Op-Ed: Light rail development is failing in University City. Here’s why

Op-Ed: Light rail development is failing in University City. Here’s why
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[Editor’s note: Martin Zimmerman served as facilities planning director for UNC Charlotte in the 1990s, working on the University Place design review board and as staff facilitator for the campus master plan.]

Can someone please explain why a mammoth, 32-pump Circle K is squatting on North Tryon on a parcel large enough for 100 workforce apartments — only a five-minute walk from the McCullough station on the soon-to-open light rail extension?

And why are two more Circle K’s pumping gas, each about a quarter mile from other transit stops? Is this the kind of compact, walkable development planners say they want at transit stations?

Image via Google Maps

Everyone is supposedly betting on urban growth to replace Independence Boulevard-style sprawl in University City as the light rail project comes online.

But instead, a new generation of gas stations, auto washes, self-storage buildings, drive-thru eateries and sprawling parking lots are gobbling up valuable land like its Thanksgiving. City planners might not be worried about this, but District 4 councilman Greg Phipps and Darlene Heater, the director of University City Partners, sure are.

The most egregious example is a new strip commercial project called “The Pointe,” where Five Guys and other eateries front a supersize parking lot. What’s most telling here is its extraordinary location.

Catch this: The Pointe lies a stone’s throw from the JW Clay station, the gateway to UNC Charlotte’s 29,000 student campus and the Niners football stadium. It’s also the entry to University Place, U-City’s 1980’s master-planned town center with its shops, offices, lakeside condos, a 10-story Hilton Hotel and conference center.

The Pointe, shown from its interior parking lot. The JW Clay light rail platform and UNC Charlotte’s campus are just beyond Five Guys.

The Pointe – red. UNCC – yellow. JW Clay station – blue. University Place – green. Photo courtesy of the city of Charlotte.

It’s a humdinger if there ever was one.

It’s an ideal parcel for a vibrant mix of multi-plex cinemas, mid-rise student apartment lofts, government and medical offices, a boutique hotel, bookstores … maybe even a brew-pub or two.

And yet, early last year, interim planning director Ed McKinney quietly approved a plan with zoning that has not been updated since 1984. Any land use attorney can tell you (although they might not want to be quoted) that his sign-off contravenes every policy and plan from the Transit Station Area Principles (2001) to the most recent University City Area Plan and design guidelines (2015).

Sadly, The Pointe even turns its back on the new sidewalk and lighting improvements along North Tryon that were intended to give pedestrians front door access to adjoining parcels.

The Pointe turns its backside to the public sidewalk and street improvements. The awnings only shade mechanical equipment because real people have no access from this side of the project.

Insiders know that zoning enforcement tools have been available for at least 14 years to assure orderly growth on transit corridors. It’s just that those granted the public trust lack the gumption to use the tools and say “no” to landowners who could care less about building to transit-friendly standards.

Two long-standing tools stand out. The first and most familiar is the Transit Oriented Development District, codified in 2003 to encourage “compact urban growth within a half-mile walk” from stations. TODDs make perfect sense to any developer with the financial resources and business model to make good things happen along rail corridors.

The second tool is a little-publicized statewide mechanism that insiders call “correctives.” It allows local governments to rezone without developer consent.

The City Council’s transportation and planning committee (chaired by mayoral candidate Vi Lyles with rival Kenny Smith as a member), has been nagging McKinney and assistant city manager and former planning director, Debra Campbell, to take action on correctives since 2013.

In March 2015, a month before the council was to vote on the University City Area Plan update, University City Partners sent a letter to McKinney and the city manager requesting zoning upgrades along the rail corridor, citing “a growing sense of urgency.”

Ed McKinney

It’s now two and a half years later, and yet, McKinney and Campbell are still relying, perhaps in quiet desperation, on informal negotiations. Oddly, Lyles has allowed this whole issue to remain in limbo.

Bill McCoy, director emeritus of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and former member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission, has been keeping watch from his office on campus. He observes that “where development is exploding, the negotiation approach is doomed to failure. Most projects are simply falling through the cracks.”

And it’s not just happening in U-City. At a recent zoning meeting, councilwoman Julie Eiselt raised this issue in reference to a self-storage building near the New Bern station.

Here’s what’s planned for Atherton Mill in South End. Why is this not happening by JW Clay station? Rendering via Crescent Communities

Now that The Pointe is a reality, McKinney and others may have shifted to damage control. Tobe Holmes of University City Partners optimistically predicts The Pointe could be demolished within 10 years, or even sooner, to make way for denser development.

But Charles Lanier of Plaza Associates, a large Raleigh-based leasing and management company, points out that 20 years would be the bare minimum for projects with national tenants like Five Guys.

Is there a public benefit in delaying the right kind of corridor growth for 20, 30 or 50 years hence, when the enforcement tools are already in place to get results now?

Granted, there is a likelihood of some bruised egos and push-back from landowners. But the payoff in increased land appreciation and property tax revenues, a cohesive and welcoming architectural landscape, and a much higher quality of life should more than compensate for short-term political fallout.

McKinney and city council need to sit down and a have a serious “conversation.” Planners and politicians have little time remaining to either enforce transit-friendly growth or risk squandering a $1.2 billion taxpayer investment for generations to come.

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