Will Charlotte always be a 'car city'?

A proposal to build a small hotel in south Charlotte has stirred up a big question about identity: Are we destined to always be a car city?

That question flared up last week at a Charlotte City Council meeting to consider whether to allow a Home2 Suites by Hilton on Rea Road, just south of Interstate 485. The developer and architect Stephen Overcash are pushing for a somewhat more urban design that would – in its original conception – have had fewer parking spaces than rooms, encouraging people to arrive by Uber or splitting cars, and walk after they check in.

But the idea of people crossing Rea Road on foot to get to the shops, restaurants and movie theater at Stonecrest strikes some City Council members as absurd.

“You can’t walk there unless you want to get killed,” City Council member Claire Fallon told the Observer. “Are you walking on the street with packages? Not unless you have a death wish.”

The hotel itself is far from enormous: 126 rooms, with no meeting or event space, targeting business travelers.

It’s the bigger issues the project illuminates that seem to have people riled up. The Home2 Suites would replace an Applebee’s, practically an emblem of suburbia, and the zoning category the developers are seeking is usually used for dense, mixed-use, urban projects. That’s led to speculation that planners and developers hope to use the hotel as a “beachhead” to start pushing more and more dense development into south Charlotte, drastically changing the area’s character.

That’s partially the point: Planners, urban designers and architects have been preaching about the need to increase density, urbanize the suburbs and create more walkable, less car-dependent enclaves throughout cities like Charlotte for years. But not everyone sees it that way.

“This is a car city, especially around big big malls,” said Fallon, speaking at the zoning meeting. “We don’t walk. None of us do.”

Overcash, a principal at Overcash Demmitt Architects, doesn’t think that’s the case.

“I disagree that nobody’s ever going to walk there,” said Overcash. As younger people who like urban living and walking (the dreaded m-word, or millennials) move out of small urban apartments, they’ll look to places where they can walk to amenities such as the stores, bars and restaurants at Stonecrest. More people use ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft than just a few years ago, Overcash said.

Looking ahead even further, self-driving cars are already being tested, a revolution that could mean even fewer people take a car everywhere they go. Over time, Overcash said he expects shopping centers such as Stonecrest will evolve, with parking decks and more buildings with shops and restaurants replacing acres of asphalt parking spaces and creating a more enticing – and safer – pedestrian experience.

“It’s not a one-year or five-year fix...They can be improved,” said Overcash. He acknowledges that the Home2 Suites site isn’t particularly pedestrian-friendly now – it’s bordered by a Goodyear auto service center and a gas station with a convenience store – but says that if Charlotte doesn’t take any first steps to improve such areas, the city will never be able to shift away from its car culture. “It’s not gonna improve on itself if we don’t have a plan.”

OMS Piper Station LLC bought the nearly 2-acre site for $3.24 million last year, property records show.

Since the City Council meeting, Overcash has reduced the number of hotel rooms planned from 135. The original site plan had 114 parking spaces for those rooms. Now, in a concession to the critics, Overcash said they will have 126 parking spaces, one for each room, if you include parking spaces at an adjacent office building.

He also said he’s meeting with the N.C. Department of Transportation to discuss ways to improve the pedestrian infrastructure and crossings at Rea Road, which is five lanes wide (including a turning lane) at the site.

Council member Ed Driggs, who represents the area, said he’s skeptical. But he’s open to hearing more about the plan and will meet with Overcash before council votes next month. One of his concerns is that the plan is too urban for the suburban surroundings.

“It feels like we’re using an urban designation just to allow stuff that would otherwise not happen,” said Driggs, who also said he’s skeptical of pedestrians “braving Rea Road.”

In south Charlotte, mixed-use zoning – a category that allows dense projects with multiple uses – has mainly been used by the city to allow large projects, such as Waverly and Rea Farms, on Providence Road south of I-485. Both of those are anchored by major grocery stores and will include shops, offices and hundreds of residences.

The hotel plan hasn’t caused a major stir in the community. No one showed up at a meeting held to discuss specifics with nearby neighbors. The only opponent who spoke out against it at the City Council hearing, Vinay Patel, said he’s concerned inadequate parking at the Home2 Suites will force people to park at other businesses nearby. That could cause problems at businesses such as the Residence Inn at Piper Glen, which is owned and operated by Patel’s company, he said.

“It will affect our customers that are coming to our hotels. It will affect all of the other businesses in and around that area,” Patel told City Council.

Some urban planners think Overcash has the right idea. David Walters, an architect and professor emeritus at UNC Charlotte, said the planned Home2 Suites isn’t particularly daring. Instead, he said the controversy over how much parking is needed – with a hotel that had nearly enough parking spaces for each room – shows the city has a long way to go.

Charlotte, Walters said, is “way behind the times.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo