How do we develop greenways without spurring gentrification in Charlotte?

Little Sugar Creek Greenway
Little Sugar Creek Greenway

As Charlotte looks to grow its greenway system, especially through economically distressed areas north of uptown, the benefits are clear: Higher property values, more access to transportation alternatives and exercise, an incentive for developers to build.

What’s less clear: How to stop such investments from spurring gentrification and displacement of residents who already live there.

“If just left to the market forces, it’s very likely that displacement and gentrification would occur,” said Kyle Vangel of HR&A Advisors, speaking Tuesday at a CREW Charlotte luncheon. “You have to be proactive to preserve and create affordable housing in certain corridors.”

Vangel said other communities, such as Atlanta, have identified sites and funding for housing meant for low-income residents around greenway projects. About 2,000 units are planned around Atlanta’s Beltline, for example.

The $35 million Cross Charlotte Trail is expected to open over the next decade, running from Pineville through uptown and north to Cabarrus County, and its final budget is expected to be higher. It’s the city’s most ambitious greenway project under development, meant to span 26 miles and connect existing greenways, including Little Sugar Creek, Toby Creek and Mallard Creek.

The newest stretch opened in May: The 0.4-mile Cordelia Park segment. The new stretch extends the Little Sugar Creek Greenway under Parkwood Avenue through the park to 24th Street at North Davidson Street.

If you want to see how a greenway can transform an area, look at the Little Sugar Creek Greenway near uptown. That’s where Mecklenburg County uncapped a paved-over creek and built a walking and biking trail, helping to spur developments such as the Target-, Trader Joe’s and condominium-anchored Metropolitan.

Elizabeth McMillan, of Charlotte-based developer Crescent Communities, said the changes the greenway spurred are the reason the company decided to build Crescent Dilworth (now called Berkshire Dilworth). The luxury apartments are located at the East Morehead Street and Harding Place entrance to the greenway – a major publicly funded amenity that the apartment’s residents can access directly.

McMillan said they command a 15-percent rent premium. And she said the fast food restaurants that used to occupy the site would have been a major deterrent to building there, presenting “not the kind of front door” that would appeal to renters paying top dollar.

“We never would have developed that project had it been a Taco Bell or KFC” at the entrance to the site instead of a bridge to to the greenway, said McMillan.

Beth Poovey of LandDesign agreed.

“People will pay a premium to live along these corridors,” she said, noting that conservative estimates put rent and commercial prices 5 to 15 percent higher in such areas. There’s a corresponding increase in for-sale prices as well.

That generates more property taxes and can revitalize a blighted area. But the city is walking a tightrope as it tries to deal with Charlotte’s affordable housing shortage while also spurring development in places like the neighborhoods north of uptown. The city recently hosted developers on walks around the Asian Corner Mall site at East Sugar Creek Road and North Tryon Street, near the Cross Charlotte Trail’s expected route.

“The goal is not to catalyze development that would displace people,” said Vangel.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo