Charlotte’s Approach to Increasing Housing Opportunities Near Transit

January 31, 2020 | Mike Kingsella
Reading time: 8 minutes min

Earlier this month, we highlighted the policy steps that New Rochelle, NY took to better meet the housing needs in its historic and transit-rich downtown. The New York City suburb took advantage of its location along Amtrak and Metro North lines to advance a comprehensive plan that’s adding thousands of new units of needed housing, creating new amenities in a previously stagnant downtown, and boosting tax revenue for the city. New Rochelle’s Commissioner of Development, Luiz Aragon, shared this story at our recent Congressional briefing on the Build More Housing Near Transit Act as an example of how this Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) legislation could create similar success stories in communities across the country.

It’s easy to assume that TOD only occurs in cities and areas with deep histories using rail and bus rapid transit services – places that long ago realized the benefits of connecting its public transit resources with housing, jobs, and amenities and that are generally less reliant on cars. But TOD is far from exclusive to the Northeast Corridor.

Last April, Charlotte, North Carolina approved a new TOD ordinance and 4 new TOD Districts and began a TOD Alignment Rezoning to rezone over 1,500 parcels on the city’s Blue Line light rail corridor. It’s the first phase of the city’s broader Unified Development Ordinance designed to guide future development for a fast-growing Charlotte. With areas near the current Blue Line already quickly developing, two additional transit lines (one rail, one streetcar) in development, and Charlotte expected to add over 300,000 people over the next 20 years, shaping future growth in a smart and sustainable way was an imperative for city planners.

The TOD Alignment Rezoning was based on criteria established by the Charlotte Planning, Design, and Development Department. The process rezoned parcels into one of the four new TOD districts based on location and the intensity of development determined appropriate for each site, with by-right approvals accompanying projects that meet the district’s criteria. Interestingly, the city has established parking maximums near transit stations rather than minimum parking requirements, which reduce the impact of a regulatory requirement that is frequently cited as one of the primary hindrances to housing affordability.

These zoning districts are:

  • TOD-UC (Urban Center). The highest-density designation, with 130-foot structures permitted by-right with up to 300 feet of additional height allowed through bonuses (all districts have provisions for some kind of density bonus structure). This category applies to the parcels closest to transit stations and designed to create the most urban feel of all of the zoning districts.
  • TOD-NC (Neighborhood Center). Neighborhood centers represent transitional zoning to connect TOD-UC parcels with neighborhoods that are less dense or neighborhoods that may not currently be transit-served but could be in the future. It offers by-right approvals for properties up to 75 feet in height.
  • TOD-CC (Community Center). Community center zoning is appropriate for parcels nearest to moderate-intensity transit stations and streetcar stops. Its 90-foot maximum building height and less stringent design standards are intended to encourage transit use and walkability in areas that do not yet support higher intensity development.
  • TOD-TR (Transit Transition). Transit transition district designation is intended for areas where rehabilitating existing buildings is a priority, and as a transitional zoning between higher-and lower-density neighborhoods. This level of zoning has the lowest by-right height allowance at 50 feet, which would support four to five story structures.

The city’s rationale for embarking on such a visionary rezoning sounds a lot like one of the core missions of Up for Growth and transit and housing advocates from across the country:

“Transit station areas, typically land within a one-mile walking distance of a station, should be developed as moderate to high-intensity compact, mixed-use vibrant urban neighborhoods where people can live, work, shop, dine, and pursue cultural and recreational opportunities utilizing a range of mobility choices. Transit station areas should have a robust network of streets, sidewalks, and bicycle paths, providing safe and convenient access to transit stations.”

The City of Charlotte relied on a year-long community engagement process through its Ordinance Advisory Committee and a series of public meetings before its City Council approved the TOD Alignment Rezoning in November 2019.  Community feedback was incorporated, including the removal of a small number of parcels from the initial plan due to community concerns about historic districts and floodplain. The final product is presented in an easy and accessible format through Charlotte’s Unified Development Ordinance website. Indeed, one of the goals of the new ordinance was to create simplicity for developers and citizens alike, including a focus on presenting the information graphically.  

Alyson Craig, Deputy Planning Director at the City of Charlotte, explained to Up for Growth that "the growth expected here in Charlotte requires forward thinking regarding our City’s mobility and transportation needs.  Proactively rezoning properties along the transit line to allow for by-right development reduces the regulatory and cost burdens to incentivize development into the areas where we would like to focus future growth."

Charlotte’s commitment to smart planning policies is one of the primary reasons it is the second city for which Up for Growth is developing a Housing Policy and Affordability Calculator. The Charlotte calculator will be unveiled at the ULI Carolinas Meeting on February 13th. Like the first version in Seattle, the Charlotte calculator will focus on the various policies and regulations that impact the production of new housing and the rent that tenants will ultimately pay. It’s the product of significant input from on the ground stakeholders in the Queen City, including from the City itself.

Our preliminary findings about the impact of Charlotte’s TOD Alignment Zoning show the plan is having a significant impact on new units and rent. Without any other changes to Charlotte’s current regulatory framework, the TOD Districts would create an additional 450 units than would otherwise be expected over a two-year period and reduce average rent by $80 per month – a yearly savings of nearly $1,000. You can experiment with various inputs to the calculator after it’s publicly launched on the Up for Growth website in two weeks.

TOD Alignment Zoning is a different approach than the one that New Rochelle took, but its goals are similar. Indeed, they are different cities with different needs. Though the policy is in its early stages, Charlotte should expect to see significant improvements in affordability, accessibility, and availability of housing from its innovative approach to transit-oriented development.