Sidewall restrictions questioned as city aims for more duplexes and triplexes in Charlotte

CHARLOTTE — Rather than build a single-family home, Vista Homes Managing Partner Jason Javer is planning a duplex in Lower South End in a 50x150 lot.

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“We are located near a bunch of transportation, near the Blue Line, near a bunch of townhomes, walking distance to (Olde Meck Brewery),” Javer said. “We were very fortunate we were able to pick up this lot and we are able to do a very tasteful duplex.”

Current Charlotte city regulations allow Javer to build the two-story duplex that he wants. But the city is considering an overhaul of zoning and building rules, the Unified Development Ordinance. If the change happens, he said developers would find it difficult to build a duplex on similar lots across the city.

“The UDO is potentially going in the wrong direction right now,” he said.

The UDO has sidewall restrictions that require all duplexes and triplexes to be a maximum of 12 feet high or the average height of the adjacent sidewalls.

The two homes next to Javer’s lot are 12 feet high. So, the duplex that is being built, under the current proposed rules, wouldn’t be allowed to be taller than that.

Javer says if a developer still wanted to build a duplex on the lot, it would have to be one story and 60 or 70 feet deep. He said that is an unrealistic and cost-prohibitive situation.

“You wouldn’t be able to make sense of it,” he said. “It would have been cost prohibitive at that point you would go and do a really nice single-family home.”

The city said state law bans them from regulating design, like the color or outside materials, so Charlotte can’t do what many other communities across the country do to make sure duplexes and triplexes fit in.

Interim Planning Director Alyson Craig says the sidewall restrictions are about making sure neighborhoods don’t change dramatically.

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“We think it’s really important to be able to have housing options in the city,” she said. “But we also want to maintain neighborhood character.”

She says the point of allowing duplexes and triplexes on single-family lots is to expand housing supply. Charlotte has arguably never needed that more.

Data presented to the Mecklenburg County Commissioners last month shows in December only 1,011 homes in the county were for sale. The average price was more than $471,000.

Assistant director for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute Ely Portillo says building duplexes and triplexes on single-family lots has the potential to expand housing options. But when it comes to regulations, the devil is in the details.

“What’s happening right now is what’s going to set the tone for how Charlotte is built for the next generation,” he said.

City officials say they are open to the possibility or increasing sidewall restrictions from 12 to 22 feet. That’s what Javer is hoping for.

“That’s what we’ll take back whether to the ordinance advisory committee or council to find out if that number doesn’t work. Is there a compromise?” he said. “Maybe it is increased. Maybe there is another way to make sure we are allowing the density where it is needed while maintaining the character.”

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Javer says it is crucial Charlotte gets this right.

“If we don’t somehow get more supply, we are going to continue to see the McMansions. Prices are going to rise, and I think there is going to be a lot of frustrated people out there looking for a home,” he said.

In addition to sidewall restrictions, the city is requiring only one driveway per unit and parking to be on the side or rear.

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