Back to Charlotte’s future? In 1965, here’s what city leaders imagined

When the Observer was packing up to move offices last month, the bold headline on one dusty, yellowed special section unearthed from layers of ancient papers caught an editor’s eye: “This Could Be Charlotte’s Center In The Future.”

The August 1965 report was the first glimpse Charlotteans got at an ambitious new plan for revitalizing uptown, then still known as downtown. The Odell Plan, as it would come to be known, was formally adopted in 1966, and it made audacious predictions: Downtown would have a sports stadium, a zoo, an underground street, hotels, museums, high-rise apartments, parks, a convention center and many more office towers.

The plan might have looked like a fantasy when city leaders conceived it 50 years ago. But there was an urgency to be bold. Downtown was starting to decay fast, with businesses moving out and real estate values dropping. Suburban shopping centers and new housing developments pulled people away from downtown, and empty storefronts and blight were creeping in.

The yellowed newspaper pages and black-and-white photos of city leaders moving model skyscrapers around a diorama of downtown like pieces on a chessboard have sprung to life: To a large degree, we live in the Charlotte they foresaw.

“When we weigh it all, this was transformative for the community we became,” said Michael Smith, head of Charlotte Center Partners. “This was really bold.”

While many of the dreams have come true, others – such as a major zoo and botanical garden downtown – never unfolded as intended.

Others have come to be seen as misguided at best and tragic at worst. The Brooklyn neighborhood in Second Ward that was home to about 1,000 African-American families was torn down in the name of “urban renewal.” The idea was to get rid of what was seen as “slum housing” and redevelop the land with the help of federal matching funds.

“There were decisions made for and about African Americans they had no say in,” said Trevor Fuller, chairman of the Mecklenburg County Commission. “(Brooklyn) was a functioning community.”

The demolition left deep scars with those who lost their homes, their neighborhood and their heritage, scattering them to low-income neighborhoods on the fringes of uptown and disrupting their lives.

Other ideas have come to be seen as outdated by urban designers: The exclusive reliance on cars, creating single-use districts like Charlotte’s government quarter, building huge, empty plazas and razing small streets of older structures to build block-long new mega-projects.

“It's what we were taught to do: Get rid of old stuff and build big open spaces,” said David Walters, a professor emeritus of architecture and urban design at UNC Charlotte. “Forget the past, make things new.”

In the 1960s, he was studying architecture, and said many of the ideas then practiced were ultimately destructive to the urban fabric underpinning cities. Now, many of the plans for uptown are aimed at recreating the smaller blocks, eclectic buildings and street-level retail that 1960s and 70s urban planning did away with.

“I can only thank the architecture gods that not more of the Odell Plan got built than it did,” said Walters.

In what would become a Charlotte tradition, the plan started with a group of local business, government and civic leaders. They created a public-private partnership, hired a consultant and commissioned a report to lay out a vision for luring people and businesses back to downtown. The $55,000 contract was funded with $35,000 from the city and $20,000 from businesses in the Downtown Charlotte Association.

Their report, the basis of the Odell Plan, outlined the daunting challenges problems facing by downtown Charlotte. The city center lacked high-density housing and any major entertainment venues. There were no museums, no major parks, no transit center. The majority of houses and half of commercial buildings were considered blighted, and the area had a reputation as being unsafe after dark.

The sense of alarm was palpable. WBTV produced a 25-minute special report on downtown, in which architect A.G. Odell proclaimed: “Time is running out...It’s do or die for downtown Charlotte.”

The men (and they were all men) who formed the Master Plan Committee and laid out their ideas started as a nucleus of six and grew to what was called the Group of 100. They included well-known businessmen, such as John Tate of North Carolina National Bank, W.T. Harris, president of Harris Teeter, George Ivey Jr., president of Ivey’s and John M. Belk, head of Belk stores and soon-to-be mayor.

“It was not a pretty situation,” said C.D. Spangler, a member of the committee who would go on to lead the Bank of North Carolina, National Gypsum and the University of North Carolina system. “Charlotte was on the crest of going one way or the other.”

The uptown that actually emerged in the coming decades shows how difficult it can be to predict the future. Successive plans in 1980, 1990 and 2010 overhauled parts of the vision. Spangler said he never could have foreseen how strong downtown Charlotte’s boom would turn out to be, with an NFL stadium, NBA arena, light rail line, towering office buildings, a ballpark and thousands of high rise apartments and condos.

“Nobody could have predicted that,” said Spangler. “Some people late in the afternoon after their cocktail period might have dreamed up that sort of stuff.”

5 dreams that came true

▪ A downtown stadium

A central tenet of the plan was building a major stadium downtown, though the special Observer section didn’t specify who would play there. One of the locations identified for what was initially assumed would be a relocation of Memorial Stadium, near Interstate 77 and Fourth Street, is only a few blocks from where the Carolina Panthers would start playing almost 30 years later.

The growth of stadiums, helped by local government spending and land grants, has exceeded expectations, with the Hornets’ arena and Knights’ stadium bringing the number of uptown sports venues to three.

▪ The positive effect of parks

One suggestion the planners included was “several parks to add to the beauty and visual attractiveness of the area.” Romare Bearden Park, First Ward Park and other pockets of urban green space have attracted new developments and become major gathering spaces. Still, some parts of the plan didn’t come true: A three-block park from Trade and Tryon east to the government district could have become a civic center and focal point for large uptown events, Smith said. Not building that was a missed opportunity. And some parks, especially Marshall Park in Second Ward, have been criticized for poor design and going largely unused much of the time.

▪ The rise of high-rises

At a time when most of downtown was low-slung buildings or modest buildings of 20 stories or fewer, the creation of a district of high-rises wasn’t a sure thing. But that’s what came to pass, with many of the apartment buildings such as the 51-story Vue rising within a block or two of the areas identified as potential high-rise residential and office towers popping up along major corridors.

▪ Banks anchoring downtown’s growth

One key to the vision of revitalizing downtown, planners realized, would be getting the city’s biggest businesses involved. The plan called for the city’s banks to “expand their buildings and facilities” there rather than in suburbs – a concept that would lead, decades later, to the Bank of America tower and other bank buildings dotting the skyline.

▪ Seeing downtown wasn’t ‘dead’

One of the boldest predictions in the plan was the simple premise that downtown wasn’t in fact a lost cause, and that it could become the focal point of a major city.

“I, for one, do not believe that downtown is dead,” declared Phillip Hammer, a consultant who worked on the plan.

Charlotte’s population was barely more than 200,000, and the idea of glittering skyscrapers seemed a little presumptuous, to say the least. One subhead in the Observer’s special section plaintively asked, “Will the growth really come?”

6 dreams that missed

▪ Bulldozing Brooklyn

The demolition of Second Ward’s Brooklyn neighborhood was already underway by the time the Odell plan was adopted, starting in 1961 – but the city’s master plan endorsed the idea. Urban renewal – cities buying up “slums” with federal matching funds and tearing them down – would continue through the 1970s.

In Brooklyn, the program displaced more than 1,000 African American communities from what had long been an enclave with locally owned stores, churches and a network of families. Charlotte’s government quarter, including Marshall Park and the surrounding government buildings, were built in its place.

Now, the county is trying to sell much of that land and partner with a developer to build a major mixed-use community in Second Ward – recreating, in effect, much of what had already existed there.

▪ A downtown zoo

Despite the idea in Charlotte’s master plan that a zoo and botanical garden would be a major regional draw for visitors, it was the Raleigh Jaycees who started the successful campaign to raise money for a state zoo in 1967. The site eventually selected is near Asheboro, about 75 miles from Raleigh and Charlotte, close to the center of the state. The first exhibits opened in 1974. Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens opened in 1999, some 18 miles west of uptown on the other side of the Catawba River.

▪ Social changes on the horizon

“They are trying to turn Downtown Charlotte into an area where more housewives will want to shop during the day.”

That’s how the Observer summarized one of the revitalization plan’s key aims. The idea was that women would browse downtown shops while their husbands toiled in the nearby office towers – and presumably be home in time to cook dinner. Another detail that sticks out: In the rendering of downtown future, all of the pedestrians milling through Trade and Tryon appear to be white.

Planners just didn’t foresee the tsunami of social changes already building in America.

▪ A pedestrian promenade atop a buried Trade street

One of the most ambitious parts of the master plan was the idea of tunneling Trade Street underground between College and Church streets. That would have created two car-free blocks bracketing the Trade and Tryon intersection for a pedestrian plazas, lined with shops and cafes as part of an outdoor mall. People would have been able to meander across the pedestrian-only blocks of Trade Street, while traffic flowed below through the tunnel.

The underground portion of Trade Street would have included a bus transfer center to serve as the hub for public transit downtown. Smith said that’s one idea in the “Thank God we didn’t do it” category.

▪ The car stays king

Another thing that appears remarkable now in the 1965 master plan is how completely the car dominated planners’ thinking. “Cars, Cars Cars: Where to put ‘em?” asked a subhead in one of the stories about the plan. “So you think parking in downtown Charlotte is a problem now?”

There’s no mention of anything like the Blue Line light rail, which would kick off a huge building boom in South End, or bike lanes, which have spread throughout uptown. Instead, the plan called for a massive infusion of parking garages to handle all the new drivers who would be headed downtown, including four major garages within a block of Trade and Tryon, and an expressway looping the center city – which ultimately became I-277.

▪ Downtown as a key retail hub

Small businesses were displaced by the urban renewal programs ushered into downtown in the 1960s, and then SouthPark mall opened in 1970, followed five years later by Eastland Mall. Along with other regional malls, they would proceed to drain traffic from downtown’s major department stores as people flocked to acres of easy parking and the shiny new suburbs. Belk closed its downtown store in 1988, and Ivey’s closed in 1990.

Now, Center City Partners and other uptown boosters are trying to lure retailers, sponsoring pop-up shops and ventures such as the Seventh Street Public Market to get people used to the idea of heading uptown to shop again. The group has even hired a retail director exclusively dedicated to its efforts – all to bring back the kind of shops that once called uptown their home.

Observer research Maria David contributed.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo