New transit line will bring riders – and much more

Development along North Tryon Street, as the Blue Line Extension opens, shows new and old next to each other. The new University City Boulevard light rail station, upper left, and parking deck sit next to a long-standing Waffle House. Photo: UNC Charlotte Urban Institute 

It’s not uncommon for visitors to the 1,000-acre UNC Charlotte campus – if they haven’t seen it for years – to gasp at the changes.

What 30 years ago was a campus of 12,000 students is now a 29,000-student research university likely to grow to 35,000 students by 2025. Low-scale buildings from the 1960s and ’70s are joined by vast, red-brick edifices, commodious lawns, brick sidewalks and multistory parking garages. Jaw-dropping as those changes may seem, though, the arrival on campus this week of the Blue Line Extension light rail may well be bigger. Chancellor Phil Dubois predicts it will be the most transformational event in the university’s history.

Related: What changes should we expect? What the experts say. 

BY THE NUMBERS

$1.2 billion – Cost of Blue Line Extension

9.3 – Length of Blue Line Extension, in miles

11 – New stations

3 – New parking decks (J.W. Clay Blvd.Station, University City Blvd. Station, Sugar Creek Road Station)

1 – New park and ride surface lot (Old Concord Road)

3,100 – New parking spots

Yet even bigger changes may be coming to the larger part of Charlotte that surrounds the campus: the University City area of northeast Charlotte. Today University City – a wedge broadly defined as running from Northlake Mall on the west to the Cabarrus County line on the east and north, and south to Sugar Creek Road and the Derita neighborhood – holds about 170,000 residents and 80,000 workers. After all, since Charlotte’s first light rail line opened in 2007 running south from uptown, the South Corridor has seen an estimated $2.1 billion worth of development built or planned, and some areas seem to change by the week. What should University City look forward to?

“We should prepare for growth,” says Tobe Holmes, planning and development director for University City Partners, the nonprofit booster group in the area. Like many others, Holmes and UCP Executive Director Darlene Heater predict huge changes over time.

Interviews with almost a dozen local and national transit and planning experts describe how the areas near the transit stations could change, in some cases dramatically and for the better. “The light rail line is a chance to reinvent the area around it,” says David Bragdon, executive director of the nonprofit, Washington-based Transit Center, which studies and advocates for transit in U.S. cities.Some even predict office towers as high as 20 stories at the stations nearest UNC Charlotte.

Can the city, through its plans and development regulations, create a best-case scenario and avoid some of the growth-related problems found in elsewhere in Charlotte, such as the traffic-snarled SouthPark mall area? And how will the university change, and be changed by, the rail line as well as the growth just beyond its borders?

HOW UNC CHARLOTTE WILL CHANGE

Transportation habits may be the most obvious of the possible changes on campus. But there will be others, as well.

Transportation: Over time, university officials hope, university students, employees and visitors will drive less and walk, bike and use transit more. That would diminish today’s ever-growing need for parking decks and lots, expensive to build and to use. The university already runs three campus-area shuttle bus lines, and in recent years has welcomed the car-sharing service Zipcar and started a bike-share program. An all-transit pass is now embedded in student ID cards, paid through student fees. Employees have an option to buy the pass for $75 a year. To compare, a yearly parking fee can range from $115 for motorcycles to $600.

Students’ daily lives: “For students I think it’s going to be major,” says senior Tracey Allsbrook, president of the Student Government Association. The campus is 10 miles from uptown Charlotte, and the drive can be challenging.

WHY DO THEY KEEP SAYING ‘WALKABLE’?

Planners say “walkable” when they want to describe an area that people like to walk in. “Walkable” means more than having sidewalks, though that is important. It means:

HAVING SOMEWHERE TO WALK TO – destinations like stores or workplaces within easy walking distance.

SAFE – plenty of crosswalks, pedestrian lights, good lighting at night, and plenty of activities to keep criminals at bay.

INTERESTING – Stores, restaurants, people on front porches set close to sidewalks. Walking past a long expanse of asphalt parking is not interesting. Walking past blank walls is not interesting. Short blocks create more corners and options, more interesting than long blocks.

WHY DOES ‘WALKABLE’ MATTER?

Transit and planning experts have noticed that people are more likely to use transit if they can easily walk to stations and, when they arrive, easily walk to their destinations.

Being able to walk or bike to transit can help housing affordability. U.S. households typically spend about a fifth of income on transportation. On average it’s the second-highest household expense behind housing. Forgoing an auto means more money for needs like housing.

Dubois believes light rail brings new opportunities to students. They can more easily live farther from the campus and more easily get from campus to the center city for internships, jobs and entertainment. The university’s Center City Campus, opened in 2011, will be more readily available to more students, he says.

“You can’t expect an undergraduate – 75 percent of whom are on financial aid – to drive a car downtown, find parking, pay for it, to go to class,” he said during a March 6 radio interview on WFAE. “Now, that trip will be 22 minutes, with no need to find parking.”

Further, he said in an interview with PlanCharlotte.org, officials are now discussing how they might locate some undergraduate programs at the Center City Campus, something previously impractical.

Allsbrook echoes Dubois’ enthusiasm: “It’s going to be an opportunity to get out more, not have to worry about driving. And then go explore the rest of Charlotte.” It will help, she says, with business opportunities, internships and jobs as well as making off-campus entertainment more accessible.

UNC Charlotte growth capacity: Dubois says the main campus space and infrastructure can ultimately support an estimated 40,000 students. Light rail can make it easier to use off-campus facilities, such as the Center City campus: “It is not fanciful to imagine an institution of 60,000 students,” he wrote in a  column in the Charlotte Observer.

HOW UNIVERSITY CITY WILL CHANGE

Even before opening, the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) $1.2 billion Blue Line Extension was shaping development. Last month, the Charlotte Observer reported that its review of development plans found more than 5,000 apartments recently built, under construction or planned along the new light rail line.

A century-old mill building at Parkwood and Brevard Street in the Optimist Park neighborhood is being renovated into a food hall-brewery-office complex. The NoDa district – once a down-at-the-heels mill-village area that 20 years ago drew avant-garde artists, bars and restaurants – is seeing once-affordable homes rise in value as apartments go up beside the rail line. Farther north, on North Tryon Street between the Tom Hunter and University City Boulevard stations, the Blu at Northline development has opened. Among its 377 units, it offers two-bedroom apartments for $1,375 to $1,625. (Median gross rent in the surrounding neighborhood, according to the Charlotte/Mecklenburg Quality of Life Explorer, is $753.)

See map of Blue Line Extension stations

A few blocks north, on an undeveloped field, Oxford Properties is building 338 apartments at the University City Boulevard Station.

Construction by Oxford Properties of apartments on North Tryon Street near Rocky River Road. Photo: Nancy Pierce 

But the station areas closest to UNC Charlotte aren’t like that empty field or the vacant or under-used old industrial buildings that were developed in South End. The areas around the J.W. Clay and McCullough stations developed since the 1980s and are car-dependent suburbia: few sidewalks; offices, stores and homes disconnected from each other; widely separated and generally low-rise buildings surrounded by surface parking lots. That’s not the walkable form of development that planners say best supports transit ridership.

Instead, say planning and transit experts, successful transit station areas have plenty of homes mixed with offices and stores, so residents can walk easily to the transit, reducing the need to drive or even own a car. “Walkable” means more than having sidewalks. It means having destinations like stores or workplaces within easy walking distance, and making those walks safe and interesting so people choose to walk. Walking past a long expanse of asphalt parking is not interesting. Fighting speeding traffic to cross a multilane highway without a traffic signal is not safe.

The North Tryon Street near the University City Boulevard light rail station is seeing hundreds of new apartments going up, like Blu at Northline. How will the development change the area near UNC Charlotte? Photo: Nancy Pierce

That’s why Charlotte planners hope property owners will rezone their land to Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) districts – which allow mixed uses (homes, stores, offices, etc.) in one building, taller buildings and more residences per acre and apply stricter design standards – before developing. Meanwhile, though, much of the property near the Blue Line Extension in University City carries zoning dating to the car-focused suburban styles of the 1980s. Some sites have recently redeveloped in non-transit-friendly ways, including a gas-station-convenience store at the Old Concord Road station and another across the street from Blu at Northline. In 2013, Charlotte City Council rezoned land within a quarter mile of the University City Boulevard Station to allow a large auto sales lot.

“We need to be aspirational,” says Deb Ryan, an associate professor at the UNC Charlotte College of Arts + Architecture who chairs the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission. The station areas near the university have the potential to be wonderful places in the future, she says. “Are we asking the right questions today?”

She points to the car sales lot near the University City Boulevard station: “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.”

Next to the J.W. Clay Station, a station area planners hope can become the walkable "downtown" for University City, sits Mallard Pointe shopping center, built with 1995-vintage zoning. Generally, planners say, large surface parking lots make it harder to entice people to walk, not drive. Photo: Mary Newsom 

Ed McKinney, an assistant planning director who until January was Charlotte’s  interim director, says in the past the city opted not to rezone properties along the South Corridor to TOD unless developers requested a rezoning. And many did. With the Blue Line Extension, he says, “It may be the time for us as a community to take that next step and be more proactive in rezoning around our stations.”

Some expect University City to see more intense development than South End, at least near the station areas. “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,” predicts Ron Tober, who led CATS 1999-2007 and is now a national transit consultant. He and others point to the draw of an almost 30,000-student university, to the Atrium Health University Hospital, and to University Research Park nearby.

Charlotte Planning Director Taiwo Jaiyeoba, who started that job in January, envisions 10-story or higher buildings at stations closest to the university, possibly modeled on major, transit-oriented developments such as Mockingbird Station in Dallas.

Nevertheless, cautions Holmes of University City Partners, “Don’t expect for things to happen overnight.”

OTHER U.S. MODELS FOR UNIVERSITY CITY AND TRANSIT?

Few, if any, models exist in the U.S. for developing or redeveloping areas where a new light rail line connects a large, suburban university campus to a fairly distant downtown. Transit experts suggest Salt Lake City is the closest model. Its light rail line opened in 2001 connecting downtown to the University of Utah, now 33,000 students, some 3 miles east.

Stephen Goldsmith, an associate professor of city and regional planning at the University of Utah, was Salt Lake City planning director when the light rail opened. It opened on time and on budget, he notes, but sees it as a bit of a lost opportunity, at least in terms of creating attractive, transit-oriented areas along the line.

Development intensity is moving out from downtown, he says, with thousands of residential units being built. But some things could have been done better,  he says. “There was an opportunity to create a street you just want to walk on … to not create those pedestrian experiences is a missed opportunity.”

Salt Lake City opened a light rail line to the University of Utah in 2001. This station, 900 East, is just outside the university campus. Photo: Google Maps Street View

Salt Lake City’s historic street grid imposed large, 10-acre blocks. (To compare, an uptown Charlotte block is less than 4 acres.) That creates huge property parcels that invite massive-scale projects, Goldsmith says. It also puts street crossings far apart, hurting access to transit stations. But no midblock walkways were built, he says, because the Utah Department of Transportation, valuing the speed of motorists over the safety and comfort of pedestrians, feared  midblock crossings might slow traffic. “That was the intention!” he says.

What would have helped, he says, was mixed-use zoning that would animate the street and sidewalks. Somehow, he says, the zoning ended up with no requirement for main-floor commercial space. That’s led to, as he puts it, “hundreds of feet after hundreds of feet of dead space.”

CHARLOTTE’S TRANSIT-ORIENTED ZONING

When the Blue Line South Corridor opened in 2007, Charlotte was ready with a transit-oriented zoning category (TOD), although while it allows ground-floor commercial uses below offices or residences, it doesn’t require that. Today, with a decade of development under their belts, city planners think TOD zoning requirements could improve and are working on revisions. One criticism, for instance, is that the incentive for including affordable housing hasn’t been used. Another is that you can still walk down the sidewalk and see, not shops or steps leading up to stoops and doorways, but a metal grille with cars parked behind – “cars behind bars.”

“We’re thinking about it differently,” says city planner Monica Carney Holmes, who is spearheading a redrafting of TOD zoning categories. The idea is to have several TOD categories that apply to different types of areas. The first draft of the first proposed new TOD zoning was released in February.

THE UNIVERSITY’S ROLE – THE STORY OF UNIVERSITY PLACE

A quarter-century ago, UNC Charlotte played a definitive role in creating University Place, the lake-centered development at North Tryon Street and W.T. Harris Boulevard, right across the street from today’s new J.W. Clay Station.

It was a different era.  In the early 1980s, the city and county wanted to spur growth in areas other than southeast Charlotte. But residential and commercial developers wouldn’t commit to building in an area that was, essentially, farmland and woods. University Research Park opened in 1968 but was across Interstate 85. Ambitious city-county plans envisioned a hospital, a “town center” and growing developments in the area.

By the late 1970s the city built a sewage treatment plant to serve northeast Mecklenburg. (“Growth follows the pipe,” is a planning truism.) University officials including the late Chancellor E.K. Fretwell wanted to help shape the area by creating an attractive place near campus, both as an amenity and to jump-start development in the area.

Ken Sanford’s Charlotte and UNC Charlotte: Growing Up Together describes how the university made University Place come to life. Vice Chancellor Doug Orr and the late Jim Clay, then director of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, were deeply involved. They drew up plans and visited “new towns” in the U.S. and in Europe. They decided water was key and used Las Ramblas in Barcelona as inspiration for what became a pedestrian boardwalk around a lake. They planned for shops, offices, residences and a hotel with conference space. The university and the UNC Charlotte Foundation engineered a land swap to sell university-owned land to a chosen developer.  Jim Clay even took a leave of absence to work for Carley Capital, the developer of University Place.

The development came to life. The boardwalk remains a popular amenity, as are nearby restaurants such as Boardwalk Billy’s.

University Place is a 1980s development with stores, offices, a hotel and housing, built with major input from UNC Charlotte. University Place retains the popular lake and boardwalk, but it's not built in the walkable form that planners today prefer. Photo: UNC Charlotte Urban Institute  

But eventually Carley went bankrupt, and the development changed course. The area on the far side of the lake drew big-box developments and today struggles to keep tenants.

Chancellor Dubois turns away any idea that UNC Charlotte might play a similar, major development role as in the 1980s. Land in the area, now developed, is far more expensive today, and even if money wasn’t a problem, to dive into the role of developer would be “mission creep” for the university, he says.

UNC Charlotte is playing a role nevertheless. It’s building a 226-room Marriott hotel and conference center across Tryon Street from the J.W. Clay Station. And it’s doubtful the Blue Line Extension would even exist without Dubois’ enthusiasm to bring the rail line onto campus and the university’s donation of easements worth $5 million to $6 million.

COOPERATION FOR THE FUTURE

Planners point to the potential for town-gown collaborations, especially at the J.W. Clay Station, right across the street from a major entrance to campus and named for that 1980s university-development activist Jim Clay.

Tobe Holmes of University City Partners admires the way the University of South Carolina in downtown Columbia blends easily into the city. “Downtown is kind of an extension of campus,” he says. “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.”

Deb Ryan, the planning commission chair and UNC Charlotte urban design professor, envisions a hearty relationship between university planning and the planning of the surrounding areas. “Rather than thinking about the university doing their thing, and the community on the other side of the highway doing their thing,” she says, “we can benefit most by expecting a strong town-gown relationship.”

Both the university and the area around it will benefit from improvements, says Darlene Heater of University City Partners. “We should all care about the community around the university and how it develops,” she says. “The way the community develops around the university impacts the university’s ability to recruit students and faculty. It’s part of the attraction.”

MAP SHOWS NEW LYNX BLUE LINE STATIONS

Map courtesy City of Charlotte shows all the stations along the Blue Line Extension. Yellow dots indicate CATS parking lots or decks available.