Wil Russell looked out the window of his white pickup truck at the one street that resembles the vision set out for his north Charlotte community. A sidewalk runs alongside a row of shops, all neatly aligned in three-story brick buildings.
But the short street makes way for the development that is now Russell and other residents’ reality: nondescript strip shopping centers, apartments and single-family homes.
A few minutes away, at the intersection that was supposed to be the middle of a walkable town center, lies a plot of red dirt at the crux of Russell’s frustration, soon to become a Chick-fil-A.
“We fought with city council for a year and a half,” said Russell, president of the Prosperity Village Area Association. “They ultimately approved it right in the middle of the place where they said they wanted people to walk and be part of a community.”
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A 2015 city area plan for Prosperity Village, an area off of Interstate 485 bordering Cabarrus County, called for the development of a walkable town center, modeled after neighborhoods like NoDa and Huntersville’s Birkdale Village.
Four years later, old farmland and open space is being turned into apartments and stores faster than residents can keep up with.
The city tries to adhere to the area plan when approving developments under its control, said the area’s council member Greg Phipps. But the vision on paper and what developers present don’t always coincide, and the area plan is a guideline, not a requirement.
In communities on the outskirts of Charlotte like Prosperity Village, residents fear that the influx of strip malls, drive-through restaurants and cookie-cutter apartments will make their communities into drab, anonymous suburbs.
“I think too many times we settle,” Russell said. “We settle for the strip mall with the huge parking lots and big lights that stay on all night. And we say: progress. But is it really?”
A ‘guiding principle’
Construction of the 5.7-mile final segment of the outer belt was completed in 2015. More than 15 years before the highway opened, city officials started to plan for the wave of expected development.
In July 2015, the city council adopted the Prosperity Hucks Area Plan, which set out the vision for a walkable network of streets and open space, surrounded by mixed-use development. The plan called for buildings oriented toward the street to encourage walkability and discouraged large surface parking lots.
City planners developed a system of three main thoroughfares, each with a traffic circle, to disperse traffic. The town center was to be developed around the three roads.
“That would try to be more than just a freeway crossing, where you’ve got a four-lane road with turn lanes and strip development and no connection from one side to the other,” said city planner Kent Main, in a recent interview. “That has been a guiding principle since the beginning.”
A study included in the plan anticipated demand for nearly 542,000 square feet of land. More than 373,000 square feet of land had already been rezoned, but not yet developed.
Throughout the planning process, community members provided input in forums and meetings.
“The ideas they presented, the way they were presented of having a walkable area, a place where you could connect, gather and enjoy, were phenomenal,” said Russell, the association president. “The execution is where we fall woefully short.”
A lone tree
For over 200 years, the patch of grass behind Prosperity Presbyterian Church has stayed almost the same. Headstones bear the names of the area’s original families, mirrored in nearby streets: Oehler. Benfield. Wallace.
Standing in the cemetery on a crisp January afternoon, Marleen Alexander looked out at the graves of her ancestors. She’s a seventh-generation resident of the area. But through the trees lining the cemetery, cars whiz by on I-485. On the other side, across an overgrown patch of grass, stands a multi-story apartment building and a brick shopping center.
The view epitomizes the changes that have occurred in the area since Alexander grew up on her old white farmhouse. That house, on what is now Mallard Creek Road, was bulldozed in 1998.
A single tree is all that remains from the farm Alexander used to ride by on her way to school. Now, that same road is flanked by a shopping center, with a Starbucks and a Salsarita’s.
“When I look at it, at least it’s still a sight for me to get my bearings,” she said.
When development came to the area, it happened fast. The city did have a fair amount of involvement with it, Main said, because most of the land was zoned for different uses than what developers wanted.
But developers didn’t always propose what officials wanted to see.
“So how do we create a mixed-use activity center out here with this road network which is designed to work well, but you still have individual parcel owners, each of which paid for that land, own that land and have their own ideas for what they want to do?” Main asked.
The city has been able to make some improvements to the streets and sidewalks in the area using bond money from a neighborhood improvement program.
“We’ve put together this wonderful vision but we don’t have any way to enforce it,” Russell said. “So it’s really just a thought of, ‘hey, will you please do this per this plan?’ ”
’A give and take’
Developer Halvorsen Holdings built one of the earliest projects in the area, the Publix shopping center on Prosperity Church Road.
When Halvorsen proposed turning a prime piece of vacant land in the planned town center into a Chick-fil-A in 2016, it ultimately received approval.
The 2015 area plan states that drive-through businesses should be discouraged in the activity center, given their traffic impacts, large parking lots and lack of connectivity with walkable streets.
Halvorsen declined to comment for this story.
But in the minutes from a public meeting they held with the community, Halvorsen officials said the Chick-fil-A was designed with the area plan in mind. The property had previously been rezoned for two drive-throughs, and now it would only have one.
Tom Vincent, president of Halvorsen Development, also said in the meeting that the Chick-fil-A would be lined with sidewalks, trees and landscaping, and would have an outdoor seating area.
Jackie Jags, a spokeswoman for Chick-fil-A, said the company and its development partners worked with the city to create a design in keeping with the surrounding environment. The restaurant will open in March.
City council members approved the rezoning petition for Chick-fil-A, despite city planning’s recommendation otherwise.
“Did you, city councilmen, and did you as city staff, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to put together a plan, only to throw it away at the first chance somebody came in and put in a rezoning petition?” Russell asked in a recent interview.
Councilman Phipps said he was pleased the developer was willing to accommodate some of the area plan’s goals. He acknowledged it didn’t perfectly fit with that plan, but was still an improvement as there was no sidewalk there before.
“It’s almost like a give-and-take in terms of trying to implement the plan consistent with the growth we got in Charlotte and how we get developers to help us achieve our goals,” he said.
Still, he said he doesn’t think the plans goals for open space are coming together. “At the end of the day, we have to more or less evaluate what comes before us,” Phipps said.
But allowing projects like Chick-fil-A to move forward despite conflicting with the area’s goals makes it harder to talk the next developer into following the plan, Russell said.
“The first thing they say is, ‘they didn’t do it, why should I have to do it?’ ” he said. “What can I say to that as a community leader?”