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The Next Neighborhood

By Sarah Gleim | Photography by Davie Hinshaw, Ortega Gaines, Laura Meuller, & Shannon Morgan

Posted: Tuesday, Oct. 08, 2013

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Drive through Charlotte’s North Tryon Business Corridor and it’s hard to envision how this distressed mixed-use district might one day rival the bustling, historic South End neighborhood. But that’s the ultimate long term goal of the city’s North Tryon Business Corridor improvement project that has plans to revitalize the area just outside the I-277 loop. The project, which is a joint effort between the City of Charlotte and The Arts & Science Council, is eco-friendly, boldly optimistic and already serving as an innovative and forward-thinking model for future city initiatives.

Plans have been underway since 2010 when the City Council approved $9.5 million to revitalize from Dalton Avenue to West 30th Street–currently home to several businesses, Amtrak and the residential neighborhoods of Tryon Hills and Lockwood. The multi-phased project won’t be fully realized until 2016, but through the addition of public art, an improved streetscape and plans for green initiatives like an urban farm and garden, the city’s goal is that more private sector businesses will be drawn to the neighborhood. A “build-it-and-they-will-come” philosophy.

Tom Russell, senior project manager at the engineering and property management department with the City of Charlotte, is managing the project. Phase 1, he explains, will upgrade 4 miles of North Tryon Street between Center City Charlotte and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “The public said they wanted a dramatic change and the new plan turns Tryon Street into a one-way pair from 23rd to 30th,” he says. “It also includes curbs and gutters, 8-foot planting strips, sidewalks and 5-foot bike lanes.”

The roadway project is following strict guidelines to become Charlotte’s first certified Greenroad, the equivalent of a building earning LEED certification. “The City of Charlotte does great job with sustainability, so going for Greenroad made sense on this project,” Russell says. “One of the main reasons we want the Greenroad certification is to consider things we normally wouldn’t.” Because the city owns and maintains so many roads, Russell says one goal to earning the stringent certification is to learn how to make a smaller environmental impact on future road projects.

That kind of sustainable planning–coupled with the project’s focus on public arts–is why the City of Charlotte and The Arts & Science Council were awarded a $100,000 National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant to help further the North Tryon revitalization. The NEA grant is awarded to help cities fund projects “that contribute toward the livability of communities and help transform them into lively, beautiful, and sustainable places with the arts at their core.” ASC used a portion of the $100,000 to fund artist in residence Sheila Klein for three months at McColl Center for Visual Art.

Washington-based Klein was commissioned out of more than 70 artists to create the art to compliment the revitalization. Klein has numerous public art pieces across the country, including a massive architectural installation of sequined aluminum panels, mirrors and lights at the Bush Intercontinental Airport Roadway in Houston.

“Sheila was selected because of her ability to jump in to find ways to stretch the budget,” says Nicole Bartlett, program director of public art at The Arts & Science Council. “She’s participating in outreach activities, and meeting with residents, community leaders and city planners to help them think outside the box for the project.” Klein’s art, which will be permanently installed in 2016, will help the area communicate its idea of being green-friendly.

Klein, who says she’s part researcher, part urban planner and part mystic, is excited about the project because it’s one of her first in the South, and she’s been inspired by the people of Charlotte. “I want to bring a sense of aesthetics and identity to the art by not doing the same old thing,” she says. “And everybody here has been very open to new ways of doing things and that is very exciting because that makes more possibilities likely to happen.”

Klein’s art is perhaps one of the most important aspects of the revitalization, and not only from an aesthetics standpoint. Most cities of stature have public art–and the addition of Klein’s final installment in the North Tryon Business Corridor will further show the city cares about art and creativity, diversity and personality, Bartlett says. “People really love public art because it shows the unique character of the city, but it also helps economic development, and inclusion in blighted areas can mean a lot,” she says.

And when much of Charlotte’s art scene is struggling–museums are cutting back hours and The Arts & Science Council is lacking funding–new public art projects are increasingly important to the culture of the city. “Anybody can access public art for free,” Bartlett says. “We need to tap into public art, grassroots art, and emerging and established artists–all of them make a huge difference.”

Of course the ultimate goal is for Klein’s public art–as well as the improved streetscape, plans for the urban garden and farm, and overall building upon the neighborhood’s strengths–is to make an economic impact, as well. Ideally, the city hopes property values will increase and more businesses will be attracted to the area. “[Klein’s] art will tie in to what this long-term project is about–a sustainable, green-focused business district,” Russell says. “It will take some time, but the good news is I think once things start rolling, you will see a change.”

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