How do you improve a neighborhood? In Belmont, looking to residents for answers

A wall mural is painted on a store at the corner of Kennon and Pegram Streets in the Belmont neighborhood on Wednesday, July 22, 2015.
A wall mural is painted on a store at the corner of Kennon and Pegram Streets in the Belmont neighborhood on Wednesday, July 22, 2015.

Many people want to bring in a Whole Foods or a Chipotle when they’re trying to revitalize a neighborhood, but Jason Roberts tries to prompt residents to generate more creative ideas about how to fix their streets themselves.

Temporary bicycle lanes. Pop-up dog parks. Coffee shops in abandoned buildings, with sidewalk seating. Art displays and outdoor music. Whatever improvements residents want to see on their block, Roberts’ Better Block Foundation wants them to build it themselves, and fast, without waiting for plans to clear red tape and bureaucracy.

“You can break any rule you want, as long as you wear an orange vest,” Roberts joked this week in Charlotte, showing a picture of residents in safety vests drawing a temporary crosswalk in Dallas. “If we create the right environment, people will go out.”

The Dallas-based Better Block Foundation plans to hold its first Charlotte “Better Block” event Sept. 23 and 24 in the Belmont neighborhood, a fast-changing area just north of uptown. Roberts was in Charlotte this week as part of the Building Community speaker series sponsored by the Knight Foundation, Charlotte Center City Partners and the city of Charlotte.

Roberts got his start a decade ago in Oak Cliff, a Dallas neighborhood, when he grew frustrated with the strip malls, spaghetti highway interchanges and narrow, inhospitable sidewalks.

“We innately know how to make great places,” he said. “It’s just interesting how often we don’t.”

Comparing street scenes in Paris with photos of strip malls and a Walmart parking lot, Roberts quipped, “It takes a lot of Prozac to be OK with places that look like this.”

When he approached city officials about things he’d like to see – more sidewalk seating or bicycle lanes, for example – he was either told Dallas was a car city where that wouldn’t work, or directed to join study committees that produced tidy plans that sat on shelves. So Roberts, an IT professional by trade, started working with his neighbors to build the kind of places they wanted to see, without waiting for the official go-ahead.

They blocked off bike lanes, set up trees in moveable pots for shade, built sidewalk seating and opened pop-up coffee shops in abandoned buildings, all on short notice with shoestring budgets. Although it was temporary, usually just for a weekend, the proof-of-concept events spurred conversation and led to the easing of zoning and permitting rules in Oak Cliff, making it easier to do things like sell food and other wares from sidewalk stands.

Roberts’ work grew into the Better Block Foundation, and they’ve since done similar projects in Detroit; Macon, Ga.; Akron, Ohio, and other cities. Now, they’re coming to Charlotte’s Belmont neighborhood. The changes they’re looking at might be temporary, but they’re hoping some of the ideas stick, and inspire people to change the area.

The foundation will seek ideas from residents. As Belmont changes – with new residents, new houses and apartments, and the approaching Blue Line light rail extension – Roberts said they won’t be outsiders imposing ideas on Belmont.

“It we find out we’re not getting a lot of folks from the neighborhood and we feel like outsiders coming in, we don’t want to do it,” said Roberts.

Curtis Bridges, vice president of the Belmont Neighborhood Association, said he’s looking forward to the two-day event, which he hopes can help bridge the divide between newer and older residents. He wants to see something like a pop-up coffee shop or art gallery in some of the vacant commercial buildings, to get people excited about the idea of shopping and reusing old buildings in Belmont again.

“I’d love to see something set up in those buildings, even just for a day,” he said. “They’re beautiful, they’re very unique. You don’t see a lot of old commercial buildings in Charlotte.”

Bridges also wants to see temporary bike lanes, trees to shade the streets and places for people to sit outside and talk. He’s also a fan of Roberts’ make-changes-now, seek-permission-later credo.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo