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Auto mall rezoning poses bigger question

The most immediate question in Charlotte’s latest rezoning debate is whether to allow a large collection of car dealerships on a university area site. But the developer’s request points to a second question with even higher stakes:

Will the city do all it can to ensure that the Blue Line extension to UNC Charlotte is as successful as the south line has been?

The original Blue Line, which runs south from uptown to I-485, has mostly fulfilled its promise of sparking development and revitalizing a listless part of town. Apartments, retail, office space, restaurants and other establishments sprouted along the line, breathing new life especially into South End. That pedestrian-friendly development delivered a shot of vigor to an area that needed it while also boosting property tax collections.

Now the Blue Line will extend nine miles from uptown to the UNC Charlotte area. Construction begins next year and trains are scheduled to start rolling in 2017.

The $1.1 billion investment has the potential to resuscitate a crumbling city artery. Development along the line would further the city’s efforts to boost its tax base organically, with its annexation abilities about tapped out. That’s something the City Council has been wrestling with in its capital improvement plan.

But pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented development requires the city to be intentional. The Arden Group’s request to rezone 39 acres about a quarter mile from a planned university city Blue Line station is just one early indicator of how the city will choose to grow. Will the City Council approve one development at a time, even if the project is not ideal for the transit line? Or will it commit to a plan that drives mixed-use development all along the line?

There’s an argument to be made for the 275,000-square-foot auto mall. The site is hard up against I-85, surrounded by big-box stories and a full quarter-mile from the Blue Line. So it would still allow for higher-density development closer to the line, while developing a site that arguably doesn’t lend itself to better uses.

Council member Michael Barnes, who represents the area, told the editorial board Monday that that’s “a reasonable assessment” but also said he believes there could be a better use for the land.

Either way, the issues are bigger than this one rezoning. Land all along the Blue Line extension is not zoned for transit-oriented development. And area plans for several stations need to be updated and used to help govern development.

Barnes said city staff is beginning to tackle those kinds of issues now. That’s good, if a bit late. If taxpayers are going to invest more than $1 billion into the Blue Line extension, the city should back that investment up with smart growth decisions driven by a plan, not by whatever rezoning request happens to fall in its lap. The city should put the dealership rezoning on hold until that plan is developed.

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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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