Monday, March 31, 2014

Independence Boulevard - Urbanizing Its Design, Part 1

I live 1,300 feet north of Independence Boulevard, and as an urban planner, I think about it a lot - namely how it's not being built to fit into an urban context.  Looking at the existing freeway section between I-277 and Albemarle Rd., there are several sites that seem to have had a rural or suburban highway design placed into an otherwise urban context. I'll run a short series on these sites, but for now, here's one section and an idea for urbanizing it a bit.

The in-town neighborhoods of Plaza-Midwood (north of Independence Blvd.) and Chantilly (south of Independence Blvd.) are both really popular for their pre-war and early post-war housing stock, local businesses and proximity to Uptown Charlotte (a.k.a. downtown).  However, the conversion of Independence Blvd. to a freeway resulted in a limited street grid - 1.3 miles between Pecan Ave. and Briar Creek Rd. with no north-south street connections.


Now given, the freeway's not being converted back to a surface street anytime soon (for now), so here's a design idea that would enable greater bicycle/pedestrian connectivity between these two neighborhoods: a pedestrian bridge, strategically-placed:

a) At a location where right-of-way/street centerlines still exist on BOTH sides of Independence Blvd.
b) At a location that allows a "midway" crossing point between Pecan Ave. and Briar Creek Rd.


A case for smaller street blocks

On a recent walk with my dog, I remembered a benefit of smaller block faces (i.e. length of a block):  they give you more direct routes, especially if you're caught in the rain!

I left the house with Miss L (my dog Loretta) amidst cloudy skies, but I assumed the rain was over.  Five minutes later, I became a victim of wishful weather thinking ("Surely the rain's over now.") and 1950s suburban street design (the era when most of my neighborhood was built).  Current Charlotte-Mecklenburg subdivision regulations (pg. 24) have smaller blocks on the books (see below), but this wasn't the case when my house and neighborhood were built in 1955.
As for my walk, my route (magenta line, image at bottom) started on Westchester Blvd. (1,089' block face), made a right onto Dresden Dr. East (400' block face), and about midway up Roanoke Ave. (1,363' block face) - the sky opened up with rain!  I ran up the remainder of Roanoke Ave., making a right onto Woodland Dr. (421' block face) and a quick right back onto Westchester Blvd and up to my house.  As I toweled off the dog, I thought, "If those blocks weren't so long, I might be little drier right now."

What IF the neighborhood had been built, or is eventually redeveloped, with a finer street grid of smaller blocks?  Looking at the grid, extending Brighton Dr. to Optimist Ln. (dashed yellow line, center of image at bottom) would make sense from a connectivity and walkability standpoint.  While current subdivision regulations require new development to have smaller blocks, there's more of challenge to retrofitting older suburban areas of the city in terms of street grids and block sizes.  Renovating an existing home or infilling new homes lot by lot is one thing, but changing street connectivity is another.  Still, models for smaller blocks exist right next to our current large ones.

In fact, my neighborhood has a nicely-scaled block (top right of image) between Norland Rd. (380' block face), Roanoke Ave. (730' block face) and Woodland Dr. (477' block face).  Next time the weather's cloudy, that's the block where I'm taking Miss L for a walk!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Close a driveway, create a sidewalk

Do parts of Charlotte need an urban design makeover?  Definitely.  I felt inspired to answer this question when I learned about Complete Blocks on PlanCharlotte, so here's an idea I've been thinking about.

Replace driveway with sidewalk, The Plaza/Central Ave.

Charlotte's Plaza-Midwood neighborhood meets at the intersection of the The Plaza and Central Avenue.  In just four corner of this intersection, you'll find a library (NW corner), a bank (albeit with a street-facing parking lot and drive-thru ATM, SW corner), a neo-Art Deco Harris Teeter grocery store (SE corner, green roof and all!) and Midwood Corners shopping center (NE corner).  Midwood Corners offers a mix of retail/services ranging from frozen custard to sushi to used books, so there are plenty of customers constantly going in/out of the parking lot via driving or biking/walking.

The parking lot's served by three driveways (one on Central Ave., two on The Plaza), but removing the one closest to the The Plaza/Central Avenue intersection would improve safety and functionality for both the shopping center and surrounding streets. First, here's a before/after view of the shopping center itself, with driveways and circulation patterns illustrated.  The conflict point in the "BEFORE" view results from right-in/right-out and left-out turns from The Plaza interacting with right/left turns, plus cars backing out of spaces, within the parking lot.



Here's how the intersection would benefit from the driveway closure:


So, how can you reduce these vehicle/pedestrian conflict points, PLUS get more parking for the shopping center?  Build a sidewalk.


This relatively simple design modification (with perhaps minor utility impacts) would improve the intersection's "legibility" by improving physical and resulting visual cues for drivers and pedestrians alike.  This would be textbook access management, which simply defined, is the process of spacing streets/driveways to improve safety and access for all users of street.  It's also good urban design, which supports the economic needs of the neighborhood (shopping center's ease of access, parking) and improves transportation conditions (vehicle traffic and bike/ped. traffic both have easier movement resulting from this design).

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Coliseum Center Redevelopment

I saw an article earlier this week that inspired me to write this post - but please excuse any shoddy graphics - my wife took my mouse on a work trip!  Also, I started this blog in 2013 intending to be a prolific writer/observer .. and then bought a house, which has been a major time/energy draw.  It's a "Mini Money Pit" of projects that would challenge even the most seasoned homeowner (re: DRAINAGE ISSUES).

Anyway, back to Independence Boulevard and the Coliseum Center.  First off, my home's directly north of it, so I catch glances of it when out walking my dog on Dresden Dr.  Like many properties fronting Independence Boulevard, the shopping's center's a bit sad-looking.  That's hopefully going to change, as a developer aims to redevelop the site to "shadow-anchor" the existing Wal-Mart at Independence Boulevard/Pierson Drive.  One of the project's developers notes that "... the submarket around Coliseum Center is underappreciated ..." which is true, and the reason much of Independence Boulevard's propertys are challenged is because of ACCESS.

In the 20-year plus push to convert Independence Boulevard from an arterial street to a limited access expressway, businesses along the road have generally lost all or significant amounts of access to the road.  I'll post later on the larger urban design challenges, or lack of urban design on Independence Boulevard, but for now, this shopping center redevelopment is a microcosm for larger redevelopment issues in the corridor.

The challenge in redeveloping the Coliseum Center (yellow polygon, below) will come down to access, which it currently has via two right-in/right-out driveways (red dots) connecting to Independence Boulevard. The challenge of driving on Independence Boulevard is that it's trying to serve Asheville-to-Wilmington traffic (65 mph+) AND local traffic (sane drivers can make a turn at about 20 mph).  So you've got a mix of traffic with a potential speed-differential of 30-40 mph - demolition derby anyone?

What's a safer way to access Independence Boulevard businesses?  Local streets, connected to neighborhoods full of potential customers.  The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department recognized this concept in its 2011 area plan for Independence Boulevard, including a concept plan for the Coliseum Center/Amity Gardens (now Wal-Mart) area (see image below).

The plan shows a local street connection to the on/off-ramp that connects Wendover Road (Charlotte City Route 4) to Independence Boulevard, so the only safe way to achieve that without a signal would be a roundabout.  Here's a "5-minute sketch" concept for an elongated oval roundabout that could connect a new Coliseum Center street with the existing ramp streets.  It would be tricky, but not impossible, to build, as there is a grade change in that general area.

Crazy idea?  Perhaps, but if Independence Boulevard's going to redevelop into anything worth pulling over for (or walking/biking to), creative ways of  developing and enhancing local street connectivity will be needed to support projects like this.  This concept also acknowledges two parcels to Colisuem Center's west that would need be redeveloped if a local street connection was made. Land/parcel assembly is always a challenge in a redevelopment/infill built environment, but it's better than bulldozing the countryside!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Where's Charlotte's zoning code update?

I saw a great link to Smart Growth Seattle today via The Direct Transfer, listed under "Urbanism & Design." While the Seattle post is specifically about small-lot housing, the group/site speaks to much larger discussions about city life and urban redevelopment.  Their streaming slideshow contrasting the 1950s to today is funny - I especially like this one.
Believe it or not, many cities are still using zoning, subdivision and other land use codes that date from the 1950s.  Demographics back then assumed nuclear families (with kids tucked under their desks against the Russians!) of two parents and 2.5 children (or in the case above, 3 kids, all clamoring for cake).  The image at right, "Fresh Code," definitely hints at current demographics and the need to develop our land use policies and subsequent built environment around demographic realities.

So where does Charlotte stand in the zoning/land use spectrum of antiquated vs. modern codes? Plan Charlotte noted a need for change in April 2012, highlighting that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department's staff did an internal review in 2010, 2010 Diagnostic Assessment and Recommendations ,  and hired Clarion Associates in Fall 2012 to start a year-long review of the code, due in late Summer 2013.

Still, this is only an inventory/review of the existing code - an update could take longer, under a separate process, as noted on the City's website for the project.  Call me impatient, or efficient, but why not go ahead and update the whole code now?  Denver and Miami are two major cities that have done just that, going to form-based codes.  Charlotte may be pursuing slower incrementalism, so time will tell if that's an effective strategy for staying relevant amidst peer cities that have been or plan to be proactive in updating their land use policies.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

New house, old neighborhood: Mansionization and Infill

As I noted two weeks ago (before a nasty cold knocked me out for a bit), I'm starting this blog as a way to highlight changes big and small going on in Charlotte.  I'm starting from my view in Plaza-Shamrock, a neighborhood northeast of downtown Charlotte and 1 mile south of NoDa.  And as I'm still relatively new to Charlotte (moved July 2012), I may botch up neighborhood names, so please correct me if I misname something.  Anyway, I walk around my neighborhood at least once, if not twice a day, since I've got a dog that likes to see more than the backyard.  Loretta the Dog will have guest post on CityCentric Charlotte at some point.

On my walks with Loretta, a trend I've noticed in my neighborhood is turnover in housing types via three types of changes:

  1. New houses constructed on vacant lots.
  2. Existing houses undergoing extensive renovations/expansions.
  3. Existing houses being torn down, with new houses built on their lots.
I'll focus on the item #1, New houses on vacant lots, for this post, and follow up on 2 and 3 soon.

New Houses on Vacant Lots
The southern end of Fulton Avenue, near Central Avenue, has three new homes designed in Neo-Craftsman style.  Google StreetView is a great tool for piecing together what streets may have looked like in the recent past.  The image below is from September 2011.

Moving forward to last week, there are now three infill homes, below.

Grandfather Homes built these three houses, and they're also planning six more further north on Mecklenburg Avenue.  See the photo below for the house that was previously on the 1.25 acre lot (see the "For Sale" sign in yard?).  I'm sure some neighbors are grumbling at the change, but a 1.25 acre lot is HUGE for an in-town neighborhood like Plaza-Midwood.

The plan for the site is to locate six lots on a "barbell roundabout cul-de-sac" (see site plan photo further down).  The lots are still over the 5,000 SF/lot zoning and the density will increase six-fold, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, given its in-town location.  And yes, they DID keep the mature oak street tree, so good for them.  As with other projects I'm noticing, I'll update the blog with construction photos as projects move along.

As to whether these homes will sell for $500,000, time will tell.  Another group of homes that I walk by regularly, "Plaza Midwood on Georgia Avenue," was originally billed in the high $400,000s in August 2007 -   one of these houses is now selling for $279,000, so it's anybody's guess.  Real estate is an odd business, is it not?

Plaza Midwood on Georgia Avenue, as noted in August 2007 Realtor Reflections, was developed by Marand Builders.  They planned 18 Craftsman-style homes, 3-4 bedrooms, ranging from 2,200-3,000 SF, some of which are shown below.  Only five of the planned 18 homes were built, clustered on the western end of Georgia Avenue, and none were built on Matheson Avenue or Florida Avenue.

My guess is that the recession truncated their numbers.  Still, I like and appreciate the concept - new homes in older neighborhoods, which like all good ideas, have some controversy, as evidenced by this article on mansionization.  I generally agree with the author that infill development is a good thing, especially if it's boosting a city's tax base, population, etc.  And depending on your urban design sensitivities to height, massing and scale, this process can sometimes result in  big and small houses next to one another (see photos below) - but hey, that's organic urban development, right?  I may be an armchair architect by saying this street looks okay with its mix of housing sizes and types, but a least it's not a cookie-cutter tract housing subdivision.

Coming up: Belmont (the Charlotte neighborhood, not the Gaston County town) Gets Rowhouses

Plaza Midwood on Georgia Ave., info board

Neo-Craftsman homes (vacant lots in foreground), Georgia Ave.
Vacant lot between Neo-Craftsman (left) and 1950s-era Cape Cod (right)

Neo-Bungalow from "Plaza Midwood on Georgia Avenue", Georgia Avenue
Older, smaller homes next to newer, larger homes.  2800 blk of Attaberry Dr.
Newer homes, with older home peeking out at right (white front), 2800 blk of Attaberry Dr.

Smaller, older home between two bigger, newer ones. 2800 blk of Attaberry Dr.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Regenerating the center

In my first post, I noted that recent events/trends inspired me to start this blog.  Here are some things on my mind.

Other Cities

I'm a regular reader of Urbanophile, an Indianapolis-based blog that advocates for strong center-cities.  A post last month discussing transit for Indy made me think, "Hmm, Charlotte-Mecklenburg County mirrors these trends in some ways."
... for a place like Indianapolis, the real case for transit is strategic.  In a nutshell, the urban core of Indianapolis is collapsing because if offers an "urban lite" environment that is almost entirely automobile oriented and thus in direct competition with suburbs that are newer, of higher quality contemporary designs that meet the market demand of today and which have better public services and lower taxes to boot ... when you offer an older, inferior version of the same basic auto-oriented product as the suburbs, but with higher taxes, don't expect many takers. 
Aaron Renn, Urbanophile's author, is making the case for "product/brand differentiation."  In Charlotte, huge areas of the city have seen marked property value decreases (see map below).

Sure, part of this is probably due to the post-2008 recession/housing bubble, etc., but Charlotte also faces the potential liability of close-in neighborhoods (Plaza-Midwood, NoDa, Wilmore, Dilworth) and older suburbs (Madison Park, Merry Oaks, Oakhurst, Sheffield Park) being perceived as outdated, or at least not properly marketed/branded.  How can Charlotte strategically position and brand itself to say, "We're different from our surrounding suburban counties and that's a GOOD thing!"?  We can start by looking at increasing our transportation and housing options, which are often intertwined through transit oriented development (TOD), which the Charlotte Streetcar would help foster.

The Urbanophile's transit post also referred to a previous post, now four years old but HIGHLY relevant to all center-cities today - it's a lengthy but worthwhile read!  I'll expand on some of its ideas soon, but one that immediately caught my attention was the concept of pushing for "100 Monument Circles" (referring to an Indy neighborhood) - could Charlotte seek to regenerate parts of the city into more NoDas, Plaza-Midwoods, or South Ends?  The Charlotte Streetcar would help do that for portions of north/west and east Charlotte.

The Charlotte Streetcar

The proposed 10-mile streetcar line has been called a vehicle for growth/development (see BAE study), a reason for that State of NC to withhold funding for light-rail, and lots of other things good, bad or otherwise.  I think the streetcar's a good thing, as it literally ties together the Blue Line light-rail, planned Red Line commuter rail and relocated Amtrak/intercity bus station planned for Gateway Station.  The $500 million streetcar (existing Blue Line LRT was $463 million, Blue Line LRT extension is $1.2 billion) is a central element of CATS 2030 Transit Corridor System Plan and should not be scrapped amidst the City's other spending priorities (past and present listed below):
  • $125 million: Bank of America Stadium for Carolina Panthers
  • $8 million: New Charlotte Knights downtown stadium
  • $256 million: Time Warner Cable Arena
  • $200 million: NASCAR Hall of Fame
  • $158 million: new and renovated museums in downtown
Of course, the streetcar is part of a much larger issue for Charlotte.  Plan Charlotte's Mary Newsom noted this in "Growth challenge dwarfs the streetcar spat", with a cross-posting on her blog The Naked City. The following quotes are parsed from both articles.
... The way Charlotte grew until now is not the way the city will grow in the future. Annexation has all but ended. So how can we keep the city's property tax base healthy without easy population and territory growth? Since 2003, large parts of the city have shown property value decreases. 
Streetcar or no, Charlotte still faces the overall situation of trying to grow from within, with no annexation. And redeveloping and adding density in an already-built city is much tougher than building on a patch of woods or cow pasture outside town. “Density” may be beloved by urban designers, but to many people it sounds like a high-rise housing project with roaches and broken elevators. And faced with multistory buildings proposed next door, even the fairest-minded homeowners can transform into NIMBYs faster than a werewolf under a full moon. 
Is it really the only tool available for revitalization? Foxx and the streetcar supporters who argue it’s needed for revitalization might want to have Plans B and C in mind. Because the big problem – how the city will grow and stay healthy – is likely to be with us for decades. 
She hits upon a several great points, most notably about how the city needs to stabilize and enhance its property-tax base.  There's also the note about NIMBYs, which I'll get to in future posts.  The map below is the quickest, simplest story: the City (and County as a whole) needs more yellow (stable) and green (growing) areas than pink (declining). And for slight photo-jog on right side of text column, blame me, and Blogger, for wanting to show you a larger/legible image - layout and design will come with time.

The Suburbs

Another Plan Charlotte article, "Is the Charlotte region ready for another boom?" points to the need for Charlotte to attract population and investment.  I think I'm driving a long way when I go from Plaza-Midwood to Park Road Shopping Center (6.5 miles) .. then I look at a map like this and realize that sprawl is WAY outside of Charlotte/Mecklenburg County.  The decade from 2010 to 2020 will be a different one from 2000-2010 in many ways, but again, the trend for a successful Charlotte is to change pink to green.