Have you noticed that huge lot being cleared and graded on Woodlawn Road between Old Pineville Road and Interstate 77, about a half-mile from the light rail stop? Curious whether that part of the city is finally going to see some true-to-the-plan development designed with transit in mind, I asked city planner Kent Main what was up
Main led the Woodlawn Transit Station Area Plan process that resulted in this document, adopted in October 2008. The plan calls for “Transit-Oriented Development-Employment” for much of the area in the so-called Transit Station. It says: “New development within the Transit Station Area should have uses, intensity, site and facade design, and transportation elements that are consistent with the Transit Station Area Principles outlined in the Introduction to South Corridor Station Area Plans.” Here's a link to that document.
The station area principles document says: “Transit Station Areas are higher density areas within a 1/2 mile walk of an existing or planned rapid transit station. They typically provide a mixture of pedestrian-oriented housing, employment and retail services designed to promote travel to and from them on transit.”
On page 11 it goes into even more detail. Among other things, it says, development in the station areas should “disallow automobile-dependent uses, such as automobile sales lots, car washes and drive-thru windows.” Further, it says, transit-oriented development in these areas should:
- – Orient buildings to front on public streets or open spaces.
- – Minimize setbacks and locate parking to the rear.
- – Provide windows and doors at street level and minimize walking distance to entrances.
Buildings designed and situated in those ways make an area easier and more attractive to navigate on foot. That helps make it possible for people to live near a station, walk to nearby shopping, take light rail to work or to get uptown. In other words, in the long run people who live in those areas don’t need to drive as much – saving them money and helping ease the upward trajectory of the city’s traffic congestion.
So what is being built at that cleared lot? I was hoping for a good example of new, transit-oriented design, given the adopted plans and existing conditions on that part of Woodlawn. Nearby are: a Bojangles with drive-through window, some vintage ’70s office park developments, deteriorating old chain restaurant buildings, a few motels, a handful of comparatively thriving restaurants including Azteca and Carolina Prime and three or four gas station/convenience stores. It’s predictable highway-oriented commercial development circa 1980.
Kent Main told me the property is going to be ... wait for it ... a gas station/convenience store.
The site was never rezoned to TOD zoning but remains zoned B-2 General Business, which allows gas stations/convenience stores. Thus the new gas station not only isn’t transit-oriented development but it didn’t even have to go through a rezoning. Main didn’t say this, but Charlotte's B-2 zoning is not only not transit-oriented, but it’s suburbanized city planning standards from the disco era, nothing that most of today’s planners would be recommending for such a location.
In an email, Main explained: “We did not rezone these station areas, relying on the carrot of higher density if and when TOD does become a viable opportunity.”
He noted, “The Woodlawn Transit Station Area Plan does indeed show the site as appropriate for Transit Oriented Development. In practice, given the heavy traffic on Woodlawn, the proximity of the I-77 ramps, and remoteness from the actual transit station, that is a hard sell there.”
I realize it isn’t always a good idea for the city to pro-actively rezone land in its transit station areas, and that if developers aren’t interested in (or able to get financing for) developing land, simply rezoning it may not solve that problem. I also realize sometimes you have to decide whether some development is better than no development, that those decisions may not be easy. But yet another gas station/convenience store inside a transit station area? That isn’t at all what the plans envision.