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The Charlotte Way

Inside Job: Top City Official Seeks to Gut Charlotte’s Equity Efforts

Developers and realtors seeking to derail Charlotte’s promotion of equitable, inclusionary growth and development have found a helpful ally: one of their own who was installed several years ago atop the city’s bureaucracy.

Tracy Dodson, who serves as assistant city manager and director of economic development, recently wrote a three-page memo to Taiwo Jaiyeoba, who serves as assistant city manager and planning director, objecting to key components of the proposed 2040 Comprehensive Plan.

The Plan, which city officials are close to finalizing after gathering public input over the last two years, is intended to set the city’s development-related goals for coming decades and adopt tools and guidelines intended to achieve those goals. The aim is to create livable communities that honor the values of diversity and inclusion, connectivity, sustainability, and innovation. The plan will also promote affordable housing, coordinated growth, and vibrant cultural scenes, among other goals.

But Dodson is pushing Jaiyeoba, who has led the effort to craft the Plan, to largely trash it because of fears it would hinder the city’s ability to attract new business investment.

Tracy Dodson, who serves as assistant city manager and head of the city’s economic development office, is raising last-minute objections to the 2040 Comprehensive Plan. Her objections align with those of the local real estate and development industries, which used to employ her.

“Partnership is at the foundation of every aspect of our work, and we want to share additional context and several recommendations to help guide how we think about key economic development efforts that will be impacted by the Plan,” Dodson wrote in a May 27, 2021, memo to Jaiyeoba that was first reported by Axios Charlotte.

But rather than merely offering “several recommendations,” Dodson asked that Jaiyeoba scrap the essence of the Plan.

“As a way to enable further flexibility, we propose removing Sections 2 and 3 from the Plan and recommend addressing that content in the UDO. The lack of clarity leaves potential investors (bringing jobs and financial resources) unsure of what is needed to do business in Charlotte,” she wrote.

“UDO” is a reference to Unified Development Ordinance, a sort of master policy document that will establish the particular, nitty-gritty regulations that govern zoning and development. (This is in contrast to the Plan, which aims to establish a broader framework and vision to guide future development.)

The Plan is comprised of only three sections.

Section 1 is entitled “A Community-Based Vision” and lays out the history and current circumstances that prompted the need for a different approach to development in Charlotte: structural racism and injustice, a history of “urban renewal,” and inequality. Section 1 can be fairly described, in part, as identifying the problems the rest of the plan is intended to solve.

The first section also describes the multi-year, collaborative process from which the Plan emerged, and it states the overarching goals and values that inform the Plan’s approach to future growth: walkability, diversity, inclusion, equity, and sustainability, among others.

The two remaining sections, which Dodson wants removed, contain the heart of the Plan, the means by which the problems identified in Section 1 are to be solved.

Sections 2 and 3, which are respectively called “Complete Communities” and “Policy Framework,” include provisions addressing the kind, manner, and character of development that would be allowed in different areas of the city and identifying ten goals to work toward, including housing access for all, neighborhood diversity and inclusion, and retaining our identity and charm.

The bottom line: To remove these sections, as Dodson is suggesting, would be to gut the plan and transform it into little more than a collection of hollow promises that effect no real change.

Dodson’s objections largely mirror those raised earlier this spring by the Real Estate & Building Industry Coalition (“REBIC”), a special interest group that’s launched a public relations campaign to discredit and defeat the Plan for the sake of protecting its members’ financial interests.

Before joining the city in 2018, Dodson worked at Lincoln-Harris for four years as senior vice president of brokerage and development, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Lincoln-Harris, a commercial real estate firm, is a “Premier Member” of REBIC.

Prior to Lincoln-Harris, Dodson worked for Cushman & Wakefield Thalheimer, Center City Partners, and Harris Development Group, which are also part of the real estate and development industries.

City Council, which will soon consider formally adopting the Plan, took a series of straw votes on key provisions last month. The votes suggested the Plan is poised to be enacted.

It was only after Council members’ straw votes, and the apparent failure of the developers’ campaign against the Plan, that Dodson drafted her memo to Jaiyeoba, who suggested in his four-page response to Dodson that her timing was suspicious.

He noted that planning and economic development staff met seven times in the last ten months to discuss the Plan. Dodson’s recent objections were not raised during those sessions. Additionally, the provisions to which Dodson is now objecting have been included in the Plan since a draft was unveiled on October 31, 2020, more than six months before Dodson wrote her memo.

Taiwo Jaiyeoba, assistant city manager and planning director, pushed back against Dodson’s objections and argued that Charlotte can have growth and equity.

“At no point in time during multiple meetings with Economic Development did you or your staff put forward objections to proposed policies in the Plan or expressed that any policies were not supportive of businesses thriving in our city,” Jaiyeoba wrote on May 28, 2021.

“In the spirit of collaboration, you and I have had a standing, weekly meeting for several months and at no point were any of these concerns regarding the Comprehensive Plan and the potential for any policies to negatively impact business retention and/or recruitment raised.”

He also pointed out that some of Dodson’s objections were contrary to several of the straw votes Council took in early May.

Ultimately, Jaiyeoba rejected Dodson’s assertions that the Plan will make Charlotte a less attractive place to do business.

“With this Plan, Charlotte will continue to be a great place to do business while providing the diversity of housing that we need to keep employees and residents in place. The policies in this comprehensive plan strengthen our position to do it in a more equitable manner,” he wrote.

A fundamental divide separates Dodson from Jaiyeoba:

Dodson (along with the powerful and privileged for whom she’s now speaking) believes an acceptable cost for growth that benefits the few is continued inequality and injustice that saddles the many, a morally bankrupt economics that has plagued us for too long and that no decent society can long perpetuate.

Jaiyeoba believes the people, acting through their representatives in government, can exercise agency over their common fate by adopting programs and policies that allow for growth while also promoting justice, fairness, and equity.

It’s for our City Council to now decide on which side of this divide it stands.

By Michael F. Roessler

Charlotte citizen. Husband. Lawyer. Dog dad. Book worm.

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