NORTHERN SECTOR: NEW METROPOLISES
This quadrant buzzes with expanded business and industry: Lowe's corporate headquarters outside Mooresville; Food Lion's headquarters and other Salisbury businesses; Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord and NASCAR-related businesses around it; and the research campus emerging in Kannapolis. Connecting these centers to center city Charlotte via rail links would help development flower in their cores, while Rowan County farmland (some of the region's best) would be less susceptible to a march of new subdivisions.
This region's Chapel Hill, Davidson offers an oasis of intellectualism and relative peace and quiet. With less than 10,000 people, Davidson is hardly a population center. But with its exemplary planning and insistence on Main Street-style development, it could grow substantially, yet remain what it wants to be: a prosperous, inviting college town.
A century ago it was Charlotte's rival as the region's center. Today this charming city sets the bar for the region for historic preservation. It did this through local resolve – backed by strong local ordinances – to save and recycle its distinguished older buildings. Salisbury's economy, bolstered by a strong public-private partnership ethic, has been healthy – and not just from Charlotte's spinoff. It's far enough from Charlotte to avoid waves of suburban growth. It has a rail link to Charlotte via Amtrak. A fast commuter line to Charlotte could make it the area's poster child for transit-centered growth.
A huge old mill town is being transformed into a bio-food research center and a significant economic anchor for the region. (Note of sadness: The old mill's smokestacks were torn down.) A question now: Will the mill houses around the old mill/new research center site soar in value, forcing out old-timers? Looking to the future, commuter rail links to Charlotte and Salisbury could integrate Kannapolis and its new generation of scientists into the region.
This old railroad town has a historic rail depot and a charming Main Street that's waiting for Iredell County commissioners to OK a way to fund a link to a commuter rail line south into Charlotte. (The line would also pass the economically critical – and worker rich – Lowe's site.) If that happens, Mooresville would likely see executives and developers vying to buy and build homes near the train station. With a strong downtown development corporation, the town is already coalescing around its Main Street as new businesses and residents arrive.
With Cornelius and Davidson, it's one of the three attractive north Mecklenburg towns. Huntersville is also home to the model “New Urban” Birkdale Village, with its good-looking village center and mixed uses. Unfortunately, it isn't transit-connected and doesn't offer easy road connections to its neighbors. Vermillion, east of downtown, is another development in the New Urban style, meaning it has a mix of houses, apartments and stores built to resemble a traditional small town. And in south Huntersville a tantalizing project is under construction: Bryton, an enormous development on N.C. 115, designed to work with a proposed commuter rail line, which is only in the planning stages. Bryton is evidence of the lure that rail transit has for development.
WESTERN SECTOR: FROM OLD MILL TOWNS TO POTENTIAL NEW CENTERS
With easy access via Interstate 85 and amenities such as the Catawba River, this region might have been expected to grow rapidly in recent years. But on the whole, it hasn't. The struggles of grand old Gastonia, quintessential mill city in transition, may have played a role. Yet there's potential for the small cities to offer thriving downtowns, surrounded by good farmland. Belmont was an early leader in more compact development, and Mount Holly has set a marker for forward-looking planning. Needed but missing: express buses or trains along tracks that run through the region.
Named after President (and Mecklenburg native) James K. Polk's vice president, George Dallas, it's one of the area's oldest towns and has a collection of pre-Civil War architecture unmatched in the region. Its street grid and streetscape could fill out and grow in coming decades.
With about 5,000 people, a pleasant and active Main Street, a largely intact street grid and a rail line running straight through town, it may well serve as a growth center in coming decades.
The seat of Cleveland County, with about 20,000 people, Shelby lies at the edge of the Charlotte growth belt. If the Shelby bypass and other big highway projects are built, Shelby will be overtaken by sprawling growth from the Charlotte region. If the region invests more in transit, and less in highways, Shelby will remain a more independent city still outside Charlotte's orbit proper.
A town of about 8,000, Belmont is one of the places where New Urban-style development was pioneered, before it was adopted in numerous spots around the region. With its revamped downtown and redeveloped mills, Belmont is an example of a town doing many things right.
With more than 65,000 residents, this mill city can serve as a major growth center for the region, despite struggling with the best way to renew its downtown, even as its suburbs spurt in population. The trick will be to direct development energy into the city proper. Gastonia has pursued some misguided urban renewal-style plans, tearing down older center city buildings. But it still has one of the region's largest intact street grids, a potential home for future urban-style growth.
The seat of Catawba County, Newton is a small railroad town with potential for becoming a denser, more populous and more prosperous center in coming decades.
SOUTHERN SECTOR: ACROSS THE BORDER, POTENTIAL PARTNERS
State line notwithstanding, Rock Hill and its neighbors know they are part of the Charlotte region and want to enhance their connection with the city. A commuter rail line would get substantial support from these towns and cities, judging from the number of S.C. license tags in the southernmost park and ride lot of the LYNX Blue Line. There have been substantial efforts to preserve and protect Lake Wylie, a tremendous resource for the area. But this sector is also home to big, conventional subdivisions where large, energy-consumptive homes on large lots are seen as the epitome of success, not something to avoid.
With pre-Revolutionary War roots dating to the mid-1700s, York is one of the region's oldest and most historic towns, with substantial pre-Civil War architecture. The charm and community vitality of the town of about 7,000 are exhibited especially well at its yearly Summerfest.
A kind of mini-Charlotte in its boosterism and urge to succeed, Rock Hill is the region's go-getter, south-of-the-border city – firmly in the Queen City's orbit but happy to snare businesses from the big city. With 65,000 people, it's South Carolina's fourth largest city, and it's still trying to get its downtown right – most recently putting residences above stores. A raft of redevelopment projects, including the Cotton Factory project for mixed residential and retail on an 1881-vintage mill site, have total value of some $1 billion. Rock Hill boasts high civic commitment, with 100 neighborhood associations, and a focus on infill development, and renewed park and river walk efforts. An active, federally funded “Weed and Seed” program seeks to cope with some crime issues.
EASTERN SECTOR: INTENSE SUBURBIA TO OPEN FIELDS
The big story here is Union County and its historic county seat, Monroe (population 30,000), perched on a clear dividing line. To the city's northwest (flowing from Charlotte) lies out-of-control sprawl in unincorporated areas or towns such as Weddington, Wesley Chapel, Marvin, Stallings, Indian Trail and the outskirts of Waxhaw. To its east and south is still highly productive farmland. Many of the region's growth choices will play themselves out here. With a train line running through it, for example, Monroe could become a more focused center of development. But if the Monroe bypass is built, expect more waves of conventional suburban development, with its increasing traffic.
Stanly and Anson counties, by contrast, are blessed or cursed (as one sees it) with no major interstate-style highway. This physically handsome area of field and forest has seen lighter growth than most of the Charlotte region. But growth has occurred. And towns such as Locust, Midland and Mint Hill could become more compact centers for growth.
Here's a town where leaders are working admirably to build a community with character and distinctiveness. When the N.C. Department of Transportation wiped out its original main street by widening N.C. 24/27, town leaders joined to create a new downtown, in a traditional town form, with design help from the New Urban architecture firm Duany Plater-Zyberk. Partially complete, the new town center provides a focus for growth in coming decades.
SOURCE: CITISTATES TEAM