University City’s next challenge: Becoming a more walkable, urban community

A rendering of the Toby Creek Greenway crossing University City Boulevard, with pedestrian-friendly features, a plaza and pop-up market.
A rendering of the Toby Creek Greenway crossing University City Boulevard, with pedestrian-friendly features, a plaza and pop-up market.

Planners this week unveiled major parts of a new vision for University City, a mostly suburban swath of Charlotte that’s set to get a major influx of density with the new light rail line opening in 2017.

University City Partners released master plans for the J.W. Clay Boulevard and University City light rail stations, as well as concepts for upgrading and connecting greenways in the area, and the Cross Charlotte Trail.

“These are the changes we need to make to make this a more walkable community,” said Darlene Heater, executive director of University City Partners. The master plans for the areas around the stations won’t be binding, but they’re meant to guide redevelopment efforts as those move forward.

The six largest property owners in the J.W. Clay station area paid for half the study’s $100,000 cost, Heater said, meaning the results will carry some weight.

The $1.2 billion Blue Line light rail running from uptown to UNC Charlotte is set to open in late summer. But Heater emphasized that the changes coming will extend beyond the immediate vicinity of the new stations. At University Research Park, Crescent Communities is seeking to build hundreds of new apartments and more shops, bringing a mixture of uses to what has been a suburban office park.

And throughout University City, Heater said new sidewalks, bike lanes and greenway connections that are either under construction or on the books will further weave what have been separate enclaves into a denser, more mixed-use, less auto-dependent area.

“It moves it away from that ’50s, ’60s development pattern. It (University Research Park) is starting to add those additional uses,” she said. “We’re not only focused on creating denser development on the transit line.”

Here’s a quick overview of what University City Partners’ new master plans call for at University City and JW Clay stations. You can find more information online at

▪ University City station: There are about 125 acres of undeveloped land around the University City station, offering the opportunity for a dense framework of streets and new development that could “create a new urban center with a strong identity, mix of uses, diverse urban experiences, vibrant public spaces,” according to the new plan.

Tobe Holmes, planning director for University City Partners, said the area’s access to both the highway and light rail line, combined with its visibility, makes it ideal for a large office development, in addition to the apartments already under construction just south of the station.

“This is pretty much geared to a major office user,” he said.

The property owners have worked with the city and other agencies to get permission to build a common water runoff detention pond, Heater said. That means each property won’t need to have its own stormwater detention system, which would eat up a major chunk of the available acreage and encourage more suburban-style development. (The land isn’t expensive enough to make underwater runoff detention an economical solution, Holmes said).

▪ J.W. Clay station: “A dynamic mixed use pedestrian oriented community that capitalizes on surrounding assets,” is the overriding concept for the J.W. Clay area. The shopping center across from UNC Charlotte should be redeveloped with a “college-focused district” featuring retail serving both students and local residents. The development should be more dense and walkable, in an area that was developed around big box stores and the idea of driving to shop.

The whole redevelopment could be focused around the central lake – larger than that at Freedom Park, Heater points out – and include apartments, hotels, more food and shopping, office space and a park or other open civic space for people for to gather near the lake.

“We need places for people to get together,” said Heater, noting that the area lacks a major civic gathering ground. “We need green space.”

And the redevelopment should highlight what people said was their No. 1 concern in a recent survey of University City residents and stakeholders, Heater said: The ability to walk more.

“Above everything else, people want a walkable community,” she said.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo