Just for fun, before watching Monday night’s Charlotte City Council hearing on the newest plan for downtown Charlotte, I hauled out my yellowing copy of the 1966 Odell Plan. (See original drawings from the plan here.)
It’s both fun and humbling to see how stunningly wrong that plan was about so much.
Then I thumbed through a vintage 1960 master highway transportation plan for the Charlotte Metropolitan Area – a huge book calling for the one-way street system and the Interstate 77-277 freeway noose that planners now are puzzling over how to overcome, with initiatives like the Charlotte Center City 2020 Vision Plan.
Besides being fun historic documents, those old plans should remind us all that the conventional wisdom of our day may, 50 years later, prove to have been just as appallingly wrong. Consider: The Odell plan called for removing old tracks and creating a high-speed thoroughfare along what’s now the path of the Lynx light rail. It proposed demolishing houses in the historic Fourth Ward neighborhood to build high-rise apartments.
It’s easy to bash that old plan for its Corbusier-worshipping outlook, and quaint midcentury Modernist drawings. But its text called for some things still needed today: more residences downtown, parks and what it called “esthetic amenities” such as tree-lined streets and boulevards, fountains.”
Today’s 2020 plan –scheduled for Charlotte City Council approval Sept. 12 – is like that old Odell plan in this way at least: Some of its overarching values are well worth supporting. Of course, there’s far, far more to support in the 2020 plan than in Odell’s plan, which was helpful mainly just by making clear Charlotte’s civic leaders valued their downtown. The Odell plan (and the highway planning that predated it) did significantly more harm than good, with auto-focused strategies and its misguided effort to create single-use districts, such as today’s government-office ghetto.
This short piece can’t do justice to the 2020 plan’s many proposals. I urge you to look through the whole draft plan: www.centercity2020.info.
Praiseworthy features include its focus on overcoming the barrier the I-77/I-277 loop created. Like the 2010 Vision Plan (adopted in 2000), it urges capping I-277 from Church Street to the light rail tracks and building a park there.
That would be a huge step forward. Highways badly damage cities, especially downtowns. (Brown University economist Nathaniel Baum-Snow writes that each new federally funded highway built through a major city reduces its population by 18 percent. Here’s an interview with him, and here's a link to his research.)
Among the 2020 plan's many positives:
- The goal to create a true “City of Bikes,” with a bike-sharing system and shared bike facilities.
- The suggestion to create a park impact fee and/or “in-lieu-of” fee to encourage developers to contribute to a fund for park development. As I’ve written before, this is a tool used all over North Carolina, one that Mecklenburg County commissioners could easily adopt if they chose.
- Pushing to create what it calls a “center city urban campus,” with a new public high school and the colleges and universities already downtown partnering to share facilities.
But like the Odell plan, the 2020 plan puts too much emphasis on big-footprint “catalyst projects.” In 1966 the push was for a new convention center – eventually built, now demolished. The 2020 plan calls for a huge convention center expansion, a new baseball stadium, an “amateur sports cluster” along I-277 and Stonewall, and a new “Uptown shopping center.” Yet the more big-footprint projects get built, the more impossible it becomes ever to have the truly urban environment the plan also calls for. A good, interesting and authentic city street requires small-scale buildings that offer less-expensive spaces for the shops, ethnic restaurants, and galleries people say they’d like downtown.
The 2020 plan had a massive and admirable public process – a 40-member steering committee and numerous public workshops and small-group meetings. It could have become a teachable moment for the public, elected officials and other civic leaders.
Why not use that public process to educate folks on why, if most of downtown is zoned to allow buildings as tall as the FAA will allow, that zoning creates a land value ecosystem that will never produce small-scale development?
Why not educate politicians and uptown boosters about the contradiction of calling for big-footprint “catalyst projects,” when megaprojects work against catalyzing true urban-style development?
Similarly, couldn’t the process have helped teach Charlotteans the value of older buildings that don’t happen to be historic landmarks? Old buildings offer cheap rent, helping nurture the mom-and-pop shops and entrepreneurs. Alas, the report text, while mentioning “iconic” eight times, has only one line urging: “Respect historic buildings.”
Why not show how the Uptown Mixed Use District zoning allows inward-facing retail mistakes such as Founders Hall? To its credit, the 2020 plan calls for banning more overstreet walkways (as did the 2010 plan). Yet those walkways are still getting built. Why not examine – and open up for public discussion – reasons the disconnect continues?
On balance, it’s a good plan with good suggestions. But the test, of course, comes with time. The goal, after all, is for someone to read a yellowing copy 50 years from now and, unlike the Odell plan, conclude that Charlotte got this one right.
Top photograph by Patrick Scheider for Charlotte Center City Partners
Bicycle photograph by Nancy Pierce
Views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not necessarily the collective view of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute staff or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
The map below shows the percent change in population for cities from 2000 to 2010 - the larger the circle, the higher the percent change. Click on individual cities to see additional population data. You may pan and zoom the map to see greater detail. If you have trouble selecting an individual city, you may need to zoom in.
Percent Change in Population of Selected NC Towns from 2000 to 2010
Sources: Census 2000, Census 2010.
What should Charlotte look like? When discussing urban design many planners, architects and developers assume that what works in New York, San Francisco and Portland should work here. This assumption ignores the reality that Southerners have a very different perspective on "urbanness" than non-Southerners. No one has asked Charlotteans what they want their city to become, until this past summer.
Urban geographers at UNC Charlotte conducted a mail survey in the summer of 20101 which asked Charlotte residents about the important factors in selecting their neighborhood and where they wanted municipal investment to occur. In aggregate the questions were intended to identify what features of urban design were most important to individual homeowners. Since urban growth in the South is increasingly characterized by tensions between recent arrivals (often from Northeastern cities) and long-term Southerners, survey results were analyzed from the perspective of Southern versus non-Southern (and suburban versus in-town) residents. Results of the survey are shown in Tables 1 and 2 below.
Table 1 shows response means for the neighborhood selection series of questions. Opinions were measured using a Likert scale (respondent’s opinions about each residential choice recorded on a five point scale which ranged from "critically important" to "completely unimportant"). In-town residents considered proximity factors (access to businesses, work and green space) to be among the most important elements of neighborhood choice. School quality, access to entertainment and transit were among the least important factors. As expected, suburbanites placed less emphasis on proximity to work while placing greater importance on school quality.
Also significant were the differences in opinion between Southern and non-Southern respondents. Non-Southern in-town residents expressed a stronger preference for high-density urban environments than Southerners. These preferences included the availability of neighborhood businesses, proximity to urban amenities and access to public transit. Differences between Southern and non-Southern residential preferences in the suburbs were considerably less pronounced with the exception of walkability.
Table 2 summarizes personal attitudes towards public expenditures on urban development. In-town residents consider expansions of downtown activity and expansion of public transport to be of primary importance in Charlotte’s growth. As expected, this group viewed investment in the suburbs to be less critical to Charlotte’s future. Non-Southern in-town residents expressed an even stronger preference for the expansion of public transit. While suburban residents placed greater emphasis on suburban projects than in-town residents, suburban support for investment downtown remained strong (4.27 out of 5 for non-Southern suburbanites). A variety of residential options and even the expansion of public transit was considered to be of above average importance by the suburbanites.
Several noteworthy findings can be isolated from this preliminary case study. First, Charlotte’s suburbanites (particularly the non-Southern ones) appear to feel strongly that they benefit from a vital downtown and the expansion of public transit. Charlotte’s suburban residents appear to value their connections to downtown. Second, suburbanites did not express distaste for making the suburbs more urban (as evidenced by responses to the suburban housing and suburban job growth questions). That attitude is consistent with the emergence of mixed land uses in the neo-traditional town centers of Charlotte’s suburbs (e.g. Ballantyne and Birkdale). Finally, while Southerners expressed less preference for dense urbanization, the differences separating the Southern and non-Southern opinion in this category were relatively small. Southerners and non-Southerners were remarkably consistent in prioritizing proximity to work, price/size of housing, school quality and property tax rate in residential selection.
While much of these data are consistent with expectations it is encouraging to find suburban and in-town residents share a sense that downtown and suburban areas are interconnected in Charlotte. These survey results indicate most residents feel that downtown Charlotte is worthy of investment. It also appears that suburban residents consider suburban growth (and the increased densities that growth implies) to be of value as well (despite persistent questions about road and school capacity). There is some evidence that Southerners are somewhat less enthusiastic about increased urban density than the new arrivals to the region. Despite some small differences in opinion between groups the overall opinion of respondents appears to be that Charlotteans prefer a higher-density, more urban future for their city.
-- Bill Graves
Photograph by John Chesser
1Data were gathered via a June 2010 postal survey sent to residents of single family homes in 28203 (the Dilworth area) and 28277 (the Ballantyne area). The target zip codes and selection of only single family house addresses likely skewed the sample towards affluent households. Five hundred surveys were mailed to residents of each zip code with post-paid return envelopes; respondents could alternatively reply via a web interface. A total of 155 responses were received making the overall response rate 15.5% (86 responses were received from 28203, 69 from 28277). The survey was a pilot study which is part of a larger ongoing project on Southern urbanization.