If you haven’t been up to the University City area in awhile, you might want to go take a look – now.
If what has happened in the South End over the past few years is any indication, the area stands on the brink of a substantial makeover, courtesy of the $1.6 billion extension of the Lynx light-rail line from uptown.
Crews have been out on North Tryon Street digging up dirt to make way, and officials say the inevitable lane closures and road detours are coming. As all that happens, city planners are redoing the master development plan for the area to better account for the transformative power of the rail system.
It all makes an interesting time for Darlene Heater, a former Charlotte Center City Partners official, to be taking the helm of University City Partners, the agency charged by the city with promoting development in the UNC Charlotte area.
Heater, 46, took over with University City Partners in December. She brings a deep well of personal knowledge of the area, having lived there 17 years. Her daughter, Lyndsay, is a UNCC graduate; her son, Nicholaus, is a UNCC sophomore.
Before taking over at University City Partners, she served as Center City Partners’ vice president of neighborhood development and sustainability. When her new job was announced in November, Center City Partners CEO Michael Smith praised Heater for helping lead the organization’s work in a number of areas, including getting uptown neighborhoods ready for the Democratic National Convention in 2012 and helping guide the South End’s development.
“We will miss her steady hand and her knack for expediting work to completion,” Smith said at the time.
She’ll need that roll-up-your-sleeves approach in dealing with the rapidly changing area. During a recent chat at her office, she told me the area’s biggest challenge is guiding the growth and development light rail will bring.
“The challenge I think is there’s going to be a lot of interest in this area, especially within a half mile of the transit stations,” she said. “We have to make sure we’re in front of it.”
The city’s trying to do that by taking a fresh look at its master plan for developing the area. Officials have been holding public hearings and studying existing zoning to see how best to promote the kind of high-density, walkable development that works well with transit stations.
With the opening of the first light-rail corridor nearly seven years ago, the South End saw an explosion of that kind of development, namely in the form of new apartment complexes. So many have sprouted so fast that some developers fear it might have been overbuilt.
Heater said the South End bloomed so quickly that planners weren’t able to get out in front of it. Some of the new complexes lack the best thinking in transit-oriented development – features such as street-level retail or other elements that invite interaction from passers-by and help enliven a streetscape.
“There were some lessons learned in the south line, and I think they’re taking that to heart,” Heater said. “I’m encouraged so far with what I’m seeing” from city-county planners and the Charlotte Area Transit System.
Their goal: to use the light-rail line as a lever to turn suburban, car-centric sectors such as the North Tryon corridor into a denser, walkable, urban part of town.
Light rail isn’t the only change underway. University Research Park, the venerable 2,200-acre business park that’s home to some 30,000 workers, is pursuing a makeover of its own.
The park is joining the Research Triangle Park and others like it in adding residential, retail and green space to appeal to younger workers who prefer to live and play close to work.
For example, Crescent Communities this spring is set to open Alexander Village, a 320-unit luxury apartment community, as the first phase of its 63-acre, multiuse development at University Research Park.
With roughly 1,100 unused acres, a lush tree canopy and the Mallard Creek Greenway, the park seems well-positioned for a pivot to more mixed-use development.
“It’s a pretty cool story,” Heater said, “because the vision for the research park goes back to the ’60s, and some of those visionary pieces are still valid and valued.”
The traditional business element of the park isn’t doing too badly, either. Electrolux, one of the park’s marquee tenants, recently announced that it will add 810 workers to its North American headquarters, roughly doubling the size of its workforce.
The heart of the area, UNC Charlotte, also continues to fuel growth as it keeps adding students, programs and buildings – most recently its $35 million PORTAL business hub. The expected completion later this year of the northern loop of Interstate 485, plus a variety of other planned road improvements, add to the full menu of changes headed to the area.
For an urban planner, it must be the professional equivalent of landing in a new sandbox full of interesting new toys to put together.
Heater said she’s looking forward to the challenge – and the reduced commute to work.
“It was a good fit all around,” she said. “A good fit for (the organization) and a good fit for me.”