Watch out for 'tyranny of the normal,' planner warns

1100 South Boulevard apartments under construction last year.
1100 South Boulevard apartments under construction last year.

An urban planner and architect had a warning for South End and plans to revitalize North Tryon Street: Beware the “tyranny of the normal.”

Terry Shook, speaking at Center City Partners’ quarterly board meeting Thursday, was voicing a concern many have shared in the wake of increasing development pressure in South End and other close-in, eclectic neighborhoods. Some have voiced a desire for higher design standards – think ground-floor retail, no blank walls and parking garages facing pedestrians, no fences between sidewalks and buildings – in the fast-growing areas.

“Our biggest problem is something I classify as a tyranny of the normal,” said Shook. He said “the normal” plays into the way projects are financed and how they’re approved according to Charlotte’s zoning code. “We’ve got to find a way to get some strategic intervention in this code now.”

Tobe Holmes, director of Historic South End, told the board that he’s started to hear more discontent with the wave of apartments that have sprung up in Charlotte.

“The last couple years, I’ve started to hear some disapproval,” said Holmes. Some projects “don’t necessarily contribute to street-level safety or the walkable neighborhood.”

“We’re at that point in South End where we need to rethink some things,” said Holmes. He showed slides that included blank walls at pedestrian level, fences cutting off the sidewalk and no entrances at street level as examples of poor practices.

Michael Smith, CEO of Center City Partners, has said higher design standards are needed in fast-growing areas. So far though, there hasn’t been much concrete action toward setting higher standards for certain areas. And developers could well oppose such measures, which would likely increase their costs. The most likely tool for such changes – an overhauled zoning code –is likely at least four years away.

There were no specific measures proposed Thursday, but it’s clear that there is some sense of urgency behind the idea. Holmes said a plan to build a corporate headquarters office on the site of the Common Market and Food Truck Friday brought things to a head.

While he stressed that he didn’t think that was a bad project, he said “people heard about this, saw this image and went into panic mode.”

“We don’t have a lot of room left,” said Holmes. “We have to act faster.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo