As South End booms, fears rise for pedestrian safety on South Boulevard

06/06/2014 3:28 PM

06/07/2014 10:43 PM

Nearly seven years after Charlotte officials brought light rail to South End, the area is booming with new apartments, restaurants and shops.

But residents say the city overlooked one crucial task: making South Boulevard – the main road through the area – safe for pedestrians and cyclists.

They say South Boulevard can’t safely accommodate all the new walkers, runners and bikers being drawn to the new apartments and businesses sprouting along the corridor.

It’s not as though residents haven’t been speaking up. They have been asking the city for pedestrian safety improvements on South Boulevard since at least 2005.

City leaders hope to get more citywide sidewalk money through a bond referendum this fall, but they don’t have any dedicated for South Boulevard, or a timetable for improvements.

That worries residents who are watching a Publix supermarket and a new apartment complex going up along South Boulevard just north of Ideal Way, at Iverson Way. A Harris Teeter, restaurants and more apartments are planned for a 60-acre mixed-use development a block south of Ideal Way, at Poindexter Drive.

John Brewer, who has lived off Ideal Way since the late 1980s, said he often sees people struggling to cross South Boulevard’s four traffic lanes on their way to Mac’s Speed Shop and other restaurants across the street from many of the new apartment complexes. Sometimes, in their rush to get to their destination, they fail to use the crosswalks.

He fears it’s only going to get worse.

“South Boulevard is not really made for pedestrian crossings,” Brewer told me. “In some of those areas it’s kind of curvy, and you can’t always see the traffic. … It’s a problem.”

City officials spent $50 million improving access to the rail stations all along the 9.6-mile Lynx Blue Line. But major improvements for pedestrians or cyclists in fast-growing South End remain on the to-do list.

It won’t be easy to take South Boulevard, long known for narrow lanes and heavy traffic, and turn its South End stretch into an urban boulevard friendly to walkers, runners and bikers.

City leaders say it will take years.

“South Boulevard is transforming,” said Dan Gallagher, transportation planning manager for the Charlotte Department of Transportation. “But it won’t occur overnight.”

City Council member Vi Lyles said she’s hearing concern from residents of South End, which was primarily an industrial and commercial area before the Blue Line opened in 2007. Now about 5,000 people live there.

By 2020, some 7,300 residents are expected in the area, roughly bounded by Dilworth to the east, Wilmore to the west and stretching south to around Scaleybark Road.

Lyles, chair of the council’s planning and transportation committee, suggested it’s time for the city to take a fresh look at South Boulevard.

When the city was planning the Blue Line more than a decade ago, “I don’t think we thought about biking and pedestrians and ‘complete streets,’ ” she said, referring to streets with access and safety for all modes of transportation. “We’re going to have to go back and adjust, look at it again.”

A decade of change

Back in 2004, as the city made preparations for the Lynx line, then-Mayor Pat McCrory looked at all the auto-parts stores and fast-food joints sprawled along South Boulevard and called it a “corridor of crap.”

Today, the section of South Boulevard running through South End includes some of the most sought-after real estate in the city for apartment-builders and young renters.

A March report from the Real Data firm, which studies rentals, showed the submarket that includes South End had more than 3,000 apartment units under construction over the previous six months – more than twice as much as any other part of the city.

Closer to uptown, sections of South Boulevard near Rensselaer and Park avenues already include the kind of wider roadway, expanded sidewalks and upgraded crosswalks residents hope to see farther south.

“There was some really good transportation planning and urban design that was done in those few blocks,” said Charlotte Center City Partners CEO Michael Smith. That could offer lessons for the rest of South End, he said.

Observers expect more pedestrians in the years ahead, particularly with the new mixed-use development planned to replace the Sedgefield Shopping Center.

It will sit across South Boulevard from many of the new apartment complexes. Marsh Properties, which owns the shopping center, wants to build a $190 million project that would include a Harris Teeter store, residences, outdoor gathering spaces and rooftop dining.

Marsh Properties has agreed to hire an engineer to study traffic. Debby Robinson, head of the Sedgefield Neighborhood Association, said high-density transit-oriented development is good, but South Boulevard isn’t ready for it.

“It’s not super walkable right now,” she said. “It’s not a hard transition. The city just needs to set aside funding and look at reworking sidewalks.”

The city has done some work. It improved pedestrian crossings at Remount and Marsh roads as part of the $50 million spent during Blue Line construction to improve transit station access. But the city’s master plans for growth in South End say much more should be done.

While traffic remains heavy along South Boulevard through South End, city officials say traffic counts haven’t risen in recent years.

Crashes involving cars, cyclists and pedestrians have occurred at rates below city averages.

Even so, the city has been looking at the issue – and hearing complaints – for a while now.

Looking to developers

The South End Transit Station plan, adopted by the Charlotte City Council in 2005, spells out the city’s plans for land use along that part of South Boulevard. It notes that residents were concerned even then about pedestrian safety.

The study called for improved pedestrian crossings, better lighting, and benches along South Boulevard and other busy South End streets. It envisioned South Boulevard evolving into a wider four-lane road with bike lanes in both directions and a turn lane in the middle.

It also called for widening sidewalks – they’re typically about 5 feet wide – to at least 8 feet wide. And it called for 8-foot-wide tree planting strips.

That’s not going to happen anytime soon, though.

The city took over South End’s formerly state-maintained section of South Boulevard as it built the light rail line, officials say. Constrained by the road’s narrow rights-of-way south of East Boulevard, city officials have pinned their hopes for widening it on developers.

Gallagher said the city asks developers to build 8-foot-wide sidewalks and tree-planting strips as they put up new buildings. It also asks developers to leave room for future widening of South Boulevard. He mentioned Long Animal Hospital and the Colonial Reserve apartment community near Ideal Way as examples.

“That’s going to transform more slowly over time as development occurs,” he said of the widening.

Public money for new sidewalks would have to come from the $7.5 million per year officials hope to spend on such projects citywide under the bond package that goes before voters this fall.

Asked how big a sidewalk project that could finance, Gallagher replied that costs vary by project. The city aims to build at least 10 miles of new sidewalk and 15 pedestrian crossing improvements annually with the $7.5 million.

A reference point: The city spent at least $1.3 million to reduce lanes on East Boulevard in Dilworth and improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists in a project completed in 2010.

South Boulevard would have to compete with other streets for new bond money, though Gallagher added that “it is reasonable to expect some of these funds could be available for the South Boulevard area.”

Even so, new sidewalks could remain years away.

The city moved to fast-track a West Tyvola Road sidewalk project after two young boys were hit and killed by a delivery truck there in 2012.

But more than a year passed – and the truck driver was convicted – with no new sidewalk going in. The city finally awarded the construction contract for the project in January, nearly two years after the accident.

Searching for answers

Farther down South Boulevard, even more development sits in the pipeline.

Developer Peter Pappas is marketing a planned mixed-use development near Scaleybark Road that would bring more than 487,000 square feet of office space, as well as about 90 apartments.

Charlotte-based urban planning expert Michael Gallis questioned whether city leaders are doing enough to encourage pedestrian-friendly development. He noted that some of the newer apartment complexes lack the ground-floor retail space that experts believe help make an area more walkable and interesting.

“The big lesson is that if you invest in light rail, there should be greater concern for guiding the new much higher (population) densities that will in turn generate bigger pedestrian flows,” he said.

City planners are trying to more fully account for pedestrians as they plan the Blue Line extension along North Tryon Street near UNC Charlotte. Plans for the station at J.W. Clay Boulevard, for instance, call for turning that stretch of North Tryon into a “town center” geared more toward pedestrians than cars.

If it’s anything like South Boulevard, it won’t be easy to retrofit a major highway built for cars into a slower-paced boulevard that’s as friendly to pedestrians as it is to cars.

Allison Billings, vice president of transportation for Center City Partners, said the group is still searching for answers on South Boulevard, and it hopes to learn from other cities.

“I think in a lot of ways,” she said, “we don’t really know what all the answers are.”

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