Sunday, July 31, 2011

Envisioning a new downtown Charlotte

Lunching outdoors in the center of Charlotte. Photo: John Chesser, UNC Urban Institute

Baseball stadium - yes or no?

The new plan for downtown/uptown/center city Charlotte says yes. No surprise there: One group helping fund the plan is Charlotte Center City Partners, the nonprofit tax-funded downtown advocacy  group whose CEO, Michael Smith, was a key architect of the land swap that helped make the stadium plan work.  Or, at least, it worked on paper, until the 2008 recession meant most of the land swap's moving parts stalled out.

The plan also calls for a large new convention center expansion and new convention center hotel. Again, no surprise. The City of Charlotte is another funder of the plan.

And it calls for an uptown shopping center. Yet again, no shock. The idea of an uptown shopping center has been dangled by governments and developers for years, although one school of thought exists – expressed notably by architect/consultant Michael Gallis – that that ship sailed years ago, when the city OK'd a contentious rezoning to let SouthPark mall, some 5 miles south of the middle of town, expand to build a Nordstrom and Neiman-Marcus.

But, as I wrote in an op-ed for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, (picked up Sunday by the Charlotte Observer), building large-footprint "catalyst" projects works against what downtown Charlotte really needs now.  It needs what planners call "urban fabric," and what laymen would just say are interesting streets for window-shopping, walking and living. Can you get easily to stores that sell things you need and want? Does it have a lively feel to it, a sense of possibilities, encounters, discoveries?

Urban fabric, to be strong and endure, needs to be more like silk than burlap – fine threads pulled together, not big chunks of things that, once broken, unravel the whole fabric. It needs some large projects and buildings, to be sure, but it also needs the possibility of smaller things.

It's all but impossible now, though, for small-scale things to happen in downtown Charlotte. The small old buildings have mostly been demolished, for a variety of reasons which I won't go into now. (One lovely exception is Latta Arcade and Brevard Court, but they aren't large enough to make a difference, and they're inside a passageway, not along the sidewalk.) Downtown is a collection of too many big-footprint things too close together: NFL stadium, NASCAR Hall of Fame, Charlotte Convention Center, large office towers, multiple museums, two large libraries, a huge performing arts complex, etc.  No single one of those is a bad thing; many of them add to the city's quality of life. But they're too big to be that close to each other. And  too much of what lies in between has been demolished.

That's why downtown Charlotte has no hope in our lifetimes of resembling the beloved downtown Asheville, or to look at larger models, Back Bay Boston, Georgetown, San Francisco, New York (except for a few overdone big-block developments in Midtown) or most other loved and well-visited cities. Even downtown Raleigh – with its preserved buildings and revitalization that inches, block-by-block – has a better chance, long-term, of providing the true urban feel that distinguishes a city from a collection of development projects.

The new plan doesn't really address that problem with real solutions. It doesn't address the incongruity of recommending a new skyscraper at a redeveloped Charlotte Transportation Center and the impact that will have on land prices a block away, down a Brevard Street that it recommends as a "shopping and entertainment" street. I don't know how much of this is the fault of the consultants, or how much of it results from their having multiple bosses in this project, which include the city. Over the years the city's leaders have been sadly ignorant of how their decisions can undermine their own goals. Note how the city's approval of the multistory EpiCentre has effectively sucked a huge amount of the restaurant and bar market into one very big block. So much for that Brevard Street idea – one the city has been pitching for several years. (Compare the EpiCentre to Raleigh's Glenwood South area, where multiple blocks along Glenwood Avenue have been animated by similar restaurant/nightlife development.)

The plan has a lot of feel-good words like green, sustainable, diverse, welcoming, vibrant, etc.  It also has many good suggestions for projects that would help downtown Charlotte. It's welcome, and important, that the plan emphasizes that "center city" isn't just the land inside that horrible freeway noose, but that we all need to think of "center city" as, well, the center of the city, which includes a ring of excellent neighborhoods. It calls for capping part of the freeway for a park. It calls for much more emphasis on bicycling  – a City of Bikes. It pushes for better transit connections, stronger links among higher education institutions, and an Applied Innovation Corridor from South End up to UNC Charlotte.

Read the draft plan (warning, it's in multiple chapters that must be downloaded separately) at

Disclosure: I've only skimmed most of the full draft. I read thoroughly a synopsis CCCP provided for journalists and board members.)

If you've read this far, you're probably an urban design junkie and would enjoy seeing this online gallery I pulled together, of selections from the 1966 Odell Plan for central Charlotte. Take a look here if you get a kick out of Corbusier-like, mid-century Modernist city planning.(One drawing is reproduced below.)

For reasons I can't fathom, city officials still feel compelled to bend a knee to this plan. Why? It was a bad plan. It pushed for the highway- and auto-mobile-focused, single-use-zoning development that got downtown into this mess to start with.

Finally, my UNC Charlotte colleague David Walters, who heads the School of Architecture's Masters in Urban Design program,  has his own take on the proposed 2020 Plan. He calls it a failure of nerve.

1966 Odell plan looks up East Trade Street toward an envisioned new convention center and hotel


consultant said...

Talk to these people here in Atlanta:

They have done wonders with the midtown area. Not long ago it was a pretty scary place. They organized and have radically changed the look and feel of the place over the last 15 years.

Worth looking at.

Hamilton said...

" has his own take on the proposed 2020 Plan. " Is this supposed to link to a DW article? It links to a 2020 page.

Mary Newsom said...

Hamilton, I've now repaired that bad link to David Walters' excellent essay on the 2020 Plan. Thanks for noticing.

consultant said...

No new downtown Charlotte Mary. No new Atlanta or Pittsburgh or Columbia, South Carolina.

The Debt Deal (or as one Democratic Congressman put it-that Satan sandwich), will take us right into The Great Depression, Part 2.

Anonymous said...


I agree with both you and David that superblock mega projects have decimated the streetscape of Charlotte. The only redeeming projects (such as the college street side of the Hearst Tower or the Hearst plaza) have actually incorporated street level retail into the plans. However, look at city funded/backed projects that are full of blank walls..convention center, Westin/Nascar HOF, etc. Is there an example of a modern large city that is implementing small scale development at its core? What of Wachovia petitioning to reduce street level retail requirements? To me, its not about how "mega" the project is, but how the street level experience is thought out. I even find the newest BofA tower to be a colossal failure for the most part as far as street life is concerned.

Scott said...

Overall, I agree with you and David Walters' take - small, varied and flexible uses are the key to an interesting city center, not large-scale development like stadiums and convention centers.

That convention center exists - in downtown Asheville! :) That, plus it arises as the Inverted-Ziggurat of Boston's City Hall.

Mary Newsom said...

To anonymous 1:58 PM, and Scott: Hard these days to find small-scale, variable uses in new development. Some exists, much of it old buildings re-used. Friendship Heights metro stop area in DC has lots of new development, street-side retail. But it's big and expensive stores - Nordstrom, the glossy chains you'd see at SouthPark in Charlotte.

Today's lending practices for commercial development make anything small-scale very hard. E.G., lenders require that retail spaces be leased to businesses with verifiable track records which mostly works against mom n pop local businesses.
Land costs in downtowns (until the downturn) mean you have to bring in a lot of revenue (i.e., big buildings with expensive leases) to pay back your land costs.

Also, if you're an architect or designer or planner and your pay is based on a percentage of the cost, why would you offer up a small-scale idea when you could offer a big one?

If anyone else knows of places where small-scale development happening in a downtown, please speak up.

consultant said...

Mary and all the Nakedcitiers,

I told you so. But guess what? It's going to get much worse than this. Mary, start writing about how Charlotte will look when contraction starts. Here's a hint: mini Detroit.

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