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Urban expert: Charlotte has ‘advantages’ in battle for talent, growth

This article first appeared in Charlotte Business Journal (paywall)

Joel Kotkin studies and writes about America’s cities, their challenges and their advantages. And, when it comes to sorting out which places grow and which ones don’t, Kotkin sees the issue in straightforward terms.

“The question, really, is where people want to live and where do they want to move,” Kotkin told me during a recent interview at UNC Charlotte’s Center City Campus, where he spoke as part of a housing policy summit. “And Charlotte has a lot of advantages for that.”

Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Southern California. His books include “The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050” and “The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us.”

In his analysis, Kotkin differs from many of his peers in his findings. He questions investment in light rail and other mass transit while arguing in favor of suburban growth, albeit with much greater emphasis on ensuring people live closer to their jobs.

Kotkin spoke with CBJ about Charlotte’s prospects for continued growth and where the city fits in the national picture. Following are excerpts from that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Where do you see Charlotte in the national context?

I think Charlotte is in what seems to be the growth niche of moderately sized cities. One of the things I think we’re realizing now is that there are economies of scale and diseconomies of scale. Let’s say Atlanta: One reason people don’t want to be Atlanta is it got too big and a lot of what made Atlanta attractive isn’t there anymore. Or, at least, less so.

So you’re looking at cities like San Antonio, Austin, Orlando. They’re big enough to have big airports, they’re big enough to have culture, sometimes they’re big enough to have sports teams — not that that makes that much difference. They have enough scale but they haven’t become unworkable. And Charlotte’s in that category.

So is part of the trick here to maintain growth without becoming unworkable?

Right, exactly, and a lot of it is going to be, how do you develop your suburban areas? I think this idea of building a mono-centric city is really kind of passé.

Now, Charlotte’s a little different because of it being a financial center, you would tend to have more high-density employment. Tech areas tend to be not that way.

But I think there’s a whole bunch of cities — Nashville’s another one — these cities of 1 to 3 million seem to be where the growth is taking place.

And, if they grow intelligently, they can continue to grow, but (without going overboard). We’re not going to see the kind of growth we saw in Atlanta because the U.S. population’s not growing that much.

People say, “Oh, my God, if you do this, you’ll have endless sprawl.” This isn’t 1990 with all these Baby Boomers buying houses. The Millennials are about the same size as the (Gen) Xers or half the size.

From listening to your presentation, I detected some skepticism when it comes to mass transit …

You could say that (laughs). First of all, all you have to do is look at the trains and there’s nobody on them. Who was it, Groucho Marx, who said, “Who am I going to believe, you or my eyes?”

All these debates about smart growth and light rail are going on in Charlotte just as they are across the country. How do you begin to find middle ground between the black and white of transit good, transit bad?

The middle ground is you look at the new technologies, what you can do, eventually, with autonomous (driving cars). You have to look at bringing jobs closer to where people can afford to live, that’s clearly a way of doing it.

If you need to have some sort of transit system, Bus Rapid Transit works at a fraction of the cost, does the exact same things.

I think what you’ve got is some developers who see in mass transit a way of making instant mass profits without thinking about how much people are going to have to pay for (rail lines). Look what’s happened in D.C., Denver, L.A. — these areas are all having the same issues and they’re better-suited for transit than Charlotte.

You are here as part of an affordable housing conference. As cities grapple with affordable housing and economic mobility, what are some tactics that can be effective to mitigate these problems?

One of them, obviously, is creating more housing. Allowing for more development on the fringes would help. Having a competitive land market.

But I think it’s a question of your economy. If you’re only going to develop jobs for investment bankers … It’s like San Francisco: You have high-tech people, finance people, and everyone else is a servant. That’s the kind of society you have (there).

Charlotte has a more well-distributed occupational profile and you want to continue that.

There was much civic hand-wringing here, as in other cities, when Amazon excluded Charlotte among its HQ2 finalists, in part because of its lack of tech talent. But Charlotte has had success in other areas of tech and with fintech. Should that be the focus?

First of all, Amazon, frankly, they really did something, I think, questionable. Which is they pretended they were open and I think they knew all along where they wanted to go. I knew they were going to D.C. The New York thing made no business sense, but it was a political move.

The stage where Jeff Bezos is — and I know him somewhat — normal considerations of a businessperson just don’t make sense any more. You’re worth $150 billion, it sort of changes your perspective.

But there’s a lot of tech growth that’s happening here in Charlotte and particularly in the suburban areas. And fintech certainly makes a lot of sense for Charlotte. Again, you’re going to have this Millennial workforce going into their 30s, they’re going to be working in San Francisco and they’re going to say, “You know what, I can’t (afford to) live here.”

How do you best take advantage of being a relatively affordable city, in comparison to the San Francisco’s?

If you have jobs, people will start to say, “Okay, this is a pretty good place to go.”

If I was 45, 35 (years old) and I want to buy a house, Charlotte would be one of those places (to consider). Charlotte, Raleigh, Orlando, Nashville, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Phoenix.

And if you look at the numbers, those are the metros that are growing the fastest. Generally speaking, people don’t move that much after (age) 35. Once they’re settled, (they stay). They settle in. And Americans are much less likely to move than they used to be. You have two-career families, it’s much harder. Schools.

Erik Spanberg leads project and enterprise story packages and covers sports business and general assignment projects for the Charlotte Business Journal.