Charlotte’s exponential growth – guided by dynamic leadership – thrust this city onto the national stage. Our emergence as a banking center, the arrival of numerous headquarters, pro sports, and a growing research university, UNC Charlotte, made this a place where people move for the job and often stay for the lifestyle.
Sustaining growth does not necessarily depend on properly managing growth. Americans today choose where they live based on different factors than in previous generations. The “ideal” after World War II – a sprawling mass of large-lot, detached homes along broad roads, widely separated from employment and retail – has fallen from favor. The trend today is closer to pre-war America – walkable neighborhoods with integrated uses and public transit.
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Built largely under the post-World War II model, Charlotte must make a 180-degree turn. Meanwhile, belated recognition of economic inequities is forcing a new look at how we create and connect people to jobs at all skill levels, and how to provide affordable housing accessible via transit to educational and employment opportunities.
Failure in this will hamstring Charlotte’s competitiveness as it follows the failed path of most American cities that never effectively managed their growth.
Twenty years ago, I helped Charlotte leaders craft a vision for development into the 21st century. We built consensus among the 33 cities and six counties that form the Charlotte metro area for a transportation, urban growth and economic development vision: Centers and Corridors. It envisioned rapid movement and dense development along five radial road and rail transit corridors. In between, areas without transit would be less dense “wedges.” Uptown would have a central transit station.
Unfortunately, that vision was never implemented despite it being sold as the basis for passing the half-cent sales tax. The Blue Line – which recently marked its 10th anniversary and has become an icon of any material promoting Charlotte as a progressive city – was the only corridor where transit was actually constructed. However, for the past 20 years, other than the Blue Line Extension, no other rail lines have been built or planned – other than the unfortunate streetcar, a make up due for the lack of a central station to connect the Red and Blue lines. The absence of vision at city hall has been blamed on the Great Recession depressing sales tax income; but more importantly, the engineering consultants turned plans for a metropolitan light rail network into a morass of inconsistent transit uses.
The disastrous decision made 20 years ago prior to the explosion of development in uptown to make no provisions for a central transit station, nor preserve right of way for future rail corridors will now cost taxpayers billions to correct. Experience in other cities shows people will not walk many blocks to transfer between lines, yet that is exactly what Charlotte faces.
To top it off, amidst our crying need for affordable housing, the absence of proactive public policy means new multi-family housing along transit lines will be above average market rate, excluding the very people who most need transit to access jobs and educational opportunities.
My great concern – shared by civic and business leaders as I raise this issue – is that our leaders persist in engaging the very same group of transit planners who created a chaotic system to fashion a multi-billion dollar Band-Aid to correct their mistakes. We will be saddled for the rest of this century with a fragmented network that doesn’t really get people where they want to go, smoothly and efficiently, or we will pay billions to correct it. Where is the responsibility and accountability to the taxpayers of this city and county?
Without an integrated vision for roads and transit, land use and economic development to guide the new city council and mayor, they remain in the dark. Their first priority must be re-directing a multi-deparment task force, together with an equally diverse set of private sector business, institutional and community representatives, to address transportation, transit and land use planning to ensure that we get it right, that taxpayers don’t have to pay for years of disjointed, fragmented planning.
Gallis is CEO of Charlotte-based Michael Gallis & Associates, a developer of large-scale metropolitan regional development strategies.