Fears and hopes on display at development forum

The Gibson apartments under construction last year on Central Avenue.
The Gibson apartments under construction last year on Central Avenue.

People are closely following development in this city – that was one of the main conclusions I took away from a community forum this week about Charlotte’s growth.

More than 100 people attended the #DiscussCLT forum, part of a series hosted by Charlotte Magazine and sponsored by OrthoCarolina. While the free Triple C beer might have been a draw as well, the audience asked smart, engaged questions of the panelists. On display were the hopes people have for Charlotte as the city grows and the fears they have about that growth going wrong.

Here are some of the points I noticed people bringing up:

▪ A concern for urban design: Several of the audience members asked questions about the design of new apartments, which they worry are too uniform. Others were concerned about buildings that have garages on the ground floor – “cars behind bars” – and don’t contribute to a walkable, vibrant landscape.

David Furman, an architect and designer, repeated his call for higher design standards in the city.

“Minimums become standards,” said Furman. “I’m all for creating some regulations that have some teeth.”

Still, he also acknowledged that people are voting with their wallets, continuing to move to new apartment buildings. And as an apartment developer pointed out to me after the forum, even though 1100 South Boulevard – which has a large ground-floor parking deck – is repeatedly called out by folks like Furman as an example of bad urban design, it is commanding some of the highest rents in South End.

A two-bedroom, 1,243-square-foot corner apartment is listed at 1100 South for $3,018 a month. That’s $2.43 a square foot.

▪ Worries about gentrification: People worried that what happened in Cherry, the historically black neighborhood near Midtown that’s seen a surge of new, upscale houses, will be repeated throughout the city. And they are still worried about small businesses such as Common Market South End, which is looking for a new location since Dimensional Fund Advisors is building a new East Coast hub on its site starting later this year.

“With four months to go where we are, it’s a little scary,” Common Market co-owner Chuck Barger said. “I’ve tried really hard not to feel like a victim.”

Attendees also said they recognize some change is inevitable. One young woman, who said she’s a member of the “creative class,” said she’s worried about violating her values by moving into a lower-income area and potentially displacing residents. But, she said, she can’t find anywhere else near the center of Charlotte to live in her price range – so she might have to make the move.

▪ Traffic and transportation: Stop by a zoning meeting and you’ll hear plenty about traffic. It was also a topic at Wednesday’s forum. One reason Charlotte is seeing a surge in traffic: Large swaths of the city are built around cul-de-sacs. That means that as parts of the city such as SouthPark redevelop into ever denser landscapes, more traffic is funneled onto a few arterial roads such as Fairview and Sharon.

Charlotte urban design planner Monica Holmes compared cul-de-sacs to candy. A few pieces are fine, but too much makes you sick. The sickness brought on by over-consuming cul-de-sacs, she said, is traffic.

▪ Gratitude that we’re growing: When moderator Mary Newsom asked the audience if they thought Charlotte is better off now than it was decades ago, almost all raised their hands. And when she asked if they wanted to see Charlotte return to the way it was when they moved here, only a handful of long-term residents said so. As Newsom pointed out, people are moving here because we have job opportunities and an attractive quality of life.

“You can’t stop people from moving to the city in a free country,” Newsom said.

And as Furman put it: “The opposite of growth is death.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo