The long, long path for one Charlotte greenway

Heavy equipment at construction site for Toby Creek Greenway Phase 2. Photo: Mary Newsom

Abraham Lincoln quipped “I am a slow walker, but I never walk back.”  In Charlotte, after a slow, 18-year walk, residents of the Autumnwood neighborhood are being rewarded for never turning back: The development of Toby Creek Greenway phase 2 is finally underway.

It may not provide much solace to those who have been waiting for the greenway’s completion, but delays in greenway construction aren’t new to Mecklenburg County, or to greenway construction nationally. As greenways began to grow in popularity, many early planners had to deal with speculation that crime and drug use would increase along the greenways. Over time, these concerns have proven unfounded. In fact, according to Owen Furuseth, the associate provost for metropolitan studies and extended academic programs at UNC Charlotte who has researched land preservation planning, “property values actually went up” for properties along greenways.

Map of current and planned greenways. Click image for larger view. Existing greenways are dark green, proposed ones are light green and proposed overland connectors are brown. Image: Mecklenburg County

As concerns about greenways faded, construction grew. Mecklenburg County is now home to about 40 miles of greenways, more than half of which opened in the last decade.

One source of the delay for the Toby Creek greenway dates to 1992. That’s when the park and recreation departments of Mecklenburg County and City of Charlotte merged, putting the county in charge of operating and maintaining recreational services for the city and county. In a growing county now home to more than 1 million people, the department found itself pulled in numerous directions from residents’ differing interests. With only so much money to go around for the myriad of projects residents want, should it be spent for building and maintaining urban parks? Building new soccer and baseball fields? Furuseth noted that due to many organized, vocal proponents of those kinds of projects, greenways projects can sometimes be given lower priority.

The champions of the Toby Creek greenway know this firsthand. The story of the Toby Creek greenway begins in 1998, when the schematics for the project were first drawn up. Planners envisioned a greenway that would stretch from Mallard Creek, through UNC Charlotte, heading southwest to Autumnwood, a community of 219 homes about a mile and a half southwest of UNC Charlotte. The 1-mile portion of the greenway between University City Boulevard and Autumnwood neighborhood, later referred to as “phase 2,” seemed to be on track for development when it was granted $375,000 in construction money from a bond referendum in 1999.

However, “This $375,000 showed up as construction money, but the property had not been lined up yet, nor had design started,” said Autumnwood Community Association President John Neilson. The Asset and Facility Management department of Mecklenburg County manages land acquisition, but it was unable to set aside money to acquire the necessary land until 2004, when an additional $1 million was set aside for Toby Creek in a bond referendum

The county began to purchase several small pieces of land, one 100-square-foot piece at a time, between 2004 and 2007. Neilson said he went door to door talking to property owners, some of whom had concerns, about how the greenway would help the neighborhood and urging them to consider selling the parcels needed for the greenway. The final 7-acre parcel in Autumnwood was purchased for $69,000 in 2008. By the end of 2008, the county owned all land necessary to build the second phase of the greenway.

But the Great Recession in 2008 started yet another round of obstacles, as the county put many projects on hold. Because Mecklenburg County received federal stimulus money for “shovel-ready” projects, it built the first portion of the Toby Creek Greenway, from Mallard Creek through the UNC Charlotte campus, which by then had been designed, unlike the second phase. Neilson’s frustration grew with the delays. “We didn't expect Toby 2 to be included in Toby 1, but anticipated that it would soon follow, which didn't happen,” he said.

The first phase of the Toby Creek Greenway, finished in 2013, runs through the UNC Charlotte campus. Photo: Nancy Pierce

The first phase of the Toby Creek Greenway was completed in 2013, but Neilson and others continued to pursue phase 2. Eventually, in late 2015, funding arrived to complete it; the Mecklenburg County commissioners announced a total of $3.3 million would be available for the project.

With the land purchased and construction funding set, Toby Creek Greenway, originally designed 18 years ago, would finally be completed. Furuseth, who lives in Autumnwood and has kept up with the greenway’s progress or lack thereof, notes that the saga illustrates that the key to success for many greenway projects is the leadership and persistence of local community members. “Without a John [Neilson],” Furuseth said, “it wouldn’t get done.”

The already-built portion of Toby Creek Greenway is 1.6 miles long and extends south from Mallard Creek through the UNC Charlotte campus, ending at University City Boulevard near the East W.T. Harris interchange.

Phase 2 will start at University City Boulevard and add an additional mile to the greenway. The greenway will snake from University City Boulevard under Harris Boulevard, where a connection to the Commons at Chancellor Park shopping center will be added. This will provide bicycle and foot access to the area’s shopping and restaurants, which today are accessible almost exclusively by auto.

The newest phase of the Toby Creek Greenway will serve an area built when pedestrians were barely an afterthought. Photo: Mary Newsom

The greenway will then run south, adjacent to Toby Creek, until it reaches the Autumnwood neighborhood. The trail will end on Rockland Drive between Rocky River Road and Blue Rock Drive. That portion of the project will begin construction around December and is expected to be completed in summer 2017. At that point, the Toby Creek Greenway, first designed in 1999, will finally be completed.

Eventually, the Toby Creek Greenway will be part of a larger Cross-Charlotte Trail. That 26 mile trail will run from Pineville, near the South Carolina border, northeast to the Cabarrus County line. Planning is underway for the $35 million project, with both city and county governments helping to build it.

The Cross-Charlotte Trail is just part of an even more ambitious goal established by the county: a 203-mile continuous greenway system connecting towns as far north as Davidson, Cornelius and Huntersville south through Charlotte and into Pineville, Matthews and Mint Hill. 

Where do the county’s greenways go from here?  Furuseth proposed one way to lessen the burden on park planners who must balance greenway needs against the needs for sports sites such as ballfields. He thinks a system similar to Raleigh’s may work well in Charlotte. There, the funding stream for the greenway system is separate from the larger park and recreation budget. Because it would be easier to project available greenway funds, that could streamline planning for future greenways, and help ensure that a long-term greenway plan can be followed in a predictable way.

To follow updates on Toby Creek and other greenway projects in Mecklenburg County, check the greenways page on the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation website.

Jeremy Christ is a student in UNC Charlotte's Gerald G. Fox Master of Public Administration Program. He has worked at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute during the spring semester and first summer session of 2016.