Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Charlotte fantasies, past and future

UNC Charlotte design student presents plans imagining a transit-oriented neighborhood, North Park. Photo: Mary Newsom

It was 250 years ago this week, Dec. 3, 1768, that the City of Charlotte was officially born with an act by the royal governor of the colony of North Carolina. (Read that charter here.) Monday, the city celebrated in a ceremony uptown with a sound stage and music so extremely amplified that you couldn’t talk to anyone, with birthday cake and food trucks.

Jim Williams as Thomas Polk
It wasn’t a fancy, planned-for-two-years kind of celebration – no fireworks, parades with visiting dignitaries, planes flying banners overhead. But of course, officialdom in Charlotte for as long as I’ve lived here has been more interested in pushing future growth and prosperity than in examining and learning from the past.

That 1768 charter designated five white men to be “city directors,” and one of them, Thomas Polk, was loitering near the sound stage Monday, waiting for the noon speechifying. Polk, or really, local history enthusiast Jim Williams, was resplendent in a black tricorne hat, buff-colored waistcoat, and knee breeches and frock coat of the color that 200 years later would be known as Carolina Blue. Polk – the real one – was a shrewd fellow of Scots-Irish ancestry who before eventually moving on to Tennessee played a key role in the city’s first – but by no means last – spec development.

Polk and a few others, on their own dime, built a log courthouse where two trading paths intersected, in hopes of giving the young town a competitive edge to be designated the Mecklenburg County seat. Which would, of course, make their own property more valuable.

It worked.

And for a city on the make, what could be a more fitting foundational story?

WE MOVE FROM 1768 TO ... SOMETIME IN THE FUTURE

After the noontime birthday festivities that celebrated the past, I headed off to hear, instead, about an imagined future – one that would transform an unattractive, car- and truck-filled intersection into a neighborhood of shops, sidewalks, fruit trees and, of course, a brewery.

First-year Master of Urban Design students at UNC Charlotte’s College of Arts + Architecture were presenting their fall semester project: Envisioning a transit-oriented neighborhood near the Old Concord Road light rail stop. It’s just northeast of the Eastway Drive-North Tryon Street intersection, one of the city’s many areas built solely for the benefit of car and truck drivers.

The assignment from Professor Deb Ryan was to draw a plan for the area generally within a 10-minute walk from the station. After she assigned it, Ryan said, she learned that Mecklenburg County had bought a large chunk of the area – the almost-defunct old North Park Mall site, with its vast potholed asphalt parking lot and derelict empty spaces – and planned to turn it into community services offices.

Although such student plans are essentially just theoretical exercises of the imagination, the students opted to incorporate some of the county’s plans into their own – in hopes the county staff might see some ideas and cooperate in helping transform the whole area.

Cardboard model of the envisioned North Park neighborhood. Photo: Mary Newsom
The students offered a vision – and a nifty cardboard model arrayed on the floor – of a walkable neighborhood with plenty of trees, housing and offices set out along streets lined with stores. They envisioned an elementary school, a research campus outpost of UNC Charlotte, which is 4 miles to the north, and a generous helping of affordable housing.

“What we tried to do is push the idea of health and walkability,” Ryan told a small audience of community members and professional urban designers.

The area today has few attributes of walkability. Although it has some begrudging sidewalks, things are built far enough apart that walking isn’t attractive. The stores and restaurants are splayed out along busy thoroughfares with parking lots in front and between them. Many of the smaller streets don’t connect to anything. It’s hard to cross the busy streets. More walkable areas, by contrast, have nearby places you’d want to walk to, interesting shops and businesses set along the sidewalk, lots of connections, and plenty of residents close by so enough people are out and about to make the area feel safer.

As one student said,  “We had to kind of merge reality with fantasy.”

So they proposed, among other things:
  • 12 new connections for streets that, today, dead end.
  • Both a main street running through the area, and a perpendicular market street that would cross Eastway Drive.
  • A brewery in an old warehouse.
  • Flats, town homes, and single family houses
  • Mixed-use buildings with parking decks hidden on the inside, a form known as a "Texas doughnut."
  • Reconfiguring the Eastway-Tryon intersection to slow the cars bulleting from Eastway onto Tryon.

Possibly the most controversial proposal (or it would be, if this was truly being proposed rather than an in-class exercise) was to reduce by almost half the existing "park" land nearby. 

Those quotes are because the “park” – Eastway Park – is disconnected from everything around it. Its 90 acres are reached via a long driveway (lacking a sidewalk) off the busy Eastway Drive thoroughfare, with no crosswalk or pedestrian light to allow pedestrians to get there. The driveway leads to a grassy area with two soccer fields, a big surface parking lot and a disc golf course.

Although the park is directly next to the railroad, and only a short distance from the Old Concord road light rail station, you can’t walk between the station and the park, thanks to some fenced-off freight rail lines running directly beside the park.

In other words, Eastway Park is a design fail. In my few visits there, admittedly a highly random sample, it’s only lightly used unless there’s a ball game going on. The county park department plans to build a new recreation center there – although that won’t do anything to improve the park’s unwalkable, isolated site.

Hence the students’ idea to take some of the unused park land and built affordable housing there, to improve the “eyes on the park” for safety, and to give lower-income residents a way to easily access a rec center and park. They propose the same for the Hidden Valley Park in the nearby Hidden Valley neighborhood.

Farther down the fantasy end of the spectrum, although intriguing, was this idea: a series of “productive greenspaces” where trees and other food-producing plantings line streets and small parks. You could walk down a sidewalk and pick an apple. Or a peach, or maybe pawpaws.

Will any of it get built? There’s no way to know, because it’s currently just a gleam in the eyes of a group of graduate students. But as Thomas Polk might have advised back in 1768, when he was building a courthouse on spec with visions of town growth: Why not dream big?