An August 1965 report in the Charlotte Observer — “This Could Be Charlotte’s Center in The Future” — was the first glimpse Charlotteans got at an ambitious new plan for revitalizing uptown, then still known as downtown. The Odell Plan, as it would come to be known, was formally adopted in 1966, and it made audacious predictions: Downtown would have a sports stadium, a zoo, an underground street, hotels, museums, high-rise apartments, parks, a convention center and many more office towers.
The plan might have looked like a fantasy when city leaders conceived it 50 years ago. But there was an urgency to be bold. Downtown was starting to decay fast, with businesses moving out and real estate values dropping. Suburban shopping centers and new housing developments pulled people away from downtown, and empty storefronts and blight were creeping in.
Many of the dreams have come true but others never unfolded as intended. Others have come to be seen as misguided at best and tragic at worst. Other ideas have come to be seen as outdated by urban designers.
The men (and they were all men) who formed the Master Plan Committee and laid out their ideas included well-known businessmen, such as John Tate of North Carolina National Bank, W.T. Harris, president of Harris Teeter, George Ivey Jr., president of Ivey’s and John M. Belk, head of Belk stores and soon-to-be mayor.
5 dreams that came true
(1) A downtown stadium
A central tenet of the plan was building a major stadium downtown. One of the locations identified for what was initially assumed would be a relocation of Memorial Stadium, near Interstate 77 and Fourth Street, is only a few blocks from where the Carolina Panthers would start playing almost 30 years later.
The growth of stadiums, helped by local government spending and land grants, has exceeded expectations, with the Hornets’ arena and Knights’ stadium bringing the number of uptown sports venues to three.
(2) The positive effect of parks
One suggestion the planners included was “several parks to add to the beauty and visual attractiveness of the area.” Romare Bearden Park, First Ward Park and other pockets of urban green space have attracted new developments and become major gathering spaces. Still, some parts of the plan didn’t come true: A three-block park from Trade and Tryon east to the government district could have become a civic center and focal point for large uptown events, Smith said.
(3) The rise of high-rises
At a time when most of downtown was low-slung buildings or modest buildings of 20 stories or fewer, the creation of a district of high-rises wasn’t a sure thing. But that’s what came to pass, with many of the apartment buildings such as the 51-story Vue rising within a block or two of the areas identified as potential high-rise residential and office towers popping up along major corridors.
(4) Banks anchoring downtown’s growth
One key to the vision of revitalizing downtown, planners realized, would be getting the city’s biggest businesses involved. The plan called for the city’s banks to “expand their buildings and facilities” there rather than in suburbs – a concept that would lead, decades later, to the Bank of America tower and other bank buildings dotting the skyline.
(5) Seeing downtown wasn’t ‘dead’
One of the boldest predictions in the plan was the simple premise that downtown wasn’t in fact a lost cause, and that it could become the focal point of a major city.
Charlotte’s population was barely more than 200,000, and the idea of glittering skyscrapers seemed a little presumptuous, to say the least.
6 dreams that missed
(1) Bulldozing Brooklyn
The demolition of Second Ward’s Brooklyn neighborhood was already underway by the time the Odell plan was adopted, starting in 1961 – but the city’s master plan endorsed the idea. In Brooklyn, the program displaced more than 1,000 African American communities from what had long been an enclave with locally owned stores, churches and a network of families. Charlotte’s government quarter, including Marshall Park and the surrounding government buildings, were built in its place.
Now, the county is trying to sell much of that land and partner with a developer to build a major mixed-use community in Second Ward – recreating, in effect, much of what had already existed there.
(2) A downtown zoo
The idea in Charlotte’s master plan was that a zoo and botanical garden would be a major regional draw for visitors. The zoo eventually opened in 1974 near Asheboro, about 75 miles from Raleigh and Charlotte, close to the center of the state. Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens opened in 1999, some 18 miles west of uptown on the other side of the Catawba River.
(3) Social changes on the horizon
“They are trying to turn Downtown Charlotte into an area where more housewives will want to shop during the day.”
That’s how the Observer summarized one of the revitalization plan’s key aims. The idea was that women would browse downtown shops while their husbands toiled in the nearby office towers – and presumably be home in time to cook dinner. Another detail that sticks out: In the rendering of downtown future, all of the pedestrians milling through Trade and Tryon appear to be white.
(4) A pedestrian promenade atop a buried Trade street
One of the most ambitious parts of the master plan was the idea of tunneling Trade Street underground between College and Church streets. That would have created two car-free blocks bracketing the Trade and Tryon intersection for a pedestrian plazas, lined with shops and cafes as part of an outdoor mall.
The underground portion of Trade Street would have included a bus transfer center to serve as the hub for public transit downtown.
(5) The car stays king
Another thing that appears remarkable now in the 1965 master plan is how completely the car dominated planners’ thinking. There’s no mention of anything like the Blue Line light rail, which would kick off a huge building boom in South End, or bike lanes, which have spread throughout uptown. Instead, the plan called for a massive infusion of parking garages and an expressway looping the center city – which ultimately became I-277.
(6) Downtown as a key retail hub
Small businesses were displaced by the urban renewal programs ushered into downtown in the 1960s, and then SouthPark mall opened in 1970, followed five years later by Eastland Mall. Along with other regional malls, they would proceed to drain traffic from downtown’s major department stores as people flocked to acres of easy parking and the shiny new suburbs. Belk closed its downtown store in 1988, and Ivey’s closed in 1990.
Now, Center City Partners and other uptown boosters are trying to lure retailers, to bring back the kind of shops that once called uptown their home.
Read more about the plan in this Charlotte Observer report.
Photos: Charlotte Observer file