Thursday, November 15, 2012

Rail matters: the South End lesson

A local television station yesterday did a short feature on the South End neighborhood in Charlotte. If you click here, you'll see my colleague Bill McCoy, the director emeritus of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, describe how the area has changed. As just about anyone i Charlotte could tell you, a huge transformative event was the launching of the city's first light rail line, the Lynx Blue Line, in 2007.

The Ashton apartments in South End. Photo: David Walters
Nov. 24 marks the five-year anniversary of that launch, so a little retrospective is fitting. But it's also important to know that South End was reviving before 1998, the year Mecklenburg County voters passed a half-cent sales tax for transit and we all knew, finally, that we'd get a light rail line. Three important lessons:

1. Zoning and design matter.  The city created transit-oriented development zoning categories to allow and encourage the form of development that best serves public mass transit: walkable and mixed-use, and denser than single-family-only residential or office-only or industrial-only. You'd think that would be a no-brainer, but many cities made the mistake of launching rail transit in 1980s and early 1990s yet did not change development codes. What they got was not much transit-friendly development.

2. South End's development was sparked before the 1998 transit vote by a small-time, volunteer trolley run. So it was the hope of light rail, and a modest little rail ride, rather than mass transit service itself, that was key.

The nonprofit Charlotte Trolley volunteer group launched a historic trolley car ride down some railroad tracks the city had bought because the city hoped someday it might use them for light rail. This trolley run (not a streetcar; it didn't run in street) was barely a mile and didn't even cross I-277 and go into uptown. Yet it was enough to encourage developers. It didn't hurt, of course, that the former industrial area later dubbed South End abutted uptown as well as the prosperous Dilworth neighborhood. By the time the Lynx launched in 2007 plenty of transit-oriented development had already occurred. Alas, the historic trolley run itself was booted from the line by a combination of federal safety regulations and a Charlotte Area Transit System revenue crunch after the 2008 financial crash. Beloved old Car 85 awaits a new neighborhood with which it can work its magic.

3. This is last, and most important: It was not adding public mass transit that sparked the development. It was adding rail transit.

Proof? For years, city bus No. 12 has traveled up and down South Boulevard. Yet the area languished until the spark from the old trolley coursing on the rails. Why didn't the bus spark development? Because rails mean permanence. A regular old city bus can be rerouted. Few developers would peg their future to a bus route.

The city says it wants to help other languishing areas (can you say "Eastland Mall"?). City council members should remember the lessons of South End. If you want developers to commit, then the city should commit to rail.