Development Reaches Critical Crossroad

Written by Tom Low

What makes a good city? How well is Charlotte handling today’s challenges of growth? Every month for the last 10 years at Levine Museum of the New South, the Civic By Design Forum gathers citizens, planners, architects and interested folks to talk. It’s free and open to the public — a place in this fast-growing metropolis where cross-discipline community conversations regularly take place. Our 10th anniversary is an appropriate time to look back — and ahead.

Here are some opportunities for making Charlotte better:

  • Our center city has its swagger back. In two to three years, we will have a substantially new city core — one we all hope we can enjoy and be proud to showcase as equal to or better than competing cities. But too much of the street level is being built with blank “decorative” walls devoid of human activity. And too many buildings are excessively large with monotonous egg-crate-on-end facades that obscure daylight. Other popular cities don’t tolerate blandness and zombie streetscapes. We need better civic design for our public realm if we expect to have a competitive, beautiful city with an active urban street life in the near future.
  • The University Area is booming, and this time leaders hope to get out in front of the development by using time-tested urban design rules for increasing the area’s A+ urbanism. Block structure is not something you hear about a lot in Charlotte’s development community, but it’s one of the most important rules for great urbanism and successful retail. We need better walkable site design to retrofit passé suburban apartment complexes, office parks, strip centers and subdivisions with better community connections — especially by reintroducing block-structure and greenway/blueway connections.
  • Homeless housing is getting more support and funding from leaders. We need to do this well, or we will flop as seen in previous approaches. Building projects at a scale for the convenience of management should not be the priority. To work and enhance surrounding real estate value, homeless housing needs to be better designed and developed with varying-scale, fine-grained and blended density rather than large-scale, one-size facilities.
  • Our older walkable neighborhoods are flourishing. But there are growing concerns about the proliferation of “snout houses” creeping in and eroding livability and values. These are houses with a protruding garage that takes up most of the street frontage, squeezing out front yards and making it hard to find the front door. We lack ways to prevent this anti-neighbor, auto-oriented trend. Examples can be seen in Cherry, Wilmore, Third Ward, Chantilly and even Myers Park. And in the near future it may be much more difficult to regulate everywhere because our state legislature, lobbied by homebuilders, is proposing to eliminate our community’s ability to apply design guidelines. Let’s inspire and put more pressure on local builders, developers and house designers to create better, neighbor-friendly homes. And we need to ask our leaders to not support the flawed “snout house” bill.
  • New data on what urban planner Jane Jacobs championed over a half century ago indicates older, small-scale urban development and thoughtful, context-sensitive design enhances urban vitality and can boost economic value. Sadly, we knocked down almost all the historic buildings in our center city. One wishes our local leaders had had this data long before now. But the new data maps created by the National Trust for Historic Preservation GreenLab are showing incredible promise for center city-surrounding walkable neighborhoods that share Jacobs’ older-smaller-better attributes.
  • We can change the mindset among our developers by encouraging them to embrace project designs that consider forward-thinking standards about the urban environment. Form-making design standards and expertise capable of producing a lively public realm are needed now. Let’s not procrastinate until this generation’s boom cycle is over and we look back and realize we missed a great opportunity.

Together we are finding ways to make Charlotte better, so I invite you join the conversation at Civic By Design.