Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Walgreens and the 'urban' zoning that isn't

I'm sitting at the zoning committee of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission listening to the committee – an advisory body only – discuss whether to recommend a rezoning needed for a controversial, proposed stand-alone Walgreens pharmacy on the edge of the historic Dilworth neighborhood and abutting its historic district. (See "Dilworth wary of proposed Walgreens.")

There's a lot of discussion, led generally by planning commissioner Lucia Griffith, an architect, about the proposed drive-through window the Walgreens would build. An aside: The property is in a pedestrian overlay district, a zoning category intended to make a more pedestrian-friendly area. Drive-throughs, with driveways and vehicles going in and out, are generally accepted as not pedestrian-friendly. Yet they are allowed in this pedestrian district. Whatever. (Want to read the rezoning petition? Click here.)

But here's the larger issue that I don't hear anyone discussing. The property is now zoned for O-2, for office development, and is in a PED (the overlay) zoning.* That zoning would allow an office building, and if it was larger than 30,000 square feet it could include a small bit of retail, but it would take approximately 40,000* 80,000 square feet of office space to allow as much retail space as the Walgreens wants – 16,000 square feet. So in order to have a stand-alone, one-story Walgreens with a drive-through lane, the developers are asking for – wait for it – a more urban zoning category.

Yes, you read that right. The extremely suburban form of a stand-alone, one-story, drive-through pharmacy needs a zoning category called Mixed-Use-Development District, or MUDD. That whole zoning category was created to allow more urban-style development in the city.
The planners at some point in the negotiations asked the developer to create a more "urban" design, and now they say the developer has complied, because the formerly blank walls will have more articulations and "architectural features."

I am still waiting for a planning staffer or a planning commissioner to push for a truly urban design, which would have a multi-use building, that meets the sidewalk, with ground-floor retail space with windows and door on the sidewalk, offices and/or residences above.

Whether the Walgreens is or isn't a good idea for that corner is a whole separate question. Seems to me a Walgreens in a true city building is a whole different question from a cookie-cutter suburban Walgreens in a historic nighborhood and in what is supposedly a pedestrian-friendly district.

The bigger question is why the zoning for an urban-style development allows an extremely suburban style of building.

Seems the Mixed-Use zoning should produce actual mixed use development, not an office-only building plopped next to a drug-story-only building, separated by a driveway and parking lot. That's what we've been getting for decades all over the city, and we call it auto-oriented suburban sprawl.

Two end notes:
1. Walgreens consultant Walter Fields, when I asked him recently why the developers didn't just propose a multi-use building with retail on the ground floor and offices above – what's built in real cities all over the world – he said that to do such a larger building would require a lot more parking, which would require a parking deck, which would be too expensive. I'd love to hear other developers' thoughts about that.

2. Lucia Griffith moves for, and wins, a 30-day delay to let the developers and the neighborhood talk more about how the lighting would affect the neighbors, to rework the drive-through exit, and to ensure that the site plan restricts the retail use on the site to a pharmacy. She asks them also to work on the "urban character," but isn't specific about what that means.

* Corrected to account for what O-2 zoning allows if it's in a pedestrian overlay district. Friday, Oct. 5, 1:15 p.m.)