Interview: Taiwo Jaiyeoba
New planning director: Charlotte on ‘the cusp of something major’
Charlotte’s city government lacked a permanent planning director for more than three years until Taiwo Jaiyeoba’s first day on the job January 16. (Pronunciation: TIE-woe jah-ee-OH-ba.) He assumed leadership of the department at a time when Charlotte development continues to boom and the city is running behind on an effort to overhaul its zoning code and land use regulations into a comprehensive, updated Unified Development Ordinance (UDO), its first since 1992. Former Planning Director Debra Campbell, now an assistant city manager, left her planning position in September 2014, and a combination of undesirable candidates, turnover in the city manager’s office, and indecision on how extensive the zoning rewrite should be contributed to the delay. Now that Jaiyeoba’s on board, he plans to have the ordinance—which would guide every aspect of growth and development in Charlotte for decades to come—ready for City Council approval in June 2020.
Jaiyeoba, 49, a native of Ife, Nigeria, immigrated to the United States in 1996 from Botswana, where he was working as a planner, to work in the City of Sacramento’s planning department. He later served as director of planning and project management for Sacramento’s’s Regional Transit District, where he oversaw a $270 million light rail extension project. He later worked as planning director for Grand Rapids, Michigan, managing the state’s first-ever Bus Rapid Transit project and helped push a referendum to fund it. More recently, he’s worked as a private consultant and as an executive for HNTB, a Charlotte infrastructure consulting firm. He’s lived in Charlotte since 2015, settling with his wife, Ronke, and their seven daughters in Wesley Chapel, which he chose “because that’s what the real estate agent showed me.” I interviewed Jaiyeoba for an hour Thursday in his office at the Government Center; transcript is edited for space and clarity.
Charlotte magazine: What is the root of your interest in planning?
Taiwo Jaiyeoba: I did geography for my first degree, so I’ve always been interested in cities and communities, their growth and movement, how they are shaped and what drives them. I’m a Sesame Street-raised kid, you know? One of my favorite songs was (sings), “Who are the people in your neighborhood/The people that you meet each day?” That’s kind of my philosophy toward cities. I’ve always wondered why garages are on the front of the house instead of being set back, so that we can still have balconies and can still sit and talk. Those are the kinds of things that really generated my interest in planning—to be able to have a community where people can still relate, where we can meet and talk rather than just live in our car from car to garage to house and do that every day. I realize that it’s not possible like it used to be, but we still should be able to know who our neighbors are, right?
CM: What brought you to the United States?
TJ: My dad taught in the U.S. for quite a long time, so when I was young, I used to come here to visit. He taught mental health at the University of Connecticut … and after he retired and went back to Nigeria, I had a green card, and I thought, “You know, maybe I should just go for five years to the U.S., experience some things, then come back.” So I applied for a job with the City of Sacramento as a planner. I came to the U.S. in March of 1996, and within that month, I traveled to Sacramento and interviewed for the job, and they offered it to me. I worked there for three years.
CM: What did you do there?
TJ: I was focused on infill and new growth and development, but I was also focused on analyzing projects along the transit corridors. The transit agency felt that, finally, we have a planner who has a land use background; would you come work for us with Sacramento Regional Transit? I ended up becoming the director of planning for the transit agency, and in that role, I was able to do a lot of developer-oriented use, including when the Sacramento Kings franchise was considering relocating from the suburbs to downtown. I was part of that whole team looking into its impact on transit and adjoining land uses and funding. So I’ve done a lot of urban design work in my life, a lot of zoning work, comprehensive plan review and preparation, transit, federal funding. That was pretty much my life.
CM: In 2014, you were working for a consulting firm based in Atlanta. What led you to move to Charlotte?
TJ: The firm asked if I was willing to move to Charlotte and manage the planning practice in both Carolinas. So I started coming in 2014, taking a drive once or twice a month. Toward the end of 2014, I knew I was going to move to Charlotte. I just fell in love. First of all, I felt that Charlotte was like wet clay, and it still had the opportunity to be molded, to be shaped into what we want it to be. Bear in mind that I have lived in Atlanta, I’ve done numerous visits and work in Nashville, and I understood the impact of mobility or the inability to move within congestion, what that would do. And I thought that Charlotte was just at the cusp of something major, that if you could just shape it properly with the right regulation and tools in place, that it could be that city where people move in, but we don’t have to become like those cities that are being killed or stifled by poor planning. So in May 2015, I convinced my family, and we moved here.
I frankly speaking was not even aware that the city was looking for a planning director. I was just busy doing my work. The first time I knew was in 2016, when I came to talk to Debra Campbell, just to find out what the city was doing and to find out how I could be of help. I said, “Look, I’m a very unique person. I have a land use and transit planning background. There’s got to be a way I could be of help to the city as a consultant.” And halfway through my marketing spiel, Debra just stopped me and said, “Do you know we’re looking for a planning director?” I said, “I’m not aware of that.”
Eventually, when (City Manager) Marcus (Jones) got on, I had applied and I actually interviewed in 2017. At that point, I started asking questions and reading. I started asking, “Why don’t we have a comprehensive plan in Charlotte?” I started talking to developers and consultants, and I’d be hearing things like, “It’s taking a long time, Charlotte is growing, we need to get this thing done.” I started saying to myself, “I can do this. I have a unique background.” This is a perfect opportunity for someone who not only understands land use and zoning issues but also understands exactly how transit plays a major role in how these things work. It occurred to me also that as a purpose behind all of this—in 1996, when I left Botswana to come to the U.S., I noted in my journal that I’m going to go to the United States and become the planning director of a major American city. Charlotte was not in my mind at that time. I was thinking of some other major city. But I had noted that down.
(He gestures toward a photo of his father on his desk.) And that picture you see over there—years before, after my first degree, I said to him, “I just want to be a pilot, join the military. I don’t want to go back to school.” He looked at me and said, “Son, it’s too late. I paid into the university already for you to do your master’s in planning.” “Why?” “Because I think you’re going to change the world.” So I put all of those things together as I began to consider this job, and I realized that maybe this is all about destiny. Maybe there’s a purpose behind all of this. But also, the fact that I had been traveling as a consultant too many times. I had an eight-year-old at home. It was just time to stay home and really put my roots down in the community where I live, go to church, play. So it all kind of came together.
CM: Why is it so critical for planning and mass transit to integrate?
TJ: It used be that transit would go its own way and transit was also doing its own thing. Planning by its nature touches everything—transportation, public transit, economic development, housing, real estate. Transit focused for the longest time on moving people from A to B until at some point we said, “You know, we cannot be making this multibillion-dollar investment only to move people from point A to point B. There’s got to be some result or outcome of that investment.” So the whole idea of Transit Oriented Development (TOD) located close to transit areas started to come up.
I did a study several years ago in Sacramento on the impact of transit on property values and found that, without a shadow of a doubt, people were looking to buy property close to where transit stations were, and the value went up. That nexus between transit and land use becomes so important. From a transit station, as you move a quarter-mile to a half-mile, you see those property values go up, and people are likely going to cluster there, whether they ride bikes or are on wheelchairs or they’re walking, transit meets all of those needs. It has impact on affordable housing— then as property values increase, you find that people may not be able to afford them. But even if people relocate, the further distance from the transit station, there can be buses that connect them from where they live to that transit station, and that takes them where they need to go. Most people would like to avoid having to transfer, but most people will prefer being able to have a seamless connection between bus and rail and where they live.
So zoning then obviously becomes very important. One of the first things we’re doing this month as part of our whole process is releasing transit-oriented district regulations that will allow people to see exactly what the development ordinance will eventually look like when it comes out. It will talk about uses, how are they going to look, so developers coming to look within the proximity of a light rail station or transit stop know what to expect. Neighbors will know what to expect. That integration is very important, and that’s why that TOD piece is one of the first that we’re going to release. We have the Blue Line (Extension) opening, and we know we have future extensions as part of our plan. I think it’s ambitious, but we’re not the only ones doing it. I mean, look at Nashville, which is talking $6 billion. For me to sit in this chair, being able to look at both worlds in one place, it’s a dream job.
CM: What’s the importance of the Unified Development Ordinance, and why now?
TJ: (He takes a few minutes to collect several sets of bound documents from around his office and place them in a bag.) OK, this is what we have in this backpack here. (He takes them out one by one.) This is the 1992 zoning ordinance. It’s about a 1,000-page document. This is the one that came before that, in 1962. This is the subdivision ordinance. This is streets and sidewalks, this is the tree ordinance. I mean, you’ve got the gist. When a developer comes in here, especially small developers that don’t have a lot of units, they have to deal with this number of regulations to work through. They’re different years, they’ve not been revised since then, they’re inconsistent, and sometimes one is saying one thing and another one is saying another. The idea behind the UDO is to consolidate all nine of these documents into one that will not only be easy to understand but also be visually pleasing. We don’t intend to turn every resident into a planner or a zoning expert. But they will look at that and say, “So this is what that developer is planning to do on my street.” They can choose at that point to call their council member to support or oppose it. What that does is reduces the number of zoning petitions we have—right now, we’re at max; we have 16 per month. That will reduce the number of petitions we get. It will not necessarily reduce the ability of a developer to go into a community and talk to people. People still need to know what’s going on in their communities.
We don’t want to have to come back to it in another two years and say, “Let’s revise this again.” But we want to as much as possible address things that you and I would ordinarily not think about. How do you screen your dumpster, for example? The UDO should be able to address that. What do you do with people who want to put huge billboards that are flashing advertisements on their buildings? We don’t have a response to that right now. My hope is that we’re capturing all these things right now and we’re making sure the UDO addresses those things so when we get done, we will not have to come back in one year’s time and say, “Oh, my gosh, we need to review this and revise it.” It’s comprehensive.
CM: What has changed most in planning philosophy since 1992?
TJ: A lot of things have changed. We no longer have to do planning in the conventional way, where everything is, if you are coming in to locate a development here, you’re not looking at it in context. I have to think about, “If I put a development here, how does that affect other developments within 500 or 1,000 or even 1,500 feet away?” Another thing that has happened is, planning for a long time—in any city, frankly—has always been seen as something driven by local decisions. But increasingly, over the last several years now, we’re realizing that local decisions have multi-generational effects. I’m not just building for this generation. I have to think about what happens to this development once this generation moves on. You have to make sure the use that’s in place can be used again, sustained. And the local decisions have regional implications. Charlotte cannot think on its own and say, “This is good for us.” It’s got to be regional. What happens in Charlotte can have a ripple effect in Union County, in Gaston. It’s huge.
And like I said at the beginning, you cannot just think of land use planning on its own right now. You’ve got to think in terms of, how does it affect real estate? How does it affect mobility? How does it affect economic development? Job creation? People’s health, people’s ability to walk, get around in a wheelchair? And by the way, things are changing so fast. You have autonomous vehicles being introduced into the system, you have Uber, Lyft, all of that. It’s going to continue to change. Innovation in other industries is going to continue to affect planning. So we have to think differently.