“Charlotte is just now being born as a metropolitan community. Sure, it's always been a city. But something bigger is happening now. I get invitations now to places like Lancaster County. The mindsets are just now beginning to change. Lots of Rock Hill folks think they're living in Charlotte. And our uptown has a lot to do with it. The shift's driven by lifestyle changes – baby boomers leaving those cul-de-sacs, replaced by Gen Xers. I predict uptown will have 100,000 residents by 2028.”
Sound like words from a Chamber of Commerce executive? Yes, we heard them from Tony Crumbley, chief researcher for the Charlotte Chamber.
There's no doubt – uptown Charlotte has been soaring skyward with its sea of construction cranes. Even the bad economic news of recent weeks can't erase that. When the dust of the current crises settles, few doubt the world will still see here a proud, ambitious metropolitan center looking for next opportunities, boasting expansive new culture and street life.
And in this region, unlike hollowed-out urban cores such as Detroit, flight to suburban locations now has a counter-balance, as new residents flock to uptown, close-in areas such as Plaza Midwood and Myers Park, and along the light rail corridor. Charlotte and its uptown aren't a drag on the ship of the region; they're its sail.
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Or as we heard at UNC Charlotte – an institution that decades ago built its main campus miles from uptown – “Whenever we interview a prospective new hire, we put them in a downtown hotel, try to interview later in the week when the place is hopping. Uptown is a really good sales tool for us.”
Yet it remains an open question: Will Charlotte's uptown embody the regional citizenship Tony Crumbley speaks of? Can it, all at once, successfully welcome a diverse group including lifelong Southerners, mobile business moguls, ambitious 20-something graduates of Upstate New York colleges, empty nesters escaping suburban crabgrass and striving immigrants from Latin America and Asia?
Further, can uptown Charlotte work well with the downtowns of the smaller cities in the Charlotte citistate to create a welcoming urbanism, a network of town centers to be prized? The smaller downtowns play a different role from the big center. They are bright lights, but each with a different hue and warmth. Each adds to the region's character. Examples abound: Salisbury with its historic charm; Kannapolis, the old mill town emerging as a biotech center; Mooresville, the classic old railroad town building a new persona; Rock Hill, a dynamic little city just over the S.C. border.
As the region grows, the smaller downtowns can grow as well and become important business centers in their own right. A company moving to the region might choose to be in uptown Charlotte, or it might choose Kannapolis, on the train line, where its rent would be lower but it could still maintain a connection to uptown's towers of finance.
As the regional downtowns grow in variety and quality, they can enhance the appeal of the whole region: a mighty center city and prosperous and appealing smaller centers.
Or as Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols told us: “We very much want to have our own agenda – but we understand the connectivity. It's like the campfire – just close enough to stay warm but not so close you get burned.”
The goal should be a high-quality place for all who make this region their home:
A young professional who likes his condominium off Tryon Street for its five-minute commute and proximity to the urban “action.”
An elderly couple in Fort Mill's Baxter Village who like the community's compact design, which lets them walk to breakfast and for groceries.
A mother with three small children who likes small-town living in Mooresville because the school and Main Street are so accessible.
With the rise of the Internet and a more mobile work force, people are increasingly able to live anywhere. A region that can offer quality environments, more sociable communities and more walkable and bikeable settings will be a winner.
Promoting the growth of downtowns, small and large, fits in with our recommendations for the region to expand its transit system, to build fewer highways, to grow inward more and outward less. Channeling population and business growth to existing downtowns – and perhaps some new ones – will make it easier to build a transit system that works. And putting more of the region's growth into existing downtowns will help save more farms and forests from the bulldozer.
Busy, thriving downtowns can counter some of the negative images – crime, vandalism, gang activity, for example – that people, sometimes inaccurately, associate with downtowns. In fact, a bustling place where law-abiding people are watching one another is one of the best deterrents to unsavory activities. We remember how we felt 13 years ago when we did our first Citistates Report here, nervously walking uptown's deserted streets about 9 p.m. Today, we walk at much later hours and feel safer, because the sidewalks have people on them.
As Charlotte grows as a region and a city, bustling downtowns will also help mend and bridge cultural differences. They offer a physical area for a common culture. Downtowns are where blacks, whites, the region's growing Latino minority as well as people of differing ethnic and religious backgrounds can mix and get to know each other. Certainly, one can envision how eating a fajita on Charlotte's Central Avenue (which has the potential to be an exciting new “downtown”), or seeing farmers sell wares at a market in downtown Mooresville could be an appealing way to get to know our fellow citizens.
There's special appeal, too, in a neighborhood like NoDa, with its compact grid of streets that serves as a fertile ground for new music groups and clubs. These smaller and less traditional centers can play a role, along with more classic centers such as downtown Salisbury or center city Charlotte, in making a more vibrant region.
The region's evolving downtowns – new and old – can and should become a big plus, beacons to newcomers, helping them feel as if they're citizens of a real place, not simply consumers of good weather and a job.
That's important for more than just feel-good reasons. The new and closer ties that such shared spaces can build should, in turn, create feelings of good will that might make it easier for political and civic leaders across the Charlotte citistate to address the really tough, challenging regionwide issues of the time.