Here’s a dilemma: Many neighborhoods hate ‘cut-through’ streets, but planners want ‘connectivity’

11/5/99 Boys play roller hockey in a cul-de-sac in the Willowmere subdivision Friday evening.
11/5/99 Boys play roller hockey in a cul-de-sac in the Willowmere subdivision Friday evening.

It’s a question residents usually ask when a new development is proposed next to an existing neighborhood: Are their roads going to come through here?

And Charlotte usually says “Yes.” That highlights the tension between urban planners’ goal of creating “connectivity” and residents’ worries about traffic slicing through their neighborhoods on new “cut-through” streets.

The city’s subdivision ordinance generally requires developers to create a network of streets that connect to each other and surrounding neighborhoods and developments. Often, that means connecting an existing, dead-end “stub street” in one neighborhood to the new development.

“You’re wrecking small neighborhoods,” Charlotte City Council member Claire Fallon told planning staff during discussions of a rezoning plan at Monday’s Charlotte City Council meeting. “All it does is wreck that community.”

The goal, from the planners’ perspective, is creating a dense grid of streets with many options to get in, out of and around the neighborhood, instead of one main thoroughfare that leads to a series of cul-de-sacs. Picture a network of streets like uptown or Dilworth, that offer a wide range of potential routes through an area.

Planners and urban designers think that’s preferable to the thoroughfare and cul-de-sac plans that much of suburban Charlotte is laid out along. In that design, a few thoroughfares such as Providence Road, Rea Road, Sardis Road and Randolph Road typically end up absorbing most of the traffic into and out of neighborhoods, especially at rush hour. People are forced onto the main thoroughfares even for short trips because there’s no other way out.

But people in many existing neighborhoods hate the idea of opening up their subdivision to more cars and connections. They fear their streets will become cut-throughs, with drivers barreling through on their way from Point A to Point B. They worry about increased traffic making it unsafe for kids – especially when the existing neighborhood doesn’t have sidewalks. And they worry that crime will go up, as criminals have easier access points and “escape routes.”

“We just don’t need lots more traffic,” a local resident told city council during a hearing about a possible new site for Harbor Baptist Church near I-485 and Harrisburg Road. “I’m placing the safety of my two seven-year-old grandchildren in the hands of all of you.”

Planning staff want to see Saddlehorse Lane extended to connect to local streets, instead of dead-ending. Opposition to a new street connection also cropped up in northwest Charlotte, in the new Riverbend development near Brookshire and I-485, where Corning Optical is building a new headquarters and developers are planning to build more shops, apartments and a hotel.

In both cases, local residents held up signs opposing the new connections and urging City Council to vote them down.

For the record, this issue is nothing new. Looking through the Observer’s archives, I came across this headline from 2004: “Cut-throughs raise ruckus: Charlotte residents fight planners over connecting roads from one community to next. Through-traffic riles residents; City says dead-ends crowd roads.”

“Everyone believes in this until it comes to their neighborhood,” said then-Mayor Pat McCrory, a supporter of increasing connections. “In the political short term, blocking off a road makes a small group of people pleased. In the long term, it causes a transportation disaster.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo