Tuesday, July 26, 2016

In 1969 planners imagined Charlotte’s University City. Did their vision come true?

1969 University City Planning Concepts
This is part two of my "I Love Old Maps" series.  In addition to ferreting out that fun 1986 map of Charlotte, retiring UNC Charlotte Associate Provost Owen Furuseth also handed me a 1969 city plan for University City, the part of Charlotte that surrounds UNC Charlotte, where I work.

The plan was produced by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission -- "William McIntyre, Planning Director; Richard C. Hauersperger, Chief Planner; Gary L. Sieb, City Planner, and W. Earl Long, Planning Intern." The university, which now has 27,000 students, at the time had 2,350 students in nine buildings. The plan predicted that eventually the university would serve 15,000 students.

Its goals are laudable, if imprecise. "This report outlines the Planning Commission's concept of the kind of community University City might become if its development is fashioned to create an environment of quality." It lists some goals, among them:
  • "To create a community designed for the convenience of its people." Since the whole area can basically be navigated only by car once you leave the campus, I'd score that at a 3 on a scale of 10.
  • "To carefully fit the development of the community into the land so that it preserves the assets of the natural landscape." I'd score that about a 4 on a scale of 10. 
  • Other goals would get a higher score from me: Providing housing, developing public and private facilities, etc. Then this final one, which I'll let you score on your own:
  • "To create a community that is distinctive in the character and quality of its development -- a community of beauty." (Note, this is not about the UNCC campus, but the rest of the area.)


On page 19 is the General Development Plan, shown below.

Click on map to zoom in.

Observe several things:
  • Notice how the area surrounding the university campus (the cross-hatched area) and its few related apartments (vertical stripes) is coded for single-family residential development (the small dots). At the time, much of that area was rural, either pastures, farmland or woods. No thought, apparently, that farmland might be worth keeping around as farmland. That reflects the general thinking at the time, from what I've heard: Rural land would of course be with us, somewhere (but just not here) so no need for special farmland preservation, and in any case "Growth Is Good."
  • Note the proposals for Open Space and Recreation beside most creeks in the area. That was far-sighted.  Of course, having the idea in 1969 did not mean those recreation areas would get built swiftly, or ever. One university-area greenway along Toby Creek is finally being built this year, after 18 years of planning. 
  • Notice how little space is planned for commercial development, compared to today's stripped-out big-box development and strip centers along University City Boulevard (shown on the map as N.C. 49) and North Tryon Street, (shown on the map as U.S. 29). 


Admirably, the plan does have a small area set out for a Town Center, where today's Town Center Plaza sits, a strip shopping center that is most definitely not a town center. The images in the plan are straight out of a Modernist playbook, with engineered people standing in concrete plazas with plantings in concrete planters, and, yes, some sculptural looking tree-like artifacts.

An image of the envisioned Town Center for University City, circa 1969.
But the idea of the place is not at all bad: "With some skill and imagination in the planning and development of the Center it can become a delightful community magnet -- a place where people come not only to do business but where they gather to have group meetings, see exhibits on subject of interest, enjoy terrace dining, window shop in a pleasant atmosphere, see a movie or engage in a variety of enjoyable activities. The Town Center should become an integral part of the social, cultural and architectural character of University City.

The final page of the booklet's text says this:  "The Center should be designed to create an environment of distinguished architectural and landscape quality." I'll let you score that one.


Town Center Plaza across University City Boulevard from UNC Charlotte. Photo: Google Street View


How could a plan be so unlike what ended up getting built? Many things played a role, but one important one still at work today, almost 50 years later, is that unlike many other cities, in Charlotte plans are thoughts, not rules. The rules for what people must build based on the zoning exist in a whole other document, the zoning ordinance.

If the zoning ordinance had required a different kind of development, then we would have seen a different kind of development in University City. That holds true today. The city plans call for walkable urban neighborhoods near the new transit stops along the new Blue Line Extension. But near the stations? Here is what is getting built:

City zoning allows new strip-style development in the shadow of the parking deck for a light rail stop (not visible here). Photo: Google Street View
Based on the zoning. I checked the online zoning map for the city. As the 1969 plan outlined, that chunk of land is zoned for industrial development. The light rail route was planned in 1998.  In almost 20 years no one with the city bothered to change the zoning to require transit-oriented development. Again, a sigh.