Q&A: Charlotte’s interim planning chief, Alyson Craig, draws on private- and public-sector background to steer city’s growth
Alyson Craig stepped into the role of interim planning director last month, when planning director Taiwo Jaiyeoba left to become city manager of Greensboro. (Photo from city of Charlotte video about the Unified Development Ordinance last fall)
Alyson Craig, Charlotte’s new interim planning director, acknowledges she has a lot on her plate.
She’s leading the city’s efforts to overhaul its development rules. And — following last month’s departure of Planning Director Taiwo Jaiyeoba, who became city manager of Greensboro — Craig now leads a department that helps determine, in ways big and small, how Charlotte grows.
Asked about her priorities, she lists several: implementing the vision of the 2040 Comprehensive Plan. Working with many different commissions and task forces and stakeholder groups. Making sure the department is efficient and responsive. And, like many employers, ensuring that the 110-person department retains the employees that make it all work.
“There’s a lot that we’re doing right now,” she says.
Craig, a UNC Chapel Hill grad who majored in biology, has a background in the public and private sector real estate worlds. She’s been a zoning administrator, had stints with homebuilders and developers — including Charlotte-based Grubb Properties — and headed a real estate program at UNC Charlotte. She was named Charlotte’s deputy planning director in 2018.
Craig spoke with The Ledger’s Tony Mecia last week about the balance in Charlotte between developers and residents, where Charlotte is heading and the four key sticking points on the newly proposed development ordinance. Remarks have been edited for brevity and clarity:
Q. How has your background prepared you for this role?
I have been in and out of public and private sector work my entire life. I started off in the public sector working for small bedroom community, and I was very green and new to the role. And within a couple months, the zoning administrator left, so I became the zoning administrator. And then soon after that, the planning director decided to leave, so I had to learn straight out of the gate.
Q. Sounds like the story of your life.
Yeah, that started early! Then I worked in the state trying to help implement science-based decision making for our elected officials and staff. And then I went into private sector for a long time. I started off in Florida, managing large, big mixed-use development projects. And so I think that helped give me an understanding of just the realities and the practicalities of what real estate looks like, and what development looks like.
And when I moved to Charlotte, I worked for Grubb Properties for a little bit doing investment, acquisitions and development work there. So I have that understanding of how the real estate world works. And then I was the co-director of the Childress Klein Center for Real Estate, as well as the director of the master’s program there at the university.
So I think the leadership positions that I’ve been in, the high-profile type of fast-paced work environments and just an understanding of how both public and private sectors work and interact with one another, I think puts me in a good spot.
Q. In Charlotte, some residents perceive that developers have free rein to build things all over the place. If you talk to developers, a lot of them perceive that the city, and then later the county, make it difficult and longer and more expensive to build things. Where do you think Charlotte is in balancing community needs versus private sector development?
I think we have work to do in both of those areas, frankly. It’s always going to be an inherent challenge for people developing in Charlotte, because you’ve got the city and the county, and we regulate different things. Then you have a series of separate documents that regulate growth in Charlotte. They were all written over a period of 30 years and can be in conflict with one another. Just trying to understand what you’re supposed to do here, I think is challenging. The work that we’re doing is going to help with that.
From the community standpoint, it’s hard to get involved with a complicated process. And it’s hard to understand sometimes how the development process works. I don’t think that everyone has received the benefits of the growth that Charlotte has seen. And that’s something that I think we really need to do something to correct.
A number of efforts are underway to really help the community come to the table. I’d like to have a dedicated person on staff to be a community liaison for the rezoning process, because that’s where the process can get complicated.
Charlotte is headed in the right direction, but I think we have work to do.
Q. What kind of a city are we working toward?
I think we’re working towards a more equitable city. I think we’re working towards a city that has strong economic development and that is a competitor on both the national and global landscape. Charlotte continues to rise up the ranks of places where people want to be, where they want to invest, where they want to retire.
It’s continuing to be a place where people want to come, live and stay. And I really think that we are putting the pieces together to really build on that, to become a city like that. It’s just an exciting time to be part of the city government, to be part of the planning department, to be able to shape those kinds of things.
Q. On the Unified Development Ordinance, do you think there will be a way to get to an agreement on some of the more contentious provisions?
We’re going to have to make some hard decisions. I’m not sure that we will ever get on the same page with exactly how you tackle Charlotte’s tree canopy, as an example. That is just something that has a lot of passion about it. There are some that think that we shouldn't be regulating trees at all. There are some that have seen the decline in Charlotte’s tree canopy and want us to do something about it.
Parking is another really tough one. There are some challenges with how you account for parking when you have historic neighborhoods next to [Transit Oriented Development]. You don’t want to disturb the character of the historic districts but also recognize that you want to concentrate density around those areas. The parking can be a challenge there because the neighbors don’t want parking on their streets. But you also don't want to start putting tons of parking in areas where you have transit.
Q. What are some of the other sticking points?
Transitions between sort of neighborhood areas and activity centers — we’re certainly hearing a lot about those. There are some open space questions that we’re getting from mostly the development community.
Q. Where do things stand on short-term rentals?
That is the most commented-on topic in the comments that we have received thus far, from homeowners that are frustrated by noise, crime and just activity that’s in the short-term rental adjacent to them.
There are also some challenges with the spacing requirements, because the 400-foot separation [which was proposed between rental units] doesn’t allow multiple short-term rentals in a multifamily building, for example. So if that spacing even stays, there will need to be some changes there. But I don’t want to say where we’ve landed because we have a listening session scheduled to hear from the community on that.
➡️ Starting Thursday, the Planning Department is holding four weekly virtual listening sessions called “Thursdays with the UDO,” on the topics:
Heritage tree protection
Neighborhood 1 districts
The hour-long sessions are at 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Thursdays. You can register online.