What’s on our city’s wish list? See some gifts for Charlotte

Growth & Development
Friday, December 6, 2019

It’s hard shopping for the city that has it all: Gleaming office towers, a new-ish light rail line, a booming population and one of the world’s busiest airports.

But that doesn’t mean Charlotte couldn’t still use a few gifts this holiday season. After all, despite the city’s obvious and explosive growth, there are still plenty of challenges facing Charlotte: Housing that’s too expensive for many, a rising violent crime and murder rate, increasing traffic and low economic mobility for those born into poverty, to name a few. 

So, what would you get Charlotte this year, if you could gift the city anything? I took a (very informal, totally unscientific) poll on Twitter, and received more than 100 replies and suggestions. 

Here’s a look at the five most popular gift categories people named:

Better transportation/transit

The most popular category by far was transportation and transit-related infrastructure. Some of the gift ideas were big: A rail line to Lake Norman, a true 16-county regional transit system, capping or removing I-277 around uptown, building out more greenways, bicycle lanes and sidewalks throughout the whole county. 

Other ideas were more modest, but intriguing: Banning cars from uptown (or a small selection of streets), making South Boulevard and Tryon Street one-way in and out of uptown, “road diets” for busy thoroughfares like Sharon and Providence roads.

With the city’s population increasing by 47 people a day from 2010 to 2018 (and even more throughout the region), as well as a dramatic increase in inter-county commuting, how we get around is an abiding concern in Charlotte. But as a city that came of age in the post-war, autocentric years, change is likely to be gradual — there’s no quick way to get most people out of their cars in a region where more than three out of four people commute alone in their vehicle every day.

How likely is Charlotte to get the gift of more transportation options? It depends on which part you’re talking about, and how soon.

  • The Charlotte Area Transit System is planning for the Silver Line, an east-west light rail line that would stretch from Gaston County, past the airport and uptown, and into Union County — but it will cost billions of dollars, and CATS will need to find funding. The four-mile Gold Line streetcar is set to open in early 2021.
  • The long-planned Red Line commuter rail to Lake Norman has been on hold for years because Norfolk Southern balked at sharing its rails with passenger trains, but CATS is putting express bus service on the new I-77 toll lanes. 
  • More bicycle lanes, sidewalks and better pedestrian facilities are envisioned as Charlotte updates its development ordinance and expands its “streets map,” but many will be built only as adjacent land is developed. 
  • Meanwhile, City Council has kicked around the idea of creating a few blocks of car-free street somewhere in or around uptown — perhaps on busy Camden Road in uptown, or oft-clogged Tryon Street near the intersection with Trade Street. 
  • And the Centralina Council of Governments is leading the development of the first regional transit vision, an effort to plan and coordinate for cross-county transit systems.

In short: More transportation options are coming, but it’s likely to be many years before you can use most of them. 

Affordable housing

Another popular item people want to gift Charlotte is more affordable housing. With rents and home prices rapidly outstripping inflation and wage growth, more people are finding it harder to afford a place to live. Forty-four percent of rental households in Mecklenburg County are “cost-burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. 

How likely is Charlotte to get this gift? There’s been far more attention and money spent on affordable housing in recent years. The city increased its biannual Housing Trust Fund bonds to $50 million (up from $15 million), Foundation for the Carolinas led the effort to raise another $53 million in private donations for affordable housing developments, and Mecklenburg County is spending $15 million on low-income rental subsidies for the first time. 

But the need remains huge. There’s a gap of more than 27,000 units affordable to people making 30 percent or less than the area’s median income ($16,600 for a single person, or $25,750 for a family of four), and building enough housing for all those people would cost billions of dollars. Meanwhile, development pressure continues on older, cheaper apartments and houses, many of which are being torn down or renovated and put back on the market at higher prices. 

An iconic landmark

Charlotte is an old city, but its rapid growth and large transplant population means the city still lacks a sense of identity. Driven by new arrivals and annexation, Charlotte’s population and land area have both roughly quadrupled over the past 50 years, contributing to the sense of newness. 

That might be why some kind of city-defining landmark — an iconic piece of art, a singular civic gathering place, a massive new sign — was frequently mentioned on the city’s wishlist. 

What are the odds of getting a real Charlotte landmark? Well, the idea isn’t new. 

“The great cities of the world have an easily recognizable structure—a building, bridge, gateway or other prominent architectural feature—that is synonymous with that place,” Charlotte Center City Partners’ 2020 vision plan noted more than a decade ago. “Center City could position itself as a destination nationally and internationally with the development of such  a structure.” 

[Read more: Charlotte is planning a new vision for center city. How’d we do on the last one?]

While we don’t have the Charlotte Space Needle or Charlotte Arch yet, more distinctive architecture is on the way. The new Main Library building, expected to start construction 2021, will feature a “world-class” design. And the new pedestrian bridge over I-277, connecting the Rail Trail to uptown, is also expected to feature standout architecture, as is the Charlotte Gateway Station for Amtrak and light rail trains. 

More and bigger parks

Historically, national rankings of parks and open space have not been kind to Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. The county is ranked near the bottom for access to and per-resident spending. It’s clear from the responses that there is a hunger for more park space across the city. 

So how likely are we to see more parks? The Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation department is working on a new master plan for the county’s park system, which should be complete in the next year or so. And the county has boosted spending on parks, though not as much as some would like. 

There’s an ambitious proposal from local backers for “Queens Park,” a 220-acre site that’s currently a rail yard north of uptown, bounded by North Tryon, 16th and Brevard streets, as well as Matheson Avenue. But the site is owned by Norfolk Southern, which is generally reluctant to give up or sell real estate, so without their cooperation (and a lot of money), that plan won’t materialize. 

A Wegman’s or a Wawa?

Wegman’s, Wawa, Tim Horton: A lot of people born elsewhere who now live in Charlotte have a craving for their favorite hometown chains. 

What are the chances of landing any of these? Depends on the company. Charlotte’s grocery seen has become more and more crowded with new arrivals in recent years. Whole Foods drew a lot of buzz when it opened its first Charlotte store in 2012. Publix set Floridians to rejoicing when it started pushing into Charlotte in 2014. Low-cost grocer Lidl just opened its first Charlotte store. And Wegman’s is creeping closer, with the opening this year of a store in Raleigh that drew 3,000 fans willing to wait in line. 

Tim Horton’s has stores in the mid-Atlantic, Northeast and Midwest, as well as a single location in Norfolk, Va. Wawa also has stores in Virginia, mostly clustered around Richmond. 

But this holiday season, I think Roasty Mike speaks for us all: