Charlotte Moves toward a Car-Free City Center – Next City

The 300 block of Charlotte's North Tryon Street. 

North Tryon Vision Plan

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Charlotte Moves toward a Car-Free City Center

North Carolina’s NASCAR capital reimagines its Uptown neighborhood as a pedestrian-centered, mixed-use idyll. But in the drive to redevelop, has affordability been left behind?

Story by Daniel J. McGrawTwitter

Published on Jul 30, 2018

Driving up Interstate 77 from the south, downtown Charlotte jumps out at you suddenly. Much of that is a function of North Carolina’s inland topography — not yet Appalachia mountains, not the flat coastal plains either, but somewhere in between. The skyscrapers visible suddenly from the highway, only a few miles from the city center.

Five of those high-rises are more than 50 stories tall (and 15 are more 30 stories tall) — not as many as in New York or Chicago, but moving in that direction. In 1990, the population was 396,000. Today, it hovers around 860,000, moving the city from the 35th to the 17th largest in the U.S. in less than 30 years. Charlotte is now the third largest financial center in the U.S., after New York and San Francisco, and a key east-of-the-Mississippi metro that moves products through the supply chain.

Many would expect 21st-century Charlotte to manage this growth the way they did in the latter half of the 20th century: to erect big-business campuses adjacent to highways in the exurbs; to build more housing for workers on nearby suburban cul-de-sacs; and to preserve a staid, quaint downtown that only animates when sports teams have home games.

But Charlotte seems headed in the opposite direction. In a part of town that houses old churches, the main branch of the library and the NFL and NBA stadiums — plus all the surface parking lots that come with that — the city has designated a 60-acre, 50-square block area as a place for modern, urban redesign, dubbed the North Tryon Vision Plan. The plan prioritizes walkable areas, a shrunken complete-streets grid, limited underground parking, play parks, and other small gathering places built for people and not their cars. That’s an especially tall order for a southern city so car-centric that it’s the home of the NASCAR Hall of Fame as well as the Charlotte Motor Speedway, one of the busiest racing venues in the country. The sport brings an estimated $6 billion a year in economic impact to the region.

Cities typically find it difficult to redo their downtowns. Planning commissions must contend with history and economics, balancing and integrating the needs of old and new, rich and poor. Some residents want big change; some want little. Longtime property owners might cash in and move out, while others stay put.

With the North Tryon Vision Plan, Charlotte is trying to reverse some historical trends. Post-World War II growth in the U.S. was characterized by concentrated housing and retail near highways and in suburbs, and workplace skyscrapers in the center city. Whites fled to the suburbs, buoyed by federally-backed mortgages for new housing construction. African-Americans and other people of color stayed in cities and faced the legalized racial discrimination that underpinned redlining and exclusionary covenants. In the mostly white suburbs, this meant big houses with big yards but little neighborhood identity, and downtown commercial areas that were largely deserted after 7 p.m. For residents who stayed in urban neighborhoods, quality of life declined with the denial of access to capital, as these areas struggled to attract families who could functionally and fiscally purchase property.

Charlotte now believes that to keep growth going within city limits, they need to attract a population that’s younger and more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse. These demographics are key to the continued growth of a big business such as Bank Of America, the country’s second-largest bank; it’s headquartered in a 60-story office building in downtown Charlotte and employs about 15,000 in the region.

So this is not “replace surface parking lots with high-rises.” In this urban plan. they build grocery stores, landscape pocket parks, refine the transit plan to make automobile travel less essential. And housing must be affordable to multiple income levels, to develop Charlotte’s central city into a place where a wide range of city residents can live and work and play.

But restrictions imposed from the state government as well as easily exploitable local zoning loopholes have made integrating affordable housing more difficult here than in many other cities. That is the biggest challenge Charlotte faces in this redesign: how to counteract the usual market forces and lift up all segments of the community in this reimagining of the city.

The North Tryon Vision Plan

The North Tryon Vision Plan (named for the main street running through Charlotte’s center) is among the more ambitious long-term urban planning projects in American cities. The plan calls for more mass transit, basic retail and small park gathering spaces, and limiting the number of parking places within the downtown area on the assumption that fewer people will drive into a downtown, and use other transportation options instead. The plan also features a “play street” model, which opens a street for car traffic on weekdays, and turns pedestrian-only on weekends, for festivals or children’s play areas.

A rendering of North Tryon's more pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares. (Credit: North Tryon Vision Plan)

Charlotte saw that growth in the city center was concentrated south and west of Trade and Tryon streets (the historic heart of the city), and that neighborhoods adjoining the city center had degenerated in some respects. So the plan is to move future development further north and east of the skyscrapers, to accommodate business growth and add new housing and retail to these areas that often have a higher proportion of surface parking lots.

Perhaps a more critical factor is that Cherry, Lockwood, NoDa and other neighborhoods with older housing stock and higher levels of poverty now border this redevelopment project. Some think too much high-end housing will raise property values and displace residents in these adjacent neighborhoods. Others believe that a rejuvenated downtown coming closer to their neighborhoods will help to stabilize them.

The original vision plan was released at the end of 2015, and some offices, housing and street redesigns have been announced or built since then. Yet the plan is clearly not set in stone. For example, the Hal Marshall Center, a county program service center in the development area, sits on 17 acres. It’s wrapped up in a debate over what that land will become. The discussion centers around devoting five of those acres to a park, and developing the rest with apartments, hotels, shops, restaurants and offices. Those who oppose the plan feel it will relocate the county’s service programs further away from people who need those services most, those who live in areas of poverty closer to the city center.

Another piece of the development puzzle is Spirit Square. The four-square-block space is in an older part of downtown, with historic theaters and a church, along with a county library in need of a facelift. Amid this prime real estate is an undeveloped plot of surface parking. Bank of America owns multiple acres in this area, and its headquarters are nearby.

Speculation for Spirit Square’s redevelopment includes adding two 15-story commercial office buildings, four high- and mid-rise residential structures (but no details on how many units in those buildings will be affordable), and some additional retail establishments. The finished product would feature diagonal pedestrian walking areas cutting through the blocks, a shrinking of through streets so they can more easily close for weekend festivals, and below-ground parking garages. Ground has not broken on any related projects yet. But the redesign, however it shakes out, intends to serve multiple purposes for multiple groups. It would be simple to move the county library out of downtown, but the city understands that the library is connected organically to the theaters and museums nearby — all are services and experiences that benefit local and citywide residents.

In the heart of Spirit Square is Discovery Place, a combination science museum and education facility. Bank of America has donated a nearby half-block of property to the museum so it can expand and remain in place as the larger four-block area is redone. The gifted property is worth $7 million.

Near the entrance, Discovery Place has two quotes on signs, with messages that offer a meditation for Charlotte’s urban planners. One sign says, “Why do wheels on cars appear to spin backwards?”

The other sign features a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Everything we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.”

Tracing the Population Shifts Through History

Walking or driving through this Tryon Street development area, it’s easy to see why Charlotte’s city center has become so popular. Old willow oak trees pop from the sidewalks, separating pedestrians from car traffic. Historically this area was a trading center for the Catawba tribe, and Trade and Tryon streets were the longtime hubs of that activity.

This intersection was also where the Great Wagon Road rolled through town, a dirt path that connected settlements from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Augusta, Georgia in the mid-1700s; it carried European settlers south and west. Some refer to the Great Wagon Road as an 18th-Century Route 66.

But the recent Charlotte growth is not unique, and many historians look to the boom of the Northeast cities in the late 1800s and early 1900s for similar growth patterns.

“When we think about what’s happening in Charlotte right now, it is best to go back in time and look at what was happening in Boston and Philadelphia and other northeast cities in the early 1900s,” says Tom Hanchett, a Charlotte historian and author of “Sorting Out the New South City: Race, Class & Urban Development in Charlotte” (UNC Press).

“The economy was changing, and those cities needed more building of industrial sites and housing for all the new people moving there, and they responded,” Hanchett says. “The same thing is going on now down south.”

From 1890 to 1920, Boston grew from 448,000 to 748,000, a 67 percent jump in population. Philadelphia went from 1 million to 1.8 million people, a gain of 74 percent. But from 1990 until 2017, according to U.S. Census figures, Charlotte has grown in population by 117 percent. Less drastic, but still significant, increases are evident in Austin, Texas (104 percent), Phoenix, Arizona (65 percent), and Jacksonville, Florida (40 percent).

A map showing the Vision Plan area. (Credit: North Tryon Vision Plan)

Mapping this recent growth reveals an interesting pattern. Thirty years ago, the growth was in concentric circles in suburbs outside the city center. But the current growth cycle for southern cities over the last decade has largely reversed to concentric circles of development outside the urban core and younger people moving back into the city.

These cities of the south and west have the ability to grow in multiple directions — upward, inward, and outward — with the advantage of warmer weather. The weather can make walking and biking more functional, allows outdoor parks to be used for more months during the year, as economic growth provides a driving force in the background.

“Many thought this development pattern going back into the central cities was going to be a more gradual thing, but it swung back that way in full-force and very quickly as well,” says Tom Low, an architect and urban planner based in Charlotte. “Unlike [the urban growth] in the early 1900s in the Northeast, before cars were dominant, these southern cities doing urban gentrification now have to think about making both the people happy, and their cars happy too. That’s one of the huge challenges.”

Hanchett argues in his book that post-Reconstruction Charlotte featured a kind of “salt and pepper” integration to the city population. But economic downturn near the turn of the 20th century led to racial fear-mongering, which increasingly segregated the city along lines of race and class. By the mid-20th century, redlining became standard practice across the country, and as countless studies have shown, the resulting social segregation and economic marginalization have persisted for decades. (The Mapping Inequality project has digitized redlining maps for more than 150 areas, including for Charlotte; the maps paint the city’s segregation in stark visual detail.)

“There are large numbers of people in this beautiful, prosperous city who are not being lifted,” said Hanchett in a recent Charlotte Observer interview. “The saying is, ‘The tide lifts all boats.’ The tide is lifting economically in Charlotte, but not everyone is feeling that lift. And that is not just an inconvenience. It spurs anger, but it also pulls all of us down.”

The Challenge of Complete Streets in a Car-Centric City

Low points out that most of the city’s developments are “auto-centric.” A recent Urban Land Institute study found that Charlotte ranked 50th in the U.S. in walkability, with 81% of the population driving to work solo.

Trying to change that thinking is difficult. The impetus to do so is cost: above- or below-ground parking garages can cost from $20,000 to $40,000 per space to build, and finding ways to reduce those costs (mostly by having fewer available spaces) can lead to investment in more profitable (and more resident-useful) ventures.

That means striking a balance between housing and business needs. One idea is cost sharing at the parking complexes themselves, where garage operators have residents use the parking spaces at night and office-building workers use those same spaces during the day. This approach works better if more downtown residents don’t have cars to begin with, instead using LYNX (the light rail), bikes, or other transportation alternatives. But that’s an uphill road. A 2016 Urban Land Institute survey of Charlotte residents found that only one percent of respondents lived in a household with no car. Most households, in fact, owned two cars.

“Every downtown in the U.S. is too car-centric right now. And we not only have that, but we also have to assimilate the massive economic growth Charlotte has gone through that is connected directly to automobile growth in the suburbs,” says Michael Smith, president and CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners, a public and privately funded agency promoting downtown development and overseeing the North Tryon Vision Plan. “One of the biggest problems with re-urbanization is that a lot of the population is being pushed out because of the need for a car and the cost of having one.”

“That’s what we are dealing with in this downtown project, finding ways to include more people rather than exclude many,” Smith says.

Most people who spoke to Next City for this story emphasized that the major challenge to executing an inclusive re-urbanization plan was to sell the idea of using varied transportation options such as walking, bicycling and mass transit. Selling the concept of non-car transportation is, essentially, selling what this vision will look like 20 years from now. “Sometimes, the… long-term vision gets lost because people want to know what is happening with transportation options today,” says Charlotte Planning Director Taiwo Jaiyeoba. “Sometimes, you have to put it in terms such as how going to a grocery store will be closer and easier, and a car won’t be needed to buy a gallon of milk.”

“Selling that idea to people under 30 is easier to do than to sell that idea to people in their 60s,” he says. “That is the way to attract millennials, to have affordable housing in a place where a car is not needed.”

How NASCAR and “Speed Street” Paved the Way

Inherent in the discussion of Charlotte’s transportation changes is the irony that this area is essentially the center of stock-car racing. Charlotte hosted the first NASCAR race in 1949, and about three-fourths of the race teams are headquartered here. The Charlotte Motor Speedway is about 15 miles northeast of the North Tryon Vision Plan area, in Concord. On the other side of town is the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

One of the inspirations for the push to redesign the North Tryon area was the observation by some planners on how the annual Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race had a huge effect on the downtown area. Closing streets with pop-up food and retail sales, as well as concerts for the visiting race fans, was drawing about 90,000 a day for the “Speed Street” festival.

“Love for stock racecars or not, Speed Street invites people to enjoy themselves in the city,” Julia Day, a New York-based planner for Gehl wrote in 2014 in an analysis of Charlotte’s downtown reuse plans. “I could care less about cars speeding around a track, but I’m curious about what’s working when an event attracts 90,000 pedestrians a day.” That’s the most of any street festival in Charlotte all year.

“Large, organized special events shouldn’t be the only things that do this, but as urbanists, we can be more open to why and how they might inform how to create spaces that engage people in a more spontaneous way, on an everyday basis.”

“What we found,” Day tells Next City, “is that NASCAR fans loved the event in downtown Charlotte because everything they wanted to do was within walking distance. That was the attraction. We found that extremely interesting, that car race fans were attracted to an event where they didn’t need their cars.”

The NASCAR Hall of Fame. (Photo by Bryce Womeldurf/Flickr.)

The transportation conundrum Charlotte faces is exacerbated by its relationship, economically and culturally, to cars. “For the old Charlotte business and country-club crowd… NASCAR has never been their sport, and they sort of look down upon it,” says Jeff Michael, director of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte’s Urban Institute.

“But for more than five decades we have built the southern urban model around suburban and rural patterns, with the car at the center of that,” he says. “Now we are trying to retrofit that model in an urban way. It is difficult to incrementally grow green fields and farms into suburban southern neighborhoods, but quite a different matter to try to keep what is attractive to suburban people as we redo urban areas and the suburban people want to move back to the cities they left.”

The late Tom Wolfe wrote about the relationship of the car and the post-World War II South in a 1965 Esquire magazine profile of NASCAR driver Junior Johnson. “And all over the rural South, hell, all over the South, the legends of wild-driving whiskey running got started. And it wasn’t just the plain excitement of it. It was something deeper, the symbolism … And it was like a mythology for that and for something else that was happening, the whole wild thing of the car as the symbol of liberation in the postwar South.”

That attitude is still prevalent in many ways in North Carolina. “We in Charlotte are definitely on the front lines on this,” Michael says.

Why Charlotte’s Affordable Housing Can’t Catch Up

Another front-line battle Charlotte faces is to secure commitments for affordable housing as part of the redevelopment.

According to Michael Smith of Charlotte City Center Partners, nearly 2,000 new apartments opened in the city center in 2017. About 30,000 people now live in the central city area, a 600 percent increase since 1998. But because of big demand in the housing market, downtown rents are high, with the average monthly rent in center city now at $1,640, according to a Charlotte Center City Partners report. And the North Carolina Housing Coalition reports that a Charlotte family would need to earn an income of more than $65,000 per year to consider that “affordable.”

The poverty gap is real. A 2014 study by researchers from Harvard University and University of California-Berkeley measured the ability of poor children to lift up and out of poverty. Of the 50 largest U.S. cities, Charlotte ranked last in upward mobility. And that upward mobility would depend, in large part, on access to affordable housing options.

“For any city-center development to have credibility with the local community right now, affordable housing has to be a part of that,” Cathy Bessant, chair of the advisory committee for the urban design plan, and Chief Operations Officer for Bank of America, tells Next City. “We have a huge gap in affordable housing needs in Charlotte, and we can use redevelopment in our downtown area to fill that gap.”

But to secure those commitments is a chronic problem. For one, the state government doesn’t allow cities to set local affordable-housing targets. So the city cannot tell a housing developer planning to build a 150-unit apartment complex to earmark 10 percent of those units for people with lower incomes. That’s a problem in Charlotte, where 46 percent of the population is considered “cost-burdened,” meaning they pay more than 30% of their income toward rent

Mandatory inclusionary zoning policies adopted in New York and San Francisco have been a critical step to increase the supply of affordable units within the overall mix of housing stock. In return, developers receive tax abatements or other concessions. But in Charlotte, the incentive program is voluntary, and therefore rarely used.

As Next City has reported, Charlotte’s current system is partly to blame for developers failing to take advantage of the voluntary incentives. They instead put effort into pushing case-by-case zoning amendments through the City Council, eliminating the need to spend additional money on affordable units.

“Any planner knows you do not use zoning to push development. You use it to regulate,” says Jaiyeoba, who laments that the city has not updated its comprehensive city plan since 1975. “We are doing a lot of negotiating right now, instead of more planning, and we would like to have that switched.”

Essentially, developers in Charlotte have the power to build what they want. “There aren’t many rules here, and that is by design,” says Tom Low. “What happens is that the resulting development is often a compromised product, where they build a massive parking garage and fill in apartment housing around that,” he says. “That may change over time, but the laws may need to change to make that happen more quickly.”

The affordable-housing gap in Charlotte hovers around 20,000 units needed for low-income renters — a significant shortfall. Mayor Vi Lyles has said the city plans to seek $50 million in affordable housing bonds in the fall, which would more than triple the amount of local money available for low-income housing. But those bonds will go to projects across the city, not just to downtown. In fact, the city recently approved $24 million in possible bonds funds for 11 affordable housing projects in the city. Not one was in the center-city area.

At this level of development, the threat of gentrification looms. Charlotte’s largely African-American Cherry neighborhood, just southeast of the North Tryon plan area, has seen big developers targeting the neighborhood since the redevelopment plans were announced.

Another key, according to Jaiyeoba and others interviewed for this story, is to figure out how to make housing affordable to young millennials, who are coming into the workforce with lower pay and big college debt.

In a recent interview, Kaleia Martin, a 24-year-old Charlotte native with a masters in social work from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, expresses frustration that the city hasn’t done more to address affordability along the rail line. “I don’t think the City of Charlotte and the developers have the average millennial making less than $45,000 a year in mind when they said they wanted to attract young professionals to the area,” Martin says.

How the affordable housing issue plays out in the North Tryon’s restoration plan is hard to predict. Few of the early entries in the vision plan’s housing build have affordable options included. Among the projects completed or currently under construction are: a 26-story office building that includes a 300-room hotel; a pair of 10-story hotels near a new LYNX light rail station; the 254-room Grand Bohemian Hotel, a 22-story hotel built above the revitalized Carolina Theater, and a 22-story apartment project with 421 apartments.

“If I were to identify anything that we need to be concerned about right now, it’s the affordability side of things,” Smith said in an interview earlier this year with the Charlotte Business Journal. “We don’t have a San Francisco, New York City, Washington kind of crisis, but we’re moving in the wrong direction and we’re going to push the lion’s share of our workforce into commute patterns that are unsustainable.”

Some developers may privately dispute Smith’s assertion that Charlotte is on the wrong path. But that he speaks of Charlotte’s affordability problems in the same breath as those in San Francisco, New York City, and Washington, D.C., indicates that the city is now in the big leagues. The city’s business leaders have said that the challenge for Charlotte now is to compete with London, Berlin and New York to attract young talent in the financial services industry.

“What we are reacting to is a mindset that is changing right before our eyes,” Smith tells Next City. “The things we are prioritizing right now to be competitive in the world — in business and in societal civic value — would not have been possible even five years ago.”

“But one of the reasons we are able to do this is that Charlotte has always placed a high priority on changing to fit the changes and the needs of our city,” he says. “When people want to know what is happening here, I have one answer. Charlotte is a four-decade overnight success.

CORRECTION: The story was edited to clarify that Charlotte is not headquarters for NASCAR or their corporate offices; it is simply home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame and the Charlotte Motor Speedway. And the percentage increases in population for Austin, Phoenix, and Jacksonville were updated to reflect current U.S. Census figures.

Daniel J. McGraw is a writer living in Lakewood, Ohio.

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