Light rail: Transforming University City

Get ready for change, experts say. But what kind?

Light rail tracks across the street from the UNC Charlotte Campus. Photo: UNC Charlotte Urban Institute

When the Blue Line Extension light rail opens Friday, March 16, creating a direct link from uptown to the UNC Charlotte campus, it will change transportation options for thousands of students, faculty and other area residents. But it will also have a major, long-term effect on the way the area around the 1,000-acre campus develops – and the campus itself, since the rail line comes onto campus for a final stop.

What can be the impact of light rail? Take a look at what has happened since the first Blue Line segment opened in 2007 through the South End area. New development is taking place so rapidly that estimates of its value are outdated as soon as they're issued, but the Charlotte Business Journal reported in November that development worth nearly $2.1 billion was built, under construction or planned from uptown to Pineville. That included more than 10,000 residential units, 3 million square feet of retail and office development built or planned, according to the Charlotte Area Transit System.

New transit line will bring riders and much more

We asked transit, planning and UNC Charlotte experts to predict what light rail will mean to the larger University City area of Charlotte. Their answers, edited for brevity and clarity:   

Imagine 20 years from now. You step off the UNC Charlotte campus, and what will you see around the stations nearest campus – J.W. Clay, McCullough and University City Boulevard? What’s the best-case scenario?

John Lewis, CEO, Charlotte Area Transit System: I think you’re going to see redevelopment – a little more density along the corridor, concentrated in and around the stations. What that development will look like will depend on the plans for the area. I see the Blue Line as a catalyst for that development. I don’t think it will point to a specific type of development, but it will act as a magnet for development to occur.

Ron Tober

Ron Tober, Charlotte-based national transit consultant with the firm WSP, who was CATS CEO 1999-2007:  You’ll see more intensive development, replacing some of the sprawling, big-box development in that area.

It’ll be different than what’s happened in the South Corridor  [of the Blue Line]. With the university as a magnet, the hospital there, and University Place, I think it’s going to draw more intensive development and more mid-rise residential, something more than four- or five-story wood-stick buildings.

What will it look like? Maybe like the University of Washington district in Seattle, although that’s closer to downtown Seattle than UNC Charlotte is. It’s an urban neighborhood – shops on the street and apartments above. It has office buildings at least 25 stories tall. Of course they have a street grid. It would be nice to see more street grid characteristics at UNC Charlotte – a grid with reasonable length blocks to enhance pedestrian and vehicular circulation, and enhanced street activity. There’s a lot of that in Seattle’s university district. If something like that – a traditional urban neighborhood – evolves in the vicinity of UNC Charlotte, I’d be thrilled.

David Bragdon, executive director of the nonprofit Transit Center: I hope the light rail stations are really integrated into the campus in terms of the walkability – it’s really woven into the campus – and that the surrounding neighborhood would have been revitalized as well.

Taiwo Jaiyeoba

Taiwo “Tai” Jaiyeoba, Charlotte planning director: We’re going to talk about creating places. What do you want your experience to be when you get out of a train station? One thing you don’t want to see is a sea of parking spaces. We know parking in proximity to a station is convenient, but it takes away the possibility of good uses. You want to be able to create a destination experience for the rider, so when they get out they feel they are somewhere. They could maybe pick up groceries, drop off laundry or buy flowers for their partner. You want different uses around the station so people, especially students, can really mingle. You want a sense of safety. And you want a sense of continuation, a feeling that the corridor takes me somewhere.

J.W. Clay and McCullough stations, especially, and University City Boulevard as well – those have the opportunity to be walkable regional centers. They can have higher density, higher intensity, mixed uses. With our TOD zoning [Transit-Oriented Development zoning, which requires denser, more urban-style development], that’s where we envision it going.

The university is already a huge employment center. You can envision employment intensity right around the J.W. Clay and McCullough stations – 10 stories or even more. I can envision a place like Mockingbird Station in Dallas – it’s one of the major, transit-oriented developments. It has a mix of retail and residential development right at the station area. I believe you have over 200 apartments there, a movie theater and shops.

Deb Ryan, chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission, associate professor of urban design at UNC Charlotte: There’s potential for those stops to be incredibly wonderful places, places that have street-level activity because of the way the buildings are designed, and a public realm that people really want to be in. That would mean things like stoops on apartments and making sure none of the parking is behind metal bars on the first floor.

Deb Ryan

We have this incredible opportunity now to get it right. We have to have an aspirational enough vision and realize that what we build today is going to be there 30 years from now. Are we asking the right questions today? Is this something I want to see in 30 years? I’m not sure we’re necessarily building things looking that far out.

The University City Boulevard station, it’s got a car lot within a quarter mile of it. That happened because we didn’t have an urban enough vision for that stop. The vision was that it’s near I-85 so we don’t have to create a walkable place.

At J.W. Clay, I think they missed the mark when they put in the new stuff at the shopping center right across from the stop. That area right beside the parking deck becomes really significant.

You’ve got to have residential sitting there. The area on the other side of the lake at University Place – it used to be a Walmart – all of that needs to be slated to be mixed use.

University City doesn’t have a there there – no gathering space, no public plaza for the whole area. At least one of these stops has potential to have a there there. I’m not sure which one will rise to that challenge. Maybe they all will.

Phil Dubois

Phil Dubois, UNC Charlotte chancellor: The challenge, I think, is that we’ve got a state highway running through all this. I would think that the two areas that would, if properly redeveloped, make us a much more attractive place than we are today are the University Place development and the Kohl’s parking lot [Mallard Pointe shopping center]. We’ve always said up here we wanted to get away from big box development, but all we’ve done is move it around. We moved it to IKEA Boulevard. Kohl’s has moved out to Concord. It’s going to be up to these developers to see what would make their property more attractive.

Two local places I think are really well done and could be a model for new development are Birkdale Village [in Huntersville] and Phillips Place. They have eliminated most streetside parking. They allow cars in, but it’s limited. They have shops and outdoor venues.

Whenever you go into University Place it’s a massive, filled parking lot – it’s popular – but I don’t think it’s going to reach its full potential until they move the parking lot out of there and build a more walkable environment, like on its perimeter with the Wine Vault and Boardwalk Billy’s. You want students to have a reason to be over there other than Boardwalk Billy’s and the Wine Vault.

But you’re not going to get over the fact that North Tryon is a highway.

Tracey Allsbrook

Tracey Allsbrook, UNC Charlotte Student Government Association president: I would like to see an improved University City. I think the campus in the next 20 years will be even more developed, and I want the surrounding areas to be developed as well – a few more of the Fortune 500 businesses that you can find in uptown.

I see it more built up as a city. More hotels, just a little more upscale, but also keeping the essence of University City. Certain things are special. I couldn’t imagine University City without the boardwalk, but maybe having that a little bigger, more developed – not just food and paddle-boating but your workplace is out there. I imagine more companies would want to come here. I could see more skyscrapers in this area.

Darlene Heater, executive director of University City Partners: Within a quarter mile of those stations you’ll see a more densely built environment with buildings that match the expectation of an urban environment. We imagine the J.W. Clay Station will become a lifestyle center that has residential, office and retail, thoughtfully developed, that welcomes both residents and students – a place of mixing and blending of students, faculty and workers. We think each of our transit stations will be neighborhoods. We expect the J.W. Clay Station to have a significant residential population in addition to offices. The offices will likely house university and medical-related functions. The retail will be oriented toward students as well as workers and people who live nearby.

One of the challenges is this: What does increased density look like? What does it look like at NoDa and the Sugar Creek stations [along the Blue Line Extension], as well as at University City? Is it 10 stories, 20 stories, six stories? Is it mid-rise or taller than a mid-rise?

We’ll achieve success if we create density while maintaining the character of a neighborhood, a place where you want to walk and spend time. How do we create density without losing the character of what makes you like a place, a place with character, that’s a little more enticing than just tall buildings?

Tobe Holmes, planning and development director for University City Partners: When you step off the campus you shouldn’t see a significant and abrupt change. It shouldn’t go from a beautifully landscaped and walkable environment to “What have I gotten myself into?” You should be comfortable crossing the street and look forward to what is over there – an urban extension of campus.

One place I’m thinking about is the University of South Carolina. There are 30,000 students on a campus that sometimes hasn’t got a clear edge into downtown Columbia. Downtown is kind of an extension of campus. For urbanists like me, it’s part of the experience and part of the environment. It’s almost a recruitment tool in and of itself.

The impact of light rail overall is really an incredibly positive thing. It will bring challenges, but that said, most other aging suburban commercial corridors do not have a bright future. Here, all of a sudden people are looking north to a submarket that has been largely ignored for all of its lifetime and thinking that might be part of our future.

Because the zoning on the property dates to the 1980s, the new retail at the Shoppes at University Place, foreground, just across from the J.W. Clay Station, isn't built to match the vision for the station area of mixed-use buildings, more residential development, and walkable streets with shopfronts along the sidewalks. Instead the new buildings turn their backs on the sidewalk. Photo: UNC Charlotte Urban Institute

What do the large players in the area – CATS, the city, the university, University City Partners, etc. – need to do now, in order to fulfill the vision?

John Lewis

John Lewis of CATS: I think that to fully take advantage of the opportunities the Blue Line will present, all the entities need to work together, ensuring that the development that will ultimately occur benefits that corridor, the citizens who live there, and the city and the university.

What would not be a great outcome is if you have all these disparate concepts that result in very different outcomes along the corridor. The university obviously is growing – it’s Chancellor  Phil  Dubois’ vision for it to grow. So how can the Blue Line be an added value to that growth? As the university continues to grow, how can we assist in that? What are the plans that University City has for the development we know is coming?

What transit does is put a focus on the opportunities the corridor will bring. 

David Bragdon: Rezoning. That's a key thing. And making sure there are sidewalks, and the ability to access the stations. It is a real opportunity to improve the whole area.

Ron Tober: You mean in addition to updating TOD [transit-oriented-development zoning] requirements and so forth? They need to start being a little tougher in terms of enforcing the rules on the books and getting new rules on the book.

For instance, SouthPark is a nightmare, in terms of walkability. Street traffic is terrible. There’s not much of a way to get around what happens on Fairview. They need to do things in the university district that will not replicate the mess of traffic in SouthPark, as more development happens in the vicinity of UNCC.

Deb Ryan: We need some corrective rezonings, and quickly. We may have a policy for a walkable neighborhood but in order to make that happen you have to place the zoning on the parcel – rezone it into something like TOD [the zoning category for Transit-Oriented Development] that limits the number of parking spaces and creates a denser place, a more walkable place. Those characteristics don’t necessarily occur in the other sorts of zoning categories.

We need to be patient for the right suitor, so when they come along they build what we envision.

I also think there needs to be a very hearty town-gown relationship built here. Rather than thinking about the university doing their thing, and the community on the other side of the highway doing their thing, we can benefit most by expecting a strong town-gown relationship.

For example, the conference center the university plans to build [across North Tryon from the J.W. Clay Station] – you want that to exist within an urban place. It has to be integrated into a larger master plan.

Darlene Heater

Darlene Heater: One of the things we need to do now is think about our transportation infrastructure. We have big arterial roads and streets that carry a lot of traffic. What do we envision these streets doing in the future? Are they going to be traffic-moving infrastructure or are we going to invite pedestrians and bicyclists to use these facilities? We’re starting a transportation study with the city, state, the university and University City Partners. We’re looking at the arterials. If we continue to make our big roads bigger, we’re going to create a big moat around our university, and we’re going to be challenged to make it a walkable place.

We’re also working on a vision plan that takes the foundations of our area plan, but marries it with more visual documentation so there’s clear articulation of what we aspire to.

We’re working on a sense of place, through identity, investments in the public realm, and events to activate the area. The logical place is the Shoppes at University Place and the lakefront. But we don’t think that’s the only place.

The other thing we’re working really hard on is community amenities. Our county government really is our biggest investor in community places. They manage the building of  libraries, parks and greenways and they fund building schools. We are trying to get the county’s attention to get parks while land is still available. We have been a park-poor community for some time. We know this is a quickly developing area, and the best opportunities are the ones now.

Tobe Holmes: We should control our future. Right now University City hasn’t experienced a lot of control, and that is why it looks like it does.

We should get a new zoning ordinance as fast as we can. But I don’t think that’s a magic bullet. It’s a policy tool to implement a vision, and I can’t wait ’til it’s done, but that said, we don’t have a vision, a larger comprehensive plan for our city. For example, we will have by all measures the largest university in the state in the time frame we’re thinking of. We currently have nothing to consider how we connect our largest employment centers – SouthPark, uptown, University City. It’s something we should all be thinking about for economic development.

In University City we should prepare for growth. We have a significant number of large roads that people would consider adequately prepared for growth. But we have to build the neighborhood streets, the connected streets. And we need to think about things we forget about in Charlotte: parks and libraries. We need to invest in places where we know density will happen, where we’re inviting it to happen, where we’re inviting people to live.

Taiwo Jaiyeoba: Two things. One is the policy side and one is the regulatory.

One: Make sure the right policies are in place. We need to take a good look at the University City Master Plan – How does it capture the vision? What is envisioned? We need to take a good look at whatever policy documents are out there with regards to land use, economic impact, etc.

The second part: We’ve also got to be able to allow developers to come in and say, “I’d like to be able to develop this within a quarter mile, a half mile, how much density is allowed?” We need to be able to allow that.

University Way near the new light rail line to the University of Washington in Seattle has busy sidewalks, older buildings and an urban character. Photo: Google Street View 

What lessons can we learn from other cities about development around light rail, especially near college campuses?

John Lewis: To be quite honest, Charlotte is leading in that regard. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year hosting other cities that have looked at how we designed and implemented the vision around the South Corridor [of the Blue Line]. This was not a vision of mobility only. Mobility was part of a greater vision for how this city and region wanted to grow. What this region did well was, No. 1, figure out how it wanted to grow, and then plan for that growth.

Other regions think of transit purely as, “How do we move people?” And after the fact they come back and say, “How can we drive growth?” Charlotte has been a leader in answering the problem of, first, how do we want to grow? I think we are the model.

When you look at the Blue Line, the South Corridor, and look at the attributes and challenges, we were able to attract development. It was not just about the mobility, but how do we create a corridor that has other quality-of-life issues. The Rail Trail was a huge asset.  A lot of the development orients to the Rail Trail, not to the roadway. [For the Blue Line Extension] we’re in the middle of Tryon Street, so it’s not conducive to a Rail Trail environment.

“ ‘Hope’ is not a good strategy.” — Taiwo Jaiyeoba, Charlotte planning director

Taiwo Jaiyeoba: When I worked in Sacramento, I was responsible for putting together a proposal for an extension of a transit corridor. I had to look at all the areas along the corridor. They built the light rail in the ’70s, and they built it on the cheap. One stop was called University Station. There’s no convenient way to walk to the station, or get to the university. At that time nobody was talking about transit-oriented development. So one lesson is that if you’re going to go out of the central business district into the suburbs you’ve got to make sure there is a destination – a place where people gather. At the end of the day cost-effectiveness is measured by the FTA [Federal Transit Administration] based on ridership. If it’s a line that goes nowhere or just goes with the hope something will be built, that’s not a good strategy. “Hope” is not a good strategy. In this case here, the university is a destination.

But a lesson also is to make sure policies support transit and development along the corridor between the central business district and the destination. If someone said to me, “Let’s take a rail line from uptown to Waverly [a development in south Charlotte], the question I would ask is. “What are you connecting in between? And when you get to Waverly is it dense enough?”

The land use policies between origin and destination need to support the transit. There’s also got to be a way to generate some form of revenue – value capture [what does that mean? Click here and here], transit-increment financing – so the whole financing thing is spread along the corridor.

Tobe Holmes: Look at D.C. and Atlanta. If it hasn’t worked in the past, stop doing it. Once you add the seventh or eighth lane and you still have congestion, it’s time to reconsider that model. Both of those cities have unmanageable congestion. And they both have transit, and a lot of those transit station areas are almost unaffordable, because so much growth is collected at those transit areas.

Maybe look at changing how taxation is done. We’re talking value capture these days … built on the realization that a lot of transit station areas are hot property.

What lessons can we learn from Charlotte’s existing light rail, the now 11-year-old Blue Line South Corridor?

John Lewis: We all have lessons to learn, and the question mark we still have is this: There’s going to be fantastic growth. How do we create opportunities for a varied type of development? The city and region are making affordable housing a priority. Could we have utilized this investment to provide opportunities to address that challenge?

We’re looking at strategies. Maybe the city and CATS need to acquire more right-of-way at certain locations, rather than just allowing the private sector and the market to drive it.

“Keeping those old buildings is what allows start-ups, local retailers to happen. They can’t afford to go into glitzy new buildings.” — Deb Ryan, chair, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission

Deb Ryan: I have the same criticism of South End as I potentially do of all the other stations. In South End there is no there there. There is a series of individual buildings that collectively create a sense of place, but there’s no real shared space. Each of those buildings may have its own recreation area, but where’s that plaza where everyone can gather?

Another lesson – we didn’t do a good job on the public realm. The streets are too wide, the street trees are too small, the sidewalks are too skinny. There aren’t enough crosswalks. The whole public realm did not get the sort of attention it needed. Hopefully we’ll do better on the extension.

And there are just a whole lot of growing pains in South End. They allowed podium parking – that’s when two or three levels of parking are on the ground with the rest of the building above, so if you’re walking past you’re walking past cars. They didn’t require people to access their individual units from the street so now you might have a residential unit right on the street, but you can’t get to it from the street. There are lessons small and large to learn from South End.

The other thing in South End that’s important to note is that there hasn’t been enough done to maintain the historical texture in the area. Luckily, we’ve had a lot of breweries move in so they’ve kept the low-scale and industrial feel – the scale and the memory that they create is worth retaining. But we’ve lost of lot of it.

Keeping those old buildings is what allows start-ups, local retailers to happen. They can’t afford to go into glitzy new buildings.

Ron Tober: It would be nice to see a little more variety in terms of the residential structures. In South End it really is a lot of same old, same old – these modern things that have similar colors and similar kinds of architectural treatment. I’d want more variety in terms of the look and feel of the area.

Also, paying attention to how people are going to get across the street, with the volume of traffic.  I don’t know if you’ve been on South Boulevard recently but, holy smokes, it’s terrible. So pay more attention to pedestrian aspects and getting more variety in terms of the character and architectural aspects.

I worry about the stretch of North Tryon. The rail is a barrier for going back and forth across the street.

David Bragdon

David Bragdon: Where you have the proximity to downtown it really did pay off. The land values justify it. The farther out you go, the less it pencils out [for development financing]. I don’t know why. You have to take a long run view. There was turbulence in the housing markets in ’08, ’09, 2010.

Taiwo Jaiyeoba: I think Charlotte has done very well, because of what I’ve seen in other places. Since the 2030 vision plan was put together, the community has steadily tried to implement that vision by building incrementally – the Gold Line streetcar, looking at the Silver Line, looking at the airport line, etc. I would say there are two lessons: Transit has always been viewed as if it’s alone. It was only in the last 10 or 15 years that people started thinking a lot about the land uses along the corridor.

It’s taken about 10 or 15 years to get this new line built –first you draw the line on the plans, but then there’s environmental work, federal approval, etc. What developer is going to wait that long? For a developer time is money. If I’m a developer and I have a piece of property along that corridor, it’s got to yield something for me right away. I’m not going to wait 10 years. So if we start to not only draw the lines on paper, but also start preserving right-of-way along that corridor, one message it tells the developer is that we’re committed to that corridor. So they may be willing to say, “I’ll work with you. I’m willing to invest in some properties along that corridor.”

Right now we just have a vision document. We don’t have any preservation of right-of-way.  That may change in the future. For the Silver Line, I’d say we start to buy right-of-way now. It would also prevent development that is not transit-supportive.

The other point is how do you fund this. We’re going to see less federal involvement in funding. It used to be they’d fund 50 percent. Now you’ve got to depend less on the federal government and look inward and see how we’re going to fund it.  We’ve got to start looking for creative ways to finance. For example, in Sacramento, there was an undeveloped site next to the airport. We started preserving right-of-way next to the airport, along the line proposed between downtown and the airport. Developers saw that right-of-way and committed to paying a portion of the cost of building the transit.

Tobe Holmes

“University City today is an example of what happens when you’re not intentional.” — Tobe Holmes, University City Partners

Tobe Holmes (formerly head of Historic South End for Charlotte Center City Partners): Be ready for growth. Don’t expect things to happen overnight. East-West station still has a giant surface lot next to it. People are banging their fists on the table about University City and how it’s growing lately.  But things don’t happen overnight.

One place we look to – it doesn’t have transit, but it’s fun to talk about Greenville, S.C., and wonder how they are still pulling it off. What they have is a depoliticized development process, where the City Council doesn’t get involved in this stuff. They have a really great design review boards with architects, engineers and design professionals who understand development.

Our City Council can get involved in a lot of rezonings, and a lot are conditional [a negotiated process between developers, staff and elected officials], and it takes a lot of work to get through them. I have to wonder if that’s the best use of time in a city facing as many issues as we are. We have some great people and great leadership, but it’s a matter of having the time to face some important topics. Does that make the development process less democratic? Well, to negotiate every deal individually is not democratic at all.

Darlene Heater: It’s not going to happen here at the pace it did in South End. That had a lot of building stock that was vacant or underutilized. In this community we have a lot of vibrant businesses already here.

Mallard Pointe, a strip shopping center adjacent to the J.W. Clay Station, is an example of an old suburban-style development in the area that caters to drivers rather than pedestrians. Photo: Mary Newsom

Any other thoughts?

Phil Dubois: I would like to say we were terribly visionary about light rail from the economic development perspective. That’s what Dennis Rash [executive in residence at UNC Charlotte and former Bank of America executive, who died in 2017] worked on. But we were singularly focused on the value to the university of having a stop that would connect us to the center city. Absent the light rail line, our center city building would never reach its full potential, especially as a place for undergraduates. Now, something we are just now trying to think through is what are some ways that undergraduate programs can be sensibly located down there? 

Ron Tober: The resident population is going to grow. The university can grow bigger, and can save money on the need for parking for staff, faculty and students. I hope it will raise their profile nationally as a research university. With the hospital there, I think light rail could enhance the attractiveness of a partnership between Atrium Health [formerly Carolinas HealthCare System] and the university to develop a medical school on campus.

“The success on the South Corridor is catalyzing the development along the extension.” — John Lewis, CATS CEO

John Lewis: We’re already reaping the benefits of the great success on the South Corridor. A lot of the development community wanted to wait until the rail was operating until they got into the arena. On the Blue Line Extension it was the exact opposite. The success on the South Corridor is catalyzing the development along the extension. The development community and private market have gotten in very early.

Tobe Holmes: We should look for some patience. Development here is so dynamic right now, things change day to day. Some parcels won’t develop for another 15 years. Some parcels have been sub-optimized; some are built with three-story patio homes that are going to be torn down in 20 years. Some people just want to make a quick buck and move on to the next thing. We’re at all places and levels right now. We’ll see some great projects, and we’ll see some junk. It’s not all going to be great, and it’s not all going to be bad.

To create great places, to create functional places, you have to be intentional. Sustainable and functional places in cities are built intentionality. University City today is an example of what happens when you’re not intentional. Now that we have a billion dollars of investment in that corridor, I hope we will start being more intentional.

UNC Charlotte is one of the great drivers of our economy. So intentionally embrace it. We embrace our airport. Embrace this great university.