Tag Archives: streetscape

Six ways to turn SouthPark into a great urban neighborhood

Density does not equate to good urbanism. Density is a necessary ingredient, but raw density of jobs, housing, or retail does not create a great street much less a great place. Downtown Atlanta is a classic example where tall towers empty out at 5 pm to create an employment ghetto in the evening, devoid of any street life (unlike neighboring Midtown) and hostile to pedestrian activity.

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Image from downtown Atlanta where the tree pits get more respect than pedestrians, but only marginally so

How hostile? When a friend and I attended a conference there, the topic of which was ironically “walkable urbanism,” he was struck by a car crossing the street to the conference hotel. Thankfully, he rolled over the hood and was uninjured, but the incident is probably replicated too often to not be alarmed.

The same is true of the SouthPark area in Charlotte. Originally a suburban mall on the edge of the city, it has grown to become one of the largest shopping and employment centers in the state. And lately, the level of housing within “walking distance” is quite staggering. (My reason for putting the term “walking distance” in quotes will become clear in a moment.) Hundreds of apartments are rising up or are in the planning stages. New speculative office buildings are on the rise once again after a long hiatus since the recession and it seems the retailers, particularly those at the high end, are falling over themselves to find a place nearby.

Forty years ago, the area was a classic suburban mall district with buildings hardly eclipsing two stories. Today, few new structures are less than five stories with a number of eight to twelve story buildings now rising above the mature willow oak canopy. And, it seems that mixed-use buildings with housing or offices over ground-level retail are becoming more common. Yet, with each new project, all often higher in design quality than the previous, why does each rezoning discussion seem to devolve into a simplistic argument over the management of cars, both parked and moving (Charlotte Observer & Charlotte Business Journal)? And why does being a pedestrian along the main streets of Fairview Road and Sharon Road feel as hostile as in downtown Atlanta?

Perhaps it’s because there is a missing ingredient in the stone soup of great urbanism. The presence of mixed-use buildings and density do not equate to a vibrant, walkable environment that encourages people to shed their cars. As an individual project, they certainly deserve points for advancing the cause. But the recently completed Villages at SouthPark, Piedmont Row, and even the older Phillips Place seem more like cul-de-sacs than they feel like main streets. They are visually and often physically disconnected from the larger street network, create enclaves of dense development, and fail to produce a great street for the community.

The destination cul-de-sacs around SouthPark Mall in Charlotte
The destination cul-de-sacs around SouthPark Mall in Charlotte

In short, each project seems to fail to contribute to the larger public realm. Each project is constructed in isolation of each other. And, worst of all, the level of auto dependency is reinforced with the construction of each new parking deck providing free parking at a rate far exceeding what is necessary if planned in a more comprehensive manner.

This is further aggravated by the fact that most (but not all) smaller infill projects fail to add any value to the street edge. The blank walls of each CVS, Walgreens, and office building conspire with their larger neighbors to destroy all pedestrian activity.

The real culprit is the absence of a detailed urban design plan—and a zoning code to require the plan to be carried out. Those could knit each project together with a public realm that balances the needs of auto traffic with pedestrians, bicyclists and transit. Instead, individual projects are weighed on their individual merits and impacts, not on how they contribute to the greater whole. The Lorax asked, “who will speak for the trees?” But, when creating great places, we have to ask “who will speak for the people?”

Many folks will throw up their hands and say that the traffic volumes are too high along Fairview Road and Sharon Road to make a great street. That is because they are still thinking of this area as an auto-dependent suburban mall and not as a downtown.

SouthPark-Existing network
Current network around SouthPark Mall

Cities have a dense street network and complex variety of transportation modes that provide choices on how you both arrive and move throughout their area.

Street network for Center City Charlotte
Street network for Center City Charlotte at the same scale as the image of SouthPark above

In the suburbs, everything is predicated on one mode of arrival – the car – and the shortest distance to the front door. In cities, the value lies in the aggregation of activities, parking is considered a shared utility, public space is given center stage, and each addition contributes to increasing value.

In the suburbs, the value rests solely in the final destination. Everything else is quantified as a nuisance – pavement, traffic, loss of trees, etc.

It’s not too late for these suburban teenagers to grow into urban adults. There are still large swaths of frontage along the major roads that can be claimed in the name of great urbanism. SouthPark Mall can continue to urbanize and finally have a front door towards the community and not just into a parking lot. Here are seven key things that the SouthPark area, and places like it around the country, needs to start doing immediately:

  1. Update the SouthPark area plan. Last adopted in 2000, is has nuggets of great wisdom, but they’re buried amongst the unnecessary data. Ground floor design and mobility at the human scale are the most important elements. And most of all, stop thinking about this area as a suburban mall and plan for it to be a city. See the SouthPark Small Area Plan, adopted in 2000.
  2. Improve the grid, project by project, block by block. There have been some glimmers of hope, but each project still seems much too introverted and lacks a true urban network.
  3. Implement a Code that ensures a more predictable urban environment. Relying on a 15 year old plan and a cumbersome rezoning process will never produce an optimized outcome, nor will rezoning it ad hoc.
  4. Convert Fairview Road and Sharon Road to urban streets. Urban Streets carry high volumes but also balance their use by cars, pedestrians, cyclists, and transit. These streets are important to the overall city network but for one mile can they be so much more?
  5. Begin planning urban transit service. Begin building frequent, predictable service with rubber-tired trolleys to circulate around the area and plan for premium, fixed guideway services in the future.
  6. Manage the District, not individual projects. Like Center City, South End, and other mixed-use districts around the country, the collective assets and resources, both current and planned, need to be collectively managed to maximize their efficiency and reduce the impacts of incrementalism.
  7. Quit arguing about traffic. Congestion will never be solved. At this stage, urban design, walkability, and planning for premium transit are much more critical to the conversation.
Fairview Rd today
Fairview Road in front of SouthPark Mall today
Fairview Road with intentional urban design and planned mobility
Fairview Road with intentional urban design and planned mobility (Image by Bella Tang/Stantec)

Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago is considered one of the greatest streets in the country and it carries about the same traffic volume as Fairview Road. What if blocks were created instead of parking fields? What if the streetscape was generous enough to invite pedestrian activity (i.e., walking and outdoor seating) like its bigger cousin in downtown Charlotte – Tryon Street? What if transit was incorporated through the corridor to make it truly accessible from corner to corner and then connected it to the greater region? In 50 years, would Fairview Road in Charlotte be counted among the greatest streets of the country?

Or, will it be measured only by the futile exercise of counting cars?

The Golden Triangle of Great Urbanism

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If there is one important technique to understand when it comes to great urbanism, it’s the golden triangle. This condition, when properly configured, cuts across all cultures and architectural styles. It’s easy to define, simple to construct, and operationally intuitive. Yet, why does this basic principle get violated time and time again?

It starts with a patent misunderstanding of what pre-conditions walkable urbanism. Most people assume that a great street must be constructed using gold plated design – all brick sidewalks, antique-finished street lights, glossy wayfinding, and these days, integrated bio-retention areas. Cities and business districts spend millions of dollars on such improvements in the hopes of attracting investment back to an area. And yet, far too often, the public investment is too one-sided – too much public investment with little to no commitment from the private sector. Quid pro quo is critical to revitalizing business districts and getting it right from the beginning is equally important in new village centers.

The golden triangle is the intersection of the public and private realms – where buildings meet their fronting streets, and where pedestrians, cyclists, and cars (usually parked) interface. This should not be confused with the sight distance triangle mandated by highway departments to be-rid all thoroughfares of life-giving activity. Very simply, the triangles’ height consists of the the fronting building facade – typically the first story and a half – and its integral use(s). The base ties together the public realm including the width of the sidewalk, pedestrian amenities such as seating and streetscaping, bicycle amenities such as bike parking and travel ways, and on-street parking.

  • On Street Parking: I can’t emphasize enough how important on-street parking is to a walkable, urban environment. Without it, some perception of convenience is lost and perception of safety as a pedestrian moving along a corridor with moving cars within a few feet is not an optimal arrangement.
  • Sidewalks: As the picture from Ann Arbor, Michigan shows, sidewalks don’t have to be all brick. Simple concrete will do just fine as long as you cover them with activity – moveable chairs and tables, pedestrian signage, outdoor displays, landscaping, and of course, people, lots and lots of people. They need to be wide enough to accommodate a number of activities but no so wide that they look windswept without it.
  • Ground Floor Transparency: Windows and doors are essential to encouraging pedestrians along down the street. As a species, we become bored too quickly on our journeys and will find other routes if a storefront is dark. Blank walls are the same thing – boring and unsafe. Storefront glazing transmits light from the inside to the sidewalk area at night, lighting the pathway; provides passersby with a connection to the activity on the inside; and softens the visual aesthetics.
  • Uses and Activities: Active uses such as shops, restaurants, and entertainment are so critical to street life that their subsidizing their initial entrance into the area is actually much more important that spending millions on a streetscape project. In fact, we have probably all been to lots of areas with small sidewalks (Charleston, SC) or poor streetscape amenities (University Hill in Seattle, WA) and yet were thriving places. Use trumps infrastructure nearly every time.

It should come as no surprise that the very best places exhibit a height to base ratio of 1:1. Twenty to thirty feet of public realm for an equivalent amount of private realm. One story buildings can work well, so long as they have a high enough facade to enclose the sidewalk area.

It should also come as no surprise that these places are quickly becoming places of choice for employers and retailers alike. Living near great urbanism increases WalkScores which has been statistically shown to increase home value. Recent documentation of preferences by employers small and large to be in or near these places further underscores the economic value of great urbanism.

All of this contained in a simple right triangle.