CHARLOTTE – A 40-acre piece of land in a desirable location in the University area – close to both an interstate and future public transportation – is to become an auto mall following a unanimous City Council rezoning decision Monday that deviated from what has become the norm for development in proximity to transit.
Future riders on the Lynx Blue Line light rail extension could be coming to or going from red-tag or black-tent sales at the auto mall, which will include up to four car dealerships. The property is less than half a mile from a proposed light rail station at North Tryon Street and University City Boulevard.
Looking up and down the existing light rail line, especially in South End, development that has popped up has typically been of the pedestrian-friendly variety, something the sprawling auto mall will struggle to achieve no matter how much back-and-forth occurred between the developer and planning staff.
Not to mention that city documents specifically advise against allowing car dealerships near transit areas.
But Paul Williams, project manager at Winston-Salem-based Arden Group, the developer of the auto mall, said the city imposed strict design standards on the project and required sidewalks and a layout of the mall that would encourage as much “walkability” as possible.
“It has been a collaborative endeavor with the city,” Williams said. “We’ve worked very closely with planning staff and the council to address concerns. We improved the appearance and the design quality that’s going to be a part of the auto mall. We were able to improve the look and feel of what may be considered a traditional auto mall.”
Improved aesthetic features – high-quality building materials, etc. – are often a city requirement for development near the light rail, and the auto mall will likely pass muster in that regard. But the city has often required even more specific types of development in those areas, especially near transit stations. In South End, that has usually meant multifamily development sometimes with street-level retail.
The city’s transit station area principles, guiding the transit-related development since 2001, makes general recommendations for the type of land use, design and transportation facilities desired within a half-mile walking distance of a rapid transit station, according to the document.
Those principles were written to “encourage highest density uses closest to transit stations and transition to lower densities closer to single-family neighborhoods, encourage a mixture of residential, office, service-oriented, retail and civic uses,” and, most importantly, “disallow automobile-dependent uses, such as automobile sales lots, car washes and drive-thru windows.”
The principles serve as guidelines for development around transit stations, and the city is not required to enforce those principles. But more specific guidelines about the area plans at the final four light rail stations – including the station at University City Boulevard – aren’t available because the process has yet to be completed.
The city on Dec. 10 held an initial public input meeting on the station area plans, giving residents and neighbors the opportunity to have their voices heard about the type of development they hope to see along the northern terminus of the light rail. The city will hold two additional meetings on Feb. 11 and March 11, according to the city’s website. The final transit station area plans won’t be adopted until after that meeting, months after the approval of the 40-acre rezoning of the property and possibly after construction starts on the auto mall.
Walter Fields, zoning guru and founder of the locally based Walter Fields Group, said just because an auto mall hasn’t been developed along the light rail, and even though the city appears to discourage automobile-related development, the Arden Group project isn’t necessarily a bad use of the land. All transit stations have different factors that must be considered independently of other transit stations to determine the best use of the land, he said.
“How many of the transit stations include an interstate interchange and interstate road frontage?” Fields said. “You have to look at each station individually. Right across the street (from the proposed auto mall) you have a development that’s three times the size of most Walmarts.
“You wouldn’t normally think of (Ikea) as transit-related development. But because of the nature of that site, its access to the interstate, you may have to think of that transit station differently.”
Between the September public hearing on Arden Group’s rezoning request and the Monday vote, several council members evidently began to look at the University City Boulevard transit station differently. In September, several council members spoke up about their hesitation to put such a large, low-density development so close to a future transit station.
At Monday’s City Council zoning meeting that hesitation was gone. In the months since the hearing – whether by increased design standards or because the auto mall will likely consolidate car dealerships from other properties along the light rail – council’s fears were assuaged to the point that two councilmen, John Autry and Greg Phipps, urged the other council members to approve the rezoning from a commercial center classification to a general business classification.
Of the four dealerships permitted to open at the auto mall, only the Arden Group-owned Parks Chevrolet has committed. Parks will move to the new site from 6441 N. Tryon St., Williams said. The soon-to-be-former Parks property is under consideration for a rezoning that would permit more typical transit-related development. Williams said he thinks the relocation of one or more car dealerships from North Tryon was a big factor in securing the rezoning.
Now that the rezoning has been approved, construction on the $35 million auto mall is set to start in the late spring or early summer. Completion of the first dealership, Parks Chevrolet, is set for summer 2015, Williams said. Arden Group is in negotiations with other dealership, but hasn’t gotten any further commitments, so Williams couldn’t estimate when the entire project would be finished.
Fields said that when the project is finished, it may encourage the kind of transit-oriented development the city planned for in its station area principles.
“You hear this drumbeat of TOD, TOD, TOD, as though that’s the only kind of development that will work,” he said. “The whole notion is that there is a mixture of uses. People who ride trains need to get their cars fixed too.”