Can light rail turn University City into a walkable downtown?

When you think of University City, “walkable, pedestrian-friendly downtown” might not be the first thing that comes to mind.

But local property owners and economic development boosters want to change that. They plan to use the rapidly approaching Blue Line light rail extension to spur a round of redevelopment that’s easier on walkers and bicyclists and less car-dependent.

University City Partners has kicked off an effort to plan for a new future, centered around the J.W. Clay Boulevard light rail station at J.W. Clay and North Tryon streets. The first leg of the Blue Line, which opened in 2007 running from uptown to south Charlotte, helped touch off a major building boom that drew breweries, office buildings, apartments and thousands of new residents to a former industrial corridor.

Now, University City wants some of that kind of growth.

The basic idea: Turn an area long dominated by low-density, suburban-style shopping centers and cul-de-sacs into a new town center, with dense, mixed-use development centered around the station. Instead of acres of parking lots, picture multistory buildings with shops and cafes on the ground floor and apartments above lining J.M. Keynes Drive, across from North Tryon Street.

“We need a Main Street,” said Darlene Heater, executive director of University City Partners. “We don’t have a Main Street.”

The group has enlisted six property owners within a half-mile of the J.W. Clay station, including shopping centers, UNC Charlotte and Carolinas HealthCare System University. They’re sorting through applications from consultants now, and plan to hire one of them and formally kick off the planning process in the coming weeks.

The plan they produce will lay out ideas for how to better connect different developments and analyze how much new residential, office and retail space the area can support.

But crafting a new urban center out of the properties around J.W. Clay station will be a challenge. The roads are generally wide, busy and often congested – conditions that can be intimidating for pedestrians and bicyclists. At the shopping centers across North Tryon Street, stores and restaurants float in the midst of a sea of black asphalt surface parking. And the fragmented ownership of surrounding areas means there are many property owners who must agree to any plan.

It’s not the largely blank canvas that was pre-Blue Line South End, dotted with disused former mills and warehouses. But Tobe Holmes sees advantages in redeveloping University City.

“All the pieces are there,” said Holmes. Previously director of Historic South End, he’s now planning and economic development director for University City Partners. “They’re just a little disconnected.”

The University City area is Charlotte’s second-biggest employment center after uptown, with 75,000 employees. It’s a major residential zone, with 160,000 residents, and features a school with 28,000 students. Unlike South End, Holmes doesn’t have to plot how to lure people and businesses back to University City: They’re already there.

The 9.3-mile Blue Line extension runs from Seventh Street uptown through NoDa to UNC-Charlotte’s campus. The $1.2 billion project is set to open in a little over a year. Plans for the J.W. Clay station itself include a 750-space parking deck, with about 18,000 square feet for ground-floor uses such as retail.

George Maloomian is president of Cambridge Properties, which owns the Mallard Pointe Shopping Center on North Tryon. His company is participating in the planning process with University City Partners, which he expects to help lay out a blueprint for the coming transformation.

“I think it’s a great thing to do,” said Maloomian. “Anyone that’s seen the effect of the light rail in uptown and South End knows we’re going to have similar impacts in University City.”

The 168,000-square-foot shopping center is anchored by a Kohl’s and a Food Lion, both of which are nearing the end of 20-year leases. Maloomian said much of the area’s redevelopment will depend on whether retailers renew or stick with leases at shopping centers such as his.

“That’s going to govern a lot of what we can and can’t do,” said Maloomian. “If we have a lease agreement, we need to abide by it. There’s a certain unpredictability you’re going to have with any given parcel.”

The study is expected to cost about $100,000, with University City Partners picking up half the cost and six adjacent property owners who are participating kicking in the rest of the cost. University City Partners is a nonprofit organization funded through a special tax on properties in the area they serve.

Bill Leonard, president of Carolinas HealthCare System University, has worked in University City for six years. He acknowledges the area is auto-dependent but said he expects more pedestrian-friendly development will help change that.

“It’s going to be very different,” said Leonard. “The connectivity and walkability are really important.”

Leonard said progress has already started: The hospital regularly takes staff on “wellness walks” to get them out and about, and they recently went down Tryon Street, where the sidewalk has been widened to 8 feet.

“It was like, ‘Wow,’” said Leonard, describing how much more comfortable the walk was then on the previous, more narrow sidewalk.

“We’ve got a little window now, to change things,” said Leonard.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

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