Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic early last year, countless people and organizations have naturally wondered what our future cities may look like and how they may differ.

Coincidentally, during that same time, Charlotte  was in the final phase of a multiyear effort to develop a new comprehensive city plan—something it had last done roughly 45 years ago, in 1975. Also in the past year, as an offshoot of the city’s planning efforts, a separate group of civic leaders known as the Transformational Mobility Network Task Force was busy formulating and proposing an ambitious multibillion-dollar mobility plan that aims to transform Charlotte and the surrounding region’s transportation via a 10-year construction plan.

The resulting plans, each ambitious in their own ways, lay out a public vision of a future Charlotte. Its efforts to shape its future and the values that it incorporated in that planning are part of the reasons that ENR Southeast is recognizing the city of Charlotte as its 2021 Owner of the Year.

Pat Rodgers, president and CEO of Charlotte-based Rodgers Builders, and a well-known figure in Charlotte’s construction community, sees the plans and the ideas in them as vehicles for justice as well as growth.

“The Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan and the Transformational Mobility Network Task Force report will be road maps for the transformational growth the Charlotte region will experience over the next 20 years,” Rogers says.

“Many voices were amplified with these plans that work to address equity and infrastructure challenges that everyone is focusing on today,” Rodgers adds.

Making a Plan

From the start, people involved with the planning process—which first began in 2018—were committed to listening to people from all over the city, and to building the plan based on that broad-based input, says Taiwo Jaiyeoba, Charlotte’s assistant city manager and director of planning, design and development. He’s been on the job for two years.

The goal, Jaiyeoba says, was to deliver “what people really want to see in their future.” Input from citizens—instead of “experts”—would be the preeminent source of guidance, he adds, noting: “People know the type of city they would like to live in.”

While the city’s previous comprehensive plan had certainly brought about positive community impacts, the new plan aims to address long-term problems through a guiding principle of equity, a term the plan defines as “[making] things accessible to everyone” by providing people “with the opportunities necessary to meet their specific needs.”

According to the plan, that focus is a by-product of the realization that “Today, neighborhood change, fear and polarization inequitably impact historically African American areas.” Additionally, the report notes, Charlotte ranks last amongst America’s 50 largest cities in upward economic mobility.

The city reports that more than 5,500 “voices” provided input via a series of community meetings, one of which was held at a drive-in movie theater, where an estimated 300 cars showed up to view a city presentation with plenty of social distancing. That feedback resulted in the four “guiding principles”—equitable, authentic, integrated and resilient—which the city says “are the values that Charlotte will use to establish a framework for decision-making throughout the life of the [plan].”

A significant part of addressing these issues is the plan’s incorporation of an approach of restorative justice, a concept aimed at cooperatively righting past wrongs inflicted upon certain communities. Again, the restorative justice approach was incorporated as a result of feedback planners received from people in neighborhoods located across Charlotte, says Jaiyeoba.

Though the plan is still to be formally adopted—tentatively scheduled for late April—the incorporation of a restorative justice approach to city planning could set Charlotte apart from other Southern cities, says Jaiyeoba, who has roughly 20 years of civic experience in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Sacramento, Calif.

“This is the first time that I will be part of plan where people actually say what is the role of the city in restorative justice,” he adds.

More Mobility, Please

Running along a similar track as the 2040 city plan, but with a shorter time frame, is the Charlotte MOVES Task Force’s proposal for between $8 billion and $12 billion in civic infrastructure investments to be built out over a 10-year period. Published in December 2020, the proposal earned approval from the Charlotte city council in January to move forward with the plan.

The biggest hurdle facing full implementation is convincing the state to approve a ballot measure aimed at increasing the existing local transit tax to a full penny from the current half-cent.

The MOVES report calls for funding the plan via a mix of state and federal grants, planned capital investment, increased sales tax and, possibly, a dedicated property tax, if needed.

A tax increase is anything but a sure thing. Dave Simpson, president and CEO of the Carolinas AGC, Charlotte, for instance, supports the plan but has some concerns.

While noting that Charlotte’s plan for infrastructure improvements “is much needed and would improve mobility, safety and our quality of life” and calling the one-cent sales tax increase “bold and sound,” he adds: “At the same time, it’s important to make sure we continue keeping the big picture in focus for badly needed additional funding for our infrastructure investment—highway-heavy, building and utility construction.”

To that end, Simpson adds, “We are working hard with lawmakers in Raleigh … on positive results here.”

The mobility plan calls for an ambitious list of infrastructure improvements, including: 90 miles of new rapid transit corridor investment; 140 miles of bus priority corridor investment to “reimagine our bus experience”; creating 115 miles of new greenway investment in “bike and pedestrian superhighways”; 75 miles of bike network investment; improving pedestrian walkability via 150 square miles of focused first-and last-mile pedestrian investment; and 60 miles of roadway corridor investment.

Former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, who chaired the mobility task force, admits in the final report’s introduction that while the plan is costly, the investment is worth it. “Above all, our investment must serve to build a more equitable, affordable and sustainable city and region.”

Speaking to ENR, Gantt was emphatic that moving forward with the full plan is a must.

“Mobility is important,” he says. “It’s important to those industries that want to move into regions like North Carolina, that we have on the board and in construction the kinds of facilities that allow people and businesses to want to come here.”

“I’m all in for one cent,” Gantt adds. “I think it makes a lot of sense.”