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City officials tout South End as model for rail-oriented development

With construction booming in Charlotte’s South End, city leaders on Tuesday called the area a model for the kind of smart growth that transit projects can spur in struggling neighborhoods east, west and north of uptown.

At a news conference on a street corner near the Lynx light-rail line, officials from Center City Partners joined several City Council members for a bus tour of the area’s new projects, which include 11 residential developments announced or under way. Officials project the South End’s population will roughly double as it adds a projected 3,500 residents by the end of 2015.

Officials with Center City Partners said they’ll soon install 20 benches, 13 bike racks and 34 solar-powered, Internet-connected waste and recycling containers to further enhance the area’s livability.

Center City Partners President Michael Smith said the coming of the Lynx Blue Line six years ago sparked the transformation of the formerly industrial area.

“This is about forward-looking investment in transportation and infrastructure,” he said. “We’re excited to share the progress this district is seeing.”

With preparations under way to extend the Lynx line north 9.2 miles to UNC Charlotte, hopes have been raised that South End’s successes might be replicated northeast of the city.

City Manager Ron Carlee on Monday proposed a $126 million streetcar line extension running from Johnson C. Smith University to Hawthorne Lane in the Elizabeth neighborhood.

City Council members James Mitchell, LaWana Mayfield and John Autry said they believe Carlee’s proposed CityLynx Gold Line extension can bring South End-style redevelopment to west and east Charlotte.

“The concerns and questions people have concerning the Gold Line are the same concerns and questions they had about light rail,” Mayfield said. “A number of (council) members and the community didn’t think light rail would be a good investment. But today, look what has happened.”

Mitchell added: “We can take this model and we can put it on North Tryon (Street), we can put it on West Trade Street, Beatties Ford Road and Central Avenue. … We can build off the history of the Blue Line here, that if you build it, they will come.”

Critics have questioned whether a slow-moving streetcar line can generate the same kind of economic development as light rail.

When former City Manager Curt Walton last spring proposed using the city’s Capital Improvement Plan to underwrite a streetcar extension, a majority of council members opposed it and voted down the entire capital budget plan.

Carlee’s plan calls for the federal government to pay half of the $126 million project, without an increase in city property taxes.

City Council member Andy Dulin isn’t convinced a streetcar line can duplicate what the Blue Line has spurred in South End. He said CATS bus lines running along the proposed CityLynx Gold Line corridor already have some of the highest ridership rates in the city, indicating the public is already well served by bus transit.

He doesn’t want to see overhead streetcar cables marring the Square.

“It’s clutter. It’s unsightly,” he said. “There’s all kinds of problems with this.”

But Autry said development follows government extensions of major transit projects, be it light rail or a streetcar.

“Developers are always talking about how they want more certainty. There’s nothing more certain than understanding that a rail line is going to be there.”

The South End news conference came on the same day Carlee and other city planners welcomed to Charlotte officials from Smart Growth America, a national group promoting more high-density “smart” development.

Charlotte officials will receive help from the group as they try to figure out how best to revive other close-in areas like South End. William Fulton, a vice president with the group and a former mayor of Ventura, Calif., called South End redevelopment commendable.

“But one of the challenges … is you’re not going to be able to put transit into every neighborhood in Charlotte,” he said. “So if you do have capital spending that’s not transit, what’s the best way to spend that money to improve those neighborhoods and stimulate private development?”

Frazier: 704-358-5145;@ericfraz on Twitter
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