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Wanted: More ‘funky’ public gathering spaces in uptown Charlotte

Last week, a group of urban planning experts convened in uptown Charlotte for the first in a series of discussions that will take them across the U.S.

Their topic: exploring the value civic spaces such as parks or community centers can add to an urban center.

They came at a good time. Charlotte, long criticized for lacking the distinctive sense of place you find in other cities, seems to be budding with possibilities for new civic spaces that could add character and excitement.

There is talk, for instance, of expanding the Little Sugar Creek Greenway and two other greenways into a 30.6-mile bikeway from Cabarrus County to York County, S.C.

And uptown, there’s much ferment and creative thinking centered on the possibilities of reinvigorating North Tryon Street, which has been eclipsed in recent years by the vibrant museum district along South Tryon.

Local leaders were hoping the planning experts, brought together by the Municipal Art Society of New York, might help them rethink the civic spaces along the North Tryon corridor.

The society, a more than 120-year-old historic preservation and urban planning group, has pretty good credentials along those lines. It helped save New York’s Grand Central Terminal decades ago and hopes to build a new model for reinventing civic spaces across the country.

(What are civic spaces, exactly? Think parks, schools, libraries, community centers.)

Armed with a $250,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, the society’s team of planning experts is visiting Charlotte, San Jose, Calif., and New York City to see how the issue plays out in local communities.

“The reason why Knight is interested in this is we really believe that (a sense of) place is what makes a difference,” said Susan Patterson, a program coordinator with the foundation.

“It’s about those places where people mix and mingle and share ideas, and you really have to be intentional about how that happens.”

In Charlotte, the Municipal Art Society group heard a lot about the hopes for North Tryon. The Foundation for the Carolinas and Charlotte Center City Partners have launched a master planning process aimed at coming up with a new vision for the corridor.

The Main Library and Spirit Square, two fixtures in the area, both have issues with their buildings and have considered merging. The Foundation for the Carolinas is redeveloping the old Carolina Theater site. And developer Daniel Levine has plans to redevelop at least eight city blocks northeast of The Square.

Levine has said he wants to create an urban village featuring a public park, three parking decks, apartments, office space, restaurants and stores.

Officials have expressed hopes that the society’s project, called “Reimagining the Civic Commons,” might help inform their deliberations about North Tryon.

Mary Rowe, an official with the society, said that in one of the discussions her group led, some of the Charlotte participants had noted that much of the civic infrastructure here has been put in place by banks and other corporations.

“The question was, how do we foster the kind of organic development we see in cities around the country?” she said.

She made that observation during a chat with Patterson and local historian Tom Hanchett at the Levine Museum of the New South. Hanchett told her Charlotte does have the kind of gritty, eclectic areas that tend to draw crowds and deepen people’s loyalty to a city.

“The funk factor,” Rowe said.

Hanchett mentioned Plaza Midwood and NoDa. I’d say uptown is developing that sense of place, with the new Romare Bearden Park and the Charlotte Knights’ new home at BB&T Ballpark next door.

The Tryon Street corridor, despite a growing number of restaurants and bars, still comes off pretty “suit-y,” to borrow Patterson’s term.

With the rethinking of North Tryon underway, maybe we’ll add some new pieces to Charlotte’s “civic commons” that will shift that a bit.

“The exploration with Mary and her team just comes at an interesting time,” Patterson said. “Charlotte’s got some really good spots but probably could use some more.”

Eric Frazier writes about economic development, real estate development, jobs and the economy. Got a story tip? Contact him at 704-358-5145, or @Ericfraz on Twitter.