Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Can light rail reshape this auto-oriented corridor?

I have auto-related uses on the mind this week, because at a 4:30 meeting today the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission is going to recommend yay or nay on a proposed auto mall (a collection of car lots from different dealerships) in the University City area. You can download the agenda for that meeting here.

(Update, 5:20 p.m.  The planning commission's zoning committee unanimously recommended that the site be rezoned for an auto mall. Two commissioners who had earlier expressed opposition to the rezoning, Tom Low and Deb Ryan, weren't at the meeting. The City Council makes the final decision.)

The city planning staff has switched from recommending against the rezoning to recommend for it, if some design and site plan issues are resolved. Interestingly, their issues earlier were not because it's for a large chunk of auto-oriented uses within a quarter mile of a planned light rail station area, where the overall city policy calls for transit-oriented (i.e. walkable, compact, mixed-use) development. Instead the staff focused on design issues. (See the commentary on, "Don't derail transit areas with an auto mall.")

Yesterday, I  had occasion to drive on North Tryon Street, from the UNC Charlotte Center City campus to the main campus on University City  Boulevard.  I decided to count the auto-oriented businesses on North Tryon Street up to the corner of U-City Boulevard.  I started at Atando Avenue (where the idea occurred to me), so the count starts there.  Want to guess? The answer is ....

Looking ONLY at the right side of the street heading north (so I didn't count Parks Chevrolet, Young Ford, etc.) I counted 32 used car lots, car rental businesses, auto parts stores, tire stores (new and used), repair shops, etc. If you want to count the Auto Bell car wash, make it 33.

Interesting side note: The auto junkyard was among the nicer-looking businesses along this stretch, due to its screening, landscaping, etc. The used tire stores were the junkiest.

My point here is that the new light rail line will plow through territory that is already heavily aimed toward automobile uses. And most of that territory carries zoning that already allows very nontransit-friendly uses. (See this, about a gated apartment complex at U-City Boulevard and North Tryon - no rezoning needed. Multifamily is fine at a transit station area, but large surface parking lots and a gated development are not.) Until the land use zoning in the area changes - and especially the standards for form and design - it will be difficult for the city to transform the area into a walkable, mixed-use and mixed-income neighborhood.