wouldn't they, it effects their bottom line. We just have to hope the city council keeps their constituents in mind.

It is the city's responsibility to determine what is appropriate development and to enact ordinances to affect those changes.