Can planners turn booming SouthPark into a walkable area?

Heavy afternoon traffic on Fairview Road near the intersection with Sharon Road.
Heavy afternoon traffic on Fairview Road near the intersection with Sharon Road.

With a torrent of new apartments, office buildings and shops rushing toward SouthPark, city leaders are bringing in outside help to craft a new plan to guide growth.

Charlotte City Council this week approved a $125,000 contract with the Urban Land Institute to hire national experts to evaluate the area. The ULI consultants will interview dozens of neighbors, property owners, developers and businesses.

At the heart of the study is a question that affects anyone who lives, works or shops in the SouthPark area: Can planners and developers turn SouthPark from an auto-centric, suburban area into a more dense, urban district, where people get around by biking, walking and taking public transportation?

“The interest and investment we’re seeing in SouthPark is pretty unprecedented,” interim Planning Director Ed McKinney told City Council. “Now is a good time to look at the future.”

But challenges remain, and smooth growth for SouthPark isn’t guaranteed. The area can be congested even during off-peak times, with major intersections such as Fairview and Sharon roads clogged for commuters, residents and shoppers alike.

Much of SouthPark is built on suburban bones, with cul de sacs and neighborhood streets that funnel traffic to a few main arteries. And there aren’t any concrete plans to bring more mass transit to alleviate traffic.

“The challenge is the traffic impact, which all of our neighborhood is concerned with,” said Rebecca Fant, an architect and member of the Barclay Downs Homeowners Association’s rezoning committee. “My goal is to never cross Fairview during rush hour.”

Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble said better ways to get around are one of the main areas the ULI experts will examine.

“We need to explore a more walkable, pedestrian-friendly SouthPark,” said Kimble, who is also chairman of the local chapter of the ULI. The city’s current small-area plan for SouthPark, a planning document meant to guide growth, dates to 2000.

Many of the proposed new developments would change large, single-use properties to more integrated, walkable areas. For example, Synco Properties plans to tear down the aging Colony apartments at Sharon and Colony roads and replace the 353-unit complex with almost 1,000 new apartments. The plan is forecast to increase traffic substantially, generating 24,000 vehicle trips per day vs. 2,350 under the current zoning.

But the project will also include shops, a hotel and offices, and a grid-style network of streets that gives people multiple ways around. Instead of being cut off from the surrounding areas, the idea is to integrate the new Colony development into the area and encourage people to walk, rather than drive, to nearby shops and restaurants.

Because the new development will be a mix of uses, planners hope residents won’t need to drive for every errand or to work. The success could hinge on whether residents are willing to get out of their cars and embrace walking and other ways to get around.

As developers look to revamp more nearby parcels, such as Sharon United Methodist Church’s property, planners hope they will build more grid streets and create more connections, offering alternatives to the most congested major thoroughfares. For example, the proposed Sharon United plans call for a new connection between Morrison Boulevard and Coltsgate Road. That increased “connectivity,” as it’s known, will likely be a key part of the ULI panel’s recommendations.

A high-level look

Kimble said the plan won’t get down to block-by-block prescriptions for every property in SouthPark, but will focus on the overall vision and larger recommendations. Topics they’ll look at include the ideal mix of residential, office and retail development, what new public transit could be implemented in SouthPark and how open spaces and buildings should be designed.

The ideas will help guide growth, Kimble said, even if they are not all possible to implement.

“Maybe a few of them are deemed to be a little bit on the wild side,” said Kimble. “That’s fine, the city gets to talk about which ones are appropriate in our minds to implement.”

The city has used the Urban Land Institute before to help devise similar plans, including for the areas just west of uptown and the “Applied Innovation Corridor” between uptown and UNC Charlotte.

“We know that it is beneficial to bring in outside national experts who have been through this before,” said Kimble.

Kimble said the city is seeking $165,000 from private companies in SouthPark to offset the cost of the ULI study and provide seed money to help implement some of the early recommendations. One company has pledged $10,000 so far, he said. The city is also asking Mecklenburg County for $30,000. In the end, Kimble said the city will end up paying about $60,000.

Charlotte City Council member Kenny Smith, a Republican, grew up in SouthPark and represents the area. He said that while the area has changed drastically since SouthPark mall opened in 1970 – on what used to be part of a 3,000-acre farm owned by former Gov. Cameron Morrison – more change is inevitable.

Large parcels along areas such as Rexford Road – home to office buildings from the 1980s – are ripe for redevelopment. Based on “cocktail napkin math,” Smith, who is also a real estate broker, estimates more than 100 acres could be redeveloped. Although that will make the area denser, Smith said it actually offers the chance to relieve congestion by building more roads.

“We don’t have capacity for roads without redevelopment,” said Smith. “You need some of these properties to redevelop.”

One thing’s for sure, Smith said: “Whatever comes there is likely to be denser, bigger than what is there now.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo