The Blue Line has spurred a flood of development along its nearly 19-mile length, but not all of it is the walkable, less car-dependent growth transit advocates have long championed.
Self-storage facilities, huge parking decks, gas stations with dozens of pumps and even a “car vending machine” have popped up along Charlotte’s light rail line from south Charlotte to University City. The development pattern isn’t a surprise in a city that’s still largely car-centric, but it risks undermining the nearly $1.7-billion investment in the Blue Line, largely paid through Charlotte’s half-cent transit sales tax.
Some urban planners say the city should take more steps to regulate development along the Blue Line and ensure that transit-friendly, extra-dense development clusters there.
“The role of a light rail line is partly to move people and partly to spur development. You spur development to reap taxes that help offset the cost of the line,” said David Walters, a longtime Charlotte architect and urban planner. “It seems to me they’re not protecting the public’s investment at all, and that’s a huge problem.”
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Since opening in 2007, the light rail line has played a key role in revitalizing South End, luring thousands of new residents along with office buildings, shops and restaurants to an area that former Mayor Pat McCrory once famously called a “corridor of crap,” pointing to the lack of planning in the area. Now, the northern end is up: The Blue Line extension, set to open in March, is drawing major developments to new areas along its 9.3-mile route to UNC Charlotte.
Charlotte City Council – which saw five new members sworn in this month – has mostly approved building plans from developers along the light rail even when they fret that the plans conflict with the Blue Line’s vision. In October, for example, City Council approved a self-storage building several blocks from the New Bern station. An auto mall won approval in University City near the Blue Line extension in 2013. But only one auto dealership has opened there and the owner now wants to build an entertainment district on the rest of the site, rumored to be anchored by Topgolf.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg interim planning director Ed McKinney said the city is implementing plans for land use around the new light rail stations through the rezoning process.
“To support the long-term transit investment along the Blue Line extension, the city has adopted transit station plans and is implementing the station area land use and design recommendations through rezonings,” McKinney said, in a statement.
Such rezonings are typically voluntary and initiated by developers or property owners who want to build something new, and don’t always come into effect on a given site near a transit station, however.
To be sure, no transit line running across nearly the length of Charlotte could be entirely dominated by dense new apartments, high-end offices, shops and restaurants. And many urban planners agree that having a diverse mix of uses – apartments, houses, light industrial, different kinds of retail and a range of offices – jumbled up in the same district brings more vibrancy.
Tobe Holmes, planning director at University City Partners, said it will take more time to change the way developers build.
“We are a market rooted in auto-dominated uses, and we cannot expect for there to be an about-face of owners and developers toward walkable urbanism,” Holmes said. “It will be an evolution over time.”
Some planners are hopeful that the city’s new development rules will encourage – or mandate – more transit-oriented development. But those rules won’t be ready until at least 2019. In the meantime, critics say not enough is being done to ensure new developments near the city’s biggest transit investments are walkable, designed for people instead of cars.
Here are five kinds of development along the Blue Line that put cars ahead of transit:
A literal ‘car vending machine’
In South End, Carvana is building a unique dealership: An automated system that stores cars in a 71-foot-tall, transparent display column. Customers who have already paid online will be able to insert a special coin to pick the car up. It’s an innovative design that it takes up far less space than a traditional dealership – and it’s directly across from the Scaleybark Station.
Walters said that area is perfect for high-density, mixed-use buildings on both sides of South Boulevard, which is divided for several blocks by the Blue Line running down the middle. The stretch is still largely vacant or occupied by old strip shopping centers.
“It would be a fabulous urban boulevard that doesn’t exist anywhere in the South,” said Walters. “Even though I love the car vending machine, it doesn’t fit that vision.”
A Carvana representative declined to comment on the dealership’s location.
In University City, an ExtraSpace storage facility was recently built on University City Boulevard, about a 1/2-mile walk from the nearest station, and another is open blocks from the Scaleybark Station. Earlier this year, City Council approved a self-storage facility in South End, on South Tryon Street near the New Bern Station.
Some council members expressed reservations about the location. Former at-large member Vi Lyles, now Charlotte’s mayor, said the site was “an under-utilization of an investment we’ve made.”
“If we’re going to make massive investments in mass transit,” said council member Julie Eiselt, “I want to make sure we’ll get the most out of that... I don’t think we’re getting the most out of our development.”
The measure was approved 7-4, with supporters claiming the self-storage facility would cater to nearby residents in the new apartments and people who want to ride transit to storage options. Detractors, however, pointed out that most people would likely drive to and from the location to deposit and retrieve heavy boxes.
Big gas stations
Although the Blue Line’s route is supposed to evolve into a light rail-based corridor, it also parallels some very busy auto corridors, such as South Boulevard and North Tryon Street, and runs close to interstate interchanges. That makes sites along its route attractive to gas stations too.
Circle K has opened two large gas stations in University City near or along the Blue Line’s route, while a QuikTrip dominates the corner of Clanton Road and South Boulevard, a block from the Scaleybark Station. A gas station can serve pedestrians and rail riders as well as cars, with convenience store offerings such as a snack or quick cup of coffee for the morning ride.
But with a dozen or more fuel pumps, wide concrete aprons for cars to maneuver and a majority of the site taken up by gas pumps or parking, they’re not truly pedestrian-friendly.
“They know cars aren’t going away,” said Martin Zimmerman, an urban planner and transit advocate in University City. “A key reason gas stations and self-storage keeps getting built along transit corridors is because planners and City Council are not enforcing current transit friendly zoning rules.”
An auto mall
Plans to build five auto dealerships covering 39 acres on University City Boulevard, just east of Interstate 85, stirred controversy in 2013 but were ultimately approved. Opponents pointed to the light rail extension set to open two blocks away as a reason the city shouldn’t allow a massive car dealership on the site, even though its location at an interchange made it attractive.
Since then, one auto dealership has moved in, and the owners now say the rest of the site is better suited for a mixed-use development. The first part would be an entertainment district, which they say would draw workers from uptown via the Blue Line. A shuttle service would connect the site to the station a bit more than a quarter mile away.
Holmes, the University City Partners planning director, said the changes to the plan over the past five years show that the market is shifting towards more transit-friendly uses, since the owners could have decided to build all five dealerships as originally approved.
“That is a very good example of how there has been an evolution in thinking about transit-oriented development in that submarket,” said Holmes.
Big parking garages
Although developers along the Blue Line often aren’t required to build as much parking for new apartments and other projects as elsewhere in the city (one of the perks of building next to the rail line), they’ve mostly chosen to do so anyway. The result: New buildings along the Blue Line feature the same huge, costly parking decks and surface lots you’ll find at any other development in Charlotte.
Developers say that apartment residents still expect – and need – to own a car, even if they live next to the light rail. Lenders also expect new apartments they’re funding to have the same ratios of parking spaces-to-bedrooms that they’re used to in other parts of town. That’s generally one space per bedroom.
The big parking decks add millions of dollars to a building’s cost, pushing rents higher when the apartments open, and critics say they implicitly encourage residents to own more cars. Shannon Binns, executive director of Sustain Charlotte, said this year that by not having rules mandating less parking at new buildings along the Blue Line, the city is squandering an opportunity.
“When we don’t maximize the land use around the transit investments, we really are undermining those investments,” said Binns.