Developers pitch walkability but pedestrians have their doubts

Mark Hames

It’s one of the words you’re most likely to hear when a developer is pitching a new project these days: “Walkability.”

With denser, more urban developments across Charlotte packing stores, restaurants, offices, apartments and houses onto the same site, developers often emphasize how pedestrian-friendly they’ll be. Residents and visitors will be able to walk from a store to an office to a coffee shop, cutting down on car trips and minimizing congestion even as the city grows.

That’s a major shift for Charlotte, which has largely been built on a post-World War II, auto-centric blueprint, with decentralized, suburban developments that require a lot of driving. But it was clear at Charlotte City Council’s zoning meeting this week that there’s plenty of skepticism.

Developer Childress Klein is seeking to change the Arboretum office park from office-only to mixed use, which could include a 50,800 square-foot grocery store (rumored to be a Publix), as well as more commercial space. The 5.4-acre site is at the southeast corner of Pineville-Matthews Road and Providence Road. To help neighbors who are worried about increasing traffic, developers pointed in part to the pedestrian-friendly design and connections for people to walk to the stores.

“Nobody in south Charlotte really walks to the supermarket,” said Meryl Hunte, president of the Hembstead Homeowners Association, a strong opponent of the plan. “Good luck getting across (N.C.) 51.”

“I’ve heard about the walkable argument. It’s not walkable,” said Dave Catanazo, another neighbor, drawing applause.

It’s not the first time there’s been skepticism to the idea that Charlotte can embrace a different way to grow. Opponents of a planned development at the West Mallard Creek Church Road and Interstate 85 intersection this year scoffed at the idea of people crossing the six lanes of traffic “on a nice hot Charlotte day when it’s 98 degrees and 98 percent humidity.”

In January, City Council member Claire Fallon said that a planned hotel on Rea Road, meant to be walkable and welcoming to pedestrians in an area dominated by big shopping centers and seas of asphalt wouldn’t work.

Molly Mathis

“This is a car city,” Fallon declared. “Are you walking on the street with packages? Not unless you have a death wish.”

It’s a classic chicken-and-egg question: People won’t walk unless they have to, in an environment that’s built mostly for cars. But unless there are pedestrians or people who say they want to walk in an area, there’s bound to be resistance to the idea of walking as a default mode of getting around.

Council member Julie Eiselt said she’s still trying to figure out if emphasizing pedestrian access to major new developments, such as a grocery store, makes sense or whether walkability has become a “buzzword.”

“When we talk about walking to a big-box grocery store, I don’t know if that’s what we really mean when we talk about walkability,” she said. “If it’s to go for a big grocery run, you’re probably driving. ...Perhaps we’re losing sight of what we’re even talking about. Are these all buzzwords we aspire to, or what’s the real purpose?”

Eiselt said there should be more focus on making neighborhoods walkable, such as spending money to build sidewalks in many of the sprawling subdivisions that lack them. She’s also worried that the city might not be leveraging its single biggest investment in transit and walkability: The Blue Line light rail.

Jeff Siner

Another item on Monday’s zoning agenda was a planned self-storage facility near the New Bern light rail stop. That’s an area that the city’s attempted to target for dense, walkable developments.

“Why is this an acceptable use?” Eiselt asked. “I don’t think anyone’s going to take the light rail to get their stuff out of storage.”

With development growing along busy thoroughfares like Providence Road, the questions about congestion and walkability aren’t going to go away anytime soon.

Further down Providence Road, south of Interstate 485, the Waverly, Providence Farms and Rea Farms developments will bring thousands of new residents, a big chunk of new office space and new shopping options like the now-open Whole Foods, dozens of shops and restaurants.

Those developments are all designed to be walkable, but most people who visit them will drive to get there, without light rail or other transit options. Hunte, the Hembstead Homeowners Association leader, fears a slowly growing traffic nightmare is coming, regardless of talk about how walkable the new developments will be.

“Everybody is so fed up,” she said, “And there’s more coming.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo