South End’s explosive growth over the past decade is easy to see, with thousands of new apartments, a dozen breweries, cideries and distilleries and an influx of affluent new residents walking dogs along the Rail Trail and dining at upscale sushi restaurants.
But beneath the boom, there are rumblings of discontent if you talk to some residents, urban planners and architects. Many of the new apartments look similar, and follow the same blueprint: Beige, five-story, city block-long boxes, with big, boring parking garages facing the sidewalk.
Major thoroughfares like South Tryon Street and South Boulevard aren’t pedestrian-friendly, and divide the neighborhood with rivers of fast-moving cars, while some parts of the district lack sidewalks entirely. And despite the influx of new restaurants and breweries, some longtime local favorites have shut down as buildings are redeveloped.
Now, city planners and local boosters are trying to shape the next wave of growth to make South End more architecturally appealing and friendly to bicyclists, pedestrians and small businesses. They’re hoping a new “vision plan,” debuted this week at Triple C Brewing, will serve as a blueprint for new developments in the booming area.
Some of the suggestions ranged from investing more in public art and the Rail Trail along the Blue Line to building more bicycle lanes on busy streets like South Boulevard and preventing new parking garages from opening directly onto busy sidewalks.
“We talk a lot about the need to implement new building design regulations and the need to raise the bar,” said Klint Mullis, a planner with Charlotte Center City Partners, which is working on the vision plan with the city of Charlotte. “We’ve seen tons and tons of growth and development in the South End area, but not necessarily all of it has contributed positively to the public realm.”
And that growth isn’t slowing down. There are some 2,600 apartments under construction or starting soon in South End, along with major projects such as the new Dimensional Fund Advisors regional headquarters; renovations and expansions of Atherton Mill and the Design Center of the Carolinas; and the ongoing redevelopment of the Sedgefield Shopping Center.
Interest in the vision plan is high, especially for a document focused on wonky urban design principles. About 200 people attended Tuesday’s meeting. The first sign that South End is still largely car-reliant despite the Blue Line light rail was apparent before reaching Triple C’s door: Most attendees appeared to have driven, and parked cars clogged every narrow side street for blocks.
3,400South End population, 2009
9,113South End population, 2017
The design guidelines presented included specific recommendations, such as requiring apartments along major thoroughfares to have high enough ceilings on the ground floor to accommodate future retail use, requiring more density at transit stops, keeping parking entrances and garages away from busy sidewalks and designing new buildings to appeal to pedestrians with features such as awnings and large windows. The recommendations range from the seemingly minor, such as elevating ground-floor apartment doors at least 24 inches from the sidewalk, to major projects, such as building a new park next to the CATS light rail maintenance facility and a new light rail station at the Publix on South Boulevard.
“Think of it as your more specific recipes for how to get better buildings,” said Megan Gude, director of Historic South End for Center City Partners. “We know we need some different ingredients to get a better project...They are not necessarily binding, but they are extremely useful.”
The question, especially with the building design recommendations, is how they would be enforced. Charlotte City Council typically asks developers for design elements during each individual rezoning for a new building, an ad hoc process that results in inconsistent requirements and has allowed many apartments with features planners and many residents don’t want, such as long, blank walls facing busy parts of South Tryon Street.
The city’s new Unified Development Ordinance – under development now by staff and consultants – could be a tool to enforce new design requirements in South End. But that project likely won’t be completed until 2019 at the earliest, and could be delayed beyond that. In the meantime, planners will be left trying to encourage developers to design better buildings in South End, without much carrot or stick.
“We’re kind of occupying a strange middle ground” until the city’s overall development rules are rewritten, Mullis acknowledged.
One set of changes is likely to become reality soon. The Charlotte Department of Transportation plans to install more traffic lights and pedestrian crossing signals and re-time existing signals to make it easier and safer for people to cross busy streets like South Tryon and South Boulevard. That could start in the next year or two.
“One of the things we heard loudest (from community feedback) is right now those two streets do not function as ways people can get around,” said Gude. “They really function as impenetrable barriers.”
Over the long-term, planners say they’ll push for more bicycle lanes, including raised and protected lanes, with the hope of turning main arterial streets like South Boulevard into “main streets” that aren’t just dedicated to cars.
Attendees at the meeting were generally supportive of the proposals. Matt and Michelle Giannini moved to South End from Kansas City, Mo., in January, and said they hope the plans become reality.
“We love the walkability of this area,” said Michelle Giannini. “We want to be in the area long-term.”
Tom Wiese, who lives and works in the area, said the long-term plans could help the area shift away from cars.
“These raised bike lanes, that’s a game-changer,” said Wiese, cradling a bicycle helmet in his arm.
With so much construction already underway, it can seem like any effort to plan or reshape the face of South End is playing catch-up. But Gude pointed out the number of surface parking lots, old warehouses and underused commercial buildings still scattered throughout the area – all tempting targets for redevelopment.
“There’s still a lot of room to change. When you’re in it every day it can feel like a lot has already happened, but it’s a really big district and a really big city,” said Gude. “It’s not too late.”