Tag Archives: transit

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.

IMG_1057
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?

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Why the debate about widening I-77 in Charlotte is not answering the right question

Image Credit: www.charlottefive.com
Image Credit: http://www.charlottefive.com
As an urban planner with a national practice I am frequently asked by friends and colleagues for an opinion on the Interstate 77 toll lane discussion. I’ve been all across the country this past year in areas that were either growing fast or dying slowly. So when I return home to see how a seemingly conservative group of advocates demand spending more than a half billion dollars on a single-purpose facility, I not only wonder if that is the answer, but I wonder whether anyone is asking the right question.

The question seems to be only this: How fast can we widen I-77? And the foregone conclusion to solving all our transportation woes from uptown Charlotte to Statesville is to run out to the highway store, after eating our way through the holiday season, and buy a pair of fat pants and a bigger belt.

Instead, the question should be: How do we facilitate more predictable and reliable mobility, north to south? And, assuming that a half-billion dollars were miraculously sitting on the table to spend, why would we dump it into one project?

Folks, I hate to break it to you, but there is no highway wide enough to accommodate growth’s demands. Transportation researchers have already proven that the inconvenient truth of “induced demand” will sap any capacity in any additional lanes within a generation. Induced demand is a well-proven, if counterintuitive, result. Highway widening will increase demand (congestion) for the capacity rather than relieve it.

Very simply, for some short period of time, homebuyers will be lulled into a false sense of smooth sailing until sometime in the near future the new road capacity fills back up.  The 23-lane, Interstate 10 corridor in Houston, which combines free lanes (a lot of them) and managed (toll) lanes (a lot of them, too), saw total commute times (morning and evening) increase by more than 32 minutes from 2011 to today.

Now, Houston is talking about a $6 billion “improvement” to the Interstate 45 corridor – which carries roughly double the traffic I-77 sees each day – to “relieve congestion.”

Are we Houston? Not yet. But with a growth projection that our metropolitan area will double in population in the next 40 years, we’ll be Houston before we know it.

So, when asked – “Do I support the toll lanes?” – my response is yes, but it’s but one of many solutions needed.

The lesson from Texas  – a hyperconservative, pro-property rights state, where managed lanes are now everywhere – is that adding free lanes is the functional equivalent of throwing money down a rat hole. At least with toll lanes, they can manage the trip through demand-based pricing strategies that keep cars and their occupants flowing. In that regard, that is the only type of new freeway lane that makes any sense in Charlotte. To offer additional free lanes – lanes  that our already heavily subsidized state Department of Transportation cannot afford – would simply open new land for development farther out, causing it to fill with the aforementioned “induced demand.” Has Interstate 485 really relieved congestion? Have you been around the southwestern leg with its 6+ lanes at 6 pm lately?

We simply need more choices, and choices not predicated on accommodating single-occupancy vehicles on single-purpose freeways. Until we all move over to Smart Car-sized autonomous cars, freeways are a lost cause for improving travel times. Instead, we need to look at providing more choices in our corridors – choices in both the network and the mode.

The Charlotte region’s suburban development pattern has failed to provide choice to our community. Its heavy reliance on dendritic neighborhood patterns and poorly connected thoroughfares means we have no traffic on the cul-de-sac while we have terrible traffic on the periphery. Look at a congestion map of Mecklenburg County. The worst congestion begins about 15 miles from the center city, where the number of choices in the street network decreases dramatically. While long-haul commuters won’t necessarily take the smaller streets to travel 30 miles from office to home, folks who simply need to take their children to soccer practice at 5:30 p.m. (my family included) have few choices for our short trips. Two two-lane roads handle more traffic than one four-lane road. How many two-lane roads, north to south, can we build for a half a billion dollars?

After all, isn’t choice a good thing? As Americans, we like many choices when we go to Target to buy a vacuum cleaner. Have you seen the dog food aisle at Harris Teeter lately? Yet, for the single piece of infrastructure that has the greatest impact on our productivity, our air quality, and our economic competitiveness, we have few choices.

This leads me to the elephant in the room –transit. Dedicated-corridor transit is the only mobility solution that can ensure consistent travel times from point to point regardless of demand. If the cars fill up, we can simply add more cars. Having traveled to Dallas this spring, I saw how a 20-year investment in transit has paid off for the Metroplex. With 90 miles of light rail infrastructure and 62 stations, the DART system accommodates nearly 100,000 passenger trips every day. That’s about the same volume as I-77 carries today. Most important, the system, the largest light rail system in the country (again, in Texas), has ensured that Dallas can remain competitive in the marketplace for jobs. State Farm is finishing construction of a $1.5 billion, 2 million square-foot office space within a stone’s throw of the light rail station in the northern suburb of Richardson. They are doing the same for their operations in Atlanta and Tempe, Ariz. Why? Because it gives their employees more reliable choices to get to the office. Anyone know what the annual property taxes are on $1.5 billion?

Until the Charlotte region and our partners in Raleigh and Washington get serious about funding transit, we are going to remain a community with few choices. And so long as we keep providing a monoculture of answers to the wrong questions, we will continue to see congestion increase.

If I could wave a magic wand and spend a half-billion dollars in the north corridor between Charlotte and southern Iredell County, I would build a commuter rail system (where fares would be less than half of the toll lanes) from Charlotte to Mooresville and have money left over to construct another north-south thoroughfare.

Instead, I’m just glad the public investment far less than the total, and the rest is someone else’s money. At least what is getting built will be managed to give us the hope of a predictable travel time.

We might not be trying to lose weight through diet and exercise, but at least we aren’t simply putting on our fat pants and giving up.