The faces of many Charlotte neighborhoods are changing with a flood of redevelopment, and some residents are worried the new buildings aren’t creating appealing public space.
While South End has boomed, many of the new apartments feature blank parking garages at street level. In other neighborhoods, new, ultra-modern townhouses feature balconies high above pedestrians instead of inviting front porches. These and other redevelopments’ effects on the “public realm” were the topic of discussion Tuesday at the Civic by Design forum. Tom Low, a local architect and urban planner, organizes the free, every-other-month discussion series, held at the Levine Museum of the New South.
If all of this stuff sounds too wonky to wade through, consider some concrete examples of what effect different designs can have on public space. First, imagine a new apartment building the size of a city block with parking on the ground floor, presenting pedestrians with a blank wall of cars and security bars. Then, picture the same apartment building with the parking tucked away out of sight, and a few stores, a coffee shop and a pedestrian entrance and an outdoor seating area on the ground floor.
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Which block would you rather walk on? Which apartment would you rather live in? Which apartment do you think will command higher rents in the long run, and which will spawn a more viable neighborhood?
Here are some measures discussed at Tuesday’s forum that local urban planners and community members suggested Charlotte could take to preserve and protect the city’s public realm:
▪ Build on smaller blocks. Many of the cities Low pointed to, such as Portland and Vancouver, have districts built around blocks that are 200 feet by 200 feet. That’s a quarter the size of many blocks developed in Charlotte, which are 400 feet by 400 feet, and fosters more walkable, approachable buildings, with more street frontage and ways to get around.
▪ Allow less “dead space” on the ground floor of new developments. Current regulations allow for large stretches of blank walls or parking at ground level. That creates zones in the midst of vibrant urban areas with nothing to do but walk through them as quickly as possible. Requiring ground-level retail or entrances to the residences instead would create more vitality and a landscape that appeals to pedestrians.
▪ Keep more trees. Redevelopment in older neighborhoods can mean cutting down mature trees. Low pointed to Cherry as an example, where older trees providing dense canopy cover have been cleared and replaced with small, young trees. That degrades the public realm and makes being outdoors less appealing.
▪ Don’t allow “snout houses” and other single-family designs that put the garage front-and-center instead of a porch (but this one isn’t possible). Putting garages forward on the street instead of a front porch or stoop makes houses and neighborhoods less inviting, with fewer interactions between neighbors and passersby, Low said. But regulations passed this year by the General Assembly forbid municipalities from regulating single-family home designs, so this one is off the table.
Here’s some bonus reading: David Walters, an urban planner, architect and professor emeritus at UNC Charlotte, penned a piece last week about the pending demise of the Common Market’s South End location. An office and retail development is set to take its place. Read Walters at Plan Charlotte’s blog: Losing a spot of urban magic that’s not likely to be replaced.