A SouthPark with less congestion? Planners say it’s possible

For SouthPark to keep thriving and grappling congestion, the area needs a stronger identity, a unified voice and a greater investment in public spaces, a planning group hired by the city of Charlotte said Friday.

The upscale neighborhoods that have sprung up around a suburban shopping mall over the past two generations have become one of the most economically vital parts of the city, a group of experts from the Urban Land Institute told local officials and the public, Friday.

But traffic, a lack of connectivity and a dearth of public spaces such as parks threaten SouthPark, they said.

“SouthPark right now is attracting hundreds of millions of dollars of investments,” said Edward McMahon of the Urban Land Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based urban planner who led the study. “The city and county have taken SouthPark for granted. We believe the city of Charlotte has under-invested in SouthPark’s infrastructure.”

The city of Charlotte hired ULI to convene an expert panel to study SouthPark in January, with $125,000 paid in part by private businesses in the area. The reason: SouthPark is in the midst of a major boom, with about 2,400 new apartments, new office towers and major mixed-use projects on the way.

The group interviewed dozens of SouthPark business and property owners, residents and workers over the past week. Friday was a preliminary presentation, and ULI will file a full report with detailed implementation suggestions within four months.

The ULI panel identified a common set of concerns that won’t shock any Charlotteans: Traffic on major roads like Colony and Fairview is grim. Walking anywhere in SouthPark is tough, as sidewalks don’t connect and blocks are long. Biking can feel unsafe, and there aren’t good transit options for getting around.

The focal point of the area, SouthPark mall, generates about $1 billion of annual sales. But there aren’t many other big public spaces, and the lack of outdoor areas that are clearly public can make the neighborhood feel unwelcoming. It’s hard to get from the neighborhoods to the retail districts, though well-worn, unofficial footpaths show there is an appetite for such connections.

“It’s difficult and in some cases dangerous to get from one place to another,” said Jonathan Bartlett, an Atlanta-based consultant. “There’s not real public space.”

The panel’s recommendations include:

▪ Creating a “SouthPark Partnership” of businesses, residents and property owners to represent and lobby the area. That could be modeled after Center City Partners, an uptown advocacy and marketing group that’s funded with a special property tax levied within the district, or it could be a less formal group. But getting a unified voice to represent the area is key, the ULI panel said.

“There is no visible face of SouthPark. It’s not clear who's driving the bus,” said John Macomber, a Harvard professor. “There’s not a high profile leader like a Hugh McColl or a big employer like Duke Energy driving this.”

Said McMahon: “(SouthPark) has failed to speak with one voice.”

▪ Building a “promenade” around the mall: A combination of public and private parks and trails ringing SouthPark mall and connecting public places would give people a means to get around besides driving or walking alongside thousands of cars on congested thoroughfares. Such a promenade could also link more people to Symphony Park on SouthPark’s property and help the space be used more often than it is now for occasional festivals and musical performances.

▪ Create a more connected grid of streets to take the pressure off major arterial roads: This is already underway in redevelopments such as the Colony apartments, which will include a grid of local streets instead of disconnected cul-de-sacs. The ULI panel said Charlotte should keep aggressively pursuing this strategy whenever possible.

▪ Start a “circulator” transit service: A free bus or other vehicle could loop around SouthPark and give office workers and local residents an alternative to get around besides jumping in their cars. Local businesses could fund the service, as they do in downtown Norfolk, Va.

▪ Make SouthPark more bike-friendly: Putting in more bike lanes and trails could help people feel safe biking. Transportation consultant Alia Anderson pointed out a curious fact that they noticed while interviewing local residents: “A lot of people in this part of south Charlotte go on vacation and go bike riding, but they don’t bike here.”

Charlotte City Council member Kenny Smith, a Republican who represents the area, said some of the “low-hanging fruit” recommendations, such as building more grids of streets, are readily doable. He also said he expects the idea of creating a unified group to represent SouthPark will gain momentum.

“It was no shock to hear SouthPark has been overlooked by city government,” said Smith, who said he was very pleased with the panel’s work and recommendations. He said the district is a “golden goose” for the city that needs to be cared for.

“Some of what they discussed today is definitely aspirational,” said Smith. “There are no quick fixes. This is going to take time to implement.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo