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What should Charlotte look like?

Shaping development in a booming Charlotte is a tricky proposition and will take a uniting of businesses, academic institutions, municipal governments, citizens and others to do it successfully, a panel of planners, architects and others said last week.

The outside area of the Common Market in South End was cited by panelists as a good example of appealing urban design. The market, which offers deli sandwiches, beer and wine, is considered a  hip place to hang out. Photo courtesy of Charlotte Center City Partners.

The outside area of the Common Market in South End was cited by panelists as a good example of appealing urban design. The market, which offers deli sandwiches, beer and wine, is considered a hip place to hang out. Photo courtesy of Charlotte Center City Partners.

The pitfall if it isn’t done: Charlotte won’t be a great and well-designed city, said Tom Low, director of Civic By Design, which brings Charlotteans together to discuss design issues in the city.

“We built this whole cycle of development and it just didn’t turn out that well,” said Low, a panelist and a registered architect and a certified planner. “We kind of blew it.”

The community, he said, must insist: “We’ve got to do it better.”

“The sooner the better, as far as I’m concerned,” Low said.

He was one of four panelists at the discussion Wednesday night at C3Lab off Remount Road. The discussion was moderated by Mary Newsom, associate director of urban and regional affairs at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.

Panelists touched on issues such as:

*Is Charlotte growing the way residents want it to?

*Why do so many of the city’s new buildings look alike?

*The importance of saving older buildings as a viable alternative to higher-cost development.

For those whose impulse is to stop Charlotte’s growth as a means to creating a more beautiful and functional city, Newsom had an immediate challenge.

“I’ve been observing the city for a long time,” she said.”And for a lot of that time, I’ve heard people say there’s just too much growth, we need to stop it.
“I’ve always, in many ways, kind of agreed with that impulse because a lot of the growth is not necessarily good for the city in some ways. But then I thought, ‘How are you going to do that?’

“Are you going to get (Donald) Trump in here to build a wall? Are you going to get South Carolina to pay for the wall? You can’t stop people moving to the city.”

The state allows municipal governments to do many things, but not always what the municipal governments want to do, which can hamstring cities and counties in finding such things as more transit money without an additional tax, Newsom said.

For more than an hour, the panelists, with questions and suggestions from an attentive audience, talked about what else should be done.

Much of the discussion centered around building design and the influx of projects – especially apartment buildings in fast-growing areas – that seem similar in appearance.

“There is this sort of urban idea of what things should look like that the architects are using and so they end up going through the same funnel,” said David Furman, a developer and architect. “They all try to look modern. They all try to look clean and square.

“I’ll drop it at the hands of the architects, of which I’m one. These guys are driven so hard, they’re driven so fast to make things happen, to be the first guy out there. And that is no excuse. It is no excuse for not trying.”

He said developers bear some responsibility, “but I just think we’ve got to try harder.”

“We’ve just got to be focused on the fact that as we’re filling in these blanks we’re building a city,” Furman said. “Each piece and component of that city is important to the overall. If the overall is not complete, or if the overall is not distinguished, then we just won’t have a distinguished city.”

Monica Carney, planning coordinator of urban design for the city of Charlotte, said two approaches the city is taking  will help forge the path ahead.

The first, to help guide city policy, deals with “place types,” which examine Charlotte’s character and how to define “the places you work, the places you live, the places you play, so that you can say ‘I live in a neighborhood center’ or ‘I live in an urban neighborhood’ or “I live in a single-family neighborhood,’” said Carney, a panelist.

The second is an update to the city’s zoning ordinance, which regulates development.

“I want to give everybody a warning,” she said, “It is not an easy process. It is a long process and a lot of people have a lot of interest in different parts of that.

“But at the end, we’re all going to come out on the other side and be better for it and hopefully have a new zoning ordinance that meets a wide variety of people’s needs and brings us into the 21st century.”

Asked about the treatment of cul-de-sacs, a hotly debated issue in Charlotte, Carney said they provide places for children to play but also cause traffic headaches.

“It’s like candy,” she said. “It’s great for you. You eat a piece of candy and it tastes really good. It’s really yummy. But when you have a whole bunch of it, it ends up making you sick.

“So cul-de-sacs are really great for you personally because your kids get to be at the end of the street. But then when you decide to go to work, or you decide to go shop somewhere, and everybody lives on a cul-de-sac…there’s only one way for you to get to everything else and you’re basically all sick with traffic.”

On the issue of gentrification, in which property in lower-income neighborhoods is replaced with higher-income buildings, businesses and uses, panelist Chuck Barger said he moved to NoDa in 1994, long before the area became a neighborhood sensation.

“Change is good,” said Barger, owner of the popular Common Market. “Gentrification is one of those things that: It happens; we have to manage it.”

Julie Eiselt, a member of the Charlotte City Council, sat in the audience and at the end of the panel discussion urged the public to get involved in zoning and development matters.

“It makes such a difference when the neighbors have gotten involved,” she said. “Everything right now to this point – because we don’t have these rezoning laws – everything is up for grabs, just about.”

“Please tell us what’s good for you,” Eiselt said. “And I promise you that councilmembers listen.”

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