Charlotte is a car-dominant city. Automobiles have driven the path of the city’s development, from Ballantyne to Uptown.
The bad news for urbanites dreaming of a pedestrian-friendly city: This isn’t likely to change soon. The good news: Charlotte is working hard to make progress.
While some urban planners dream of a day where giant parking structures are a relic of the past, Charlotte is hoping to make some progress in the short term — by making parking garages more useful in an urban environment.
Over the past few years, the city’s planning department has put an emphasis on requiring new parking garages to include retail spaces or other elements to make them more pleasing to pedestrians near the light rail line. The policy has had its hits and misses — and the city is now working on ways to make these spaces more useful.
Charlotte is also working to put its money where its mouth is. Two new parking decks along the Blue Line Extension have a dozen spaces for retail. One just signed its first tenant.
“It just makes all the difference in the world,” said Charlotte architect and developer David Furman.
It’s one of the most common questions newcomers to Charlotte ask: Can you get around the city without a car?
With a few limited exceptions, the answer to that is no. That’s reflected in the streetscape, as well. Massive parking garages dominate places like College Street and Church Street, and massive parking lots are the norm in more suburban areas of the city.
The city of Charlotte would very much like to change that in the center city, but that presents a chicken-or-the-egg question. Which do you need first, pedestrians walking around, or a streetscape that’s inviting to people?
Charlotte is trying to kind of split the middle. Recognizing that customers are mostly coming by car, regulations allow — and even require — large amounts of parking for most projects.
But around the light rail, Charlotte has introduced rules that require developers to put in retail spaces on the ground levels of their parking garages.
Why? Beyond taking up space, facing large blank walls and cars stacked on top of cars sends the message that the area is not meant for pedestrians.
“It actually discourages walking,” said Monica Carney Holmes, planning coordinator at the city of Charlotte.
Retail does the opposite. It gives people something to look at and engage with, and studies have even shown that people are willing to walk much, much farther when they get to pass by shops and restaurants instead of parking decks.
That’s why Charlotte’s ordinances require new projects going up near the light rail to include retail space on their parking garages.
Hits and misses
This emphasis has had some major victories. A parking garage on Church Street in Uptown, for example, recently allowed for space for the new Rhino Market location and J.J.’s Red Hots — softening the edge of that garage.
But it’s not always a success.
Some new buildings along the light rail have empty, unused retail spaces with few prospects. The new parking garage by the Dowd YMCA has space for retail, but it is not in a location that’s super conducive to retail.
And while the new Atherton Mill development has retail included in its parking garages, the design still includes a towering parking garage fronting South Boulevard.
Examples like this have informed the city of Charlotte, and they’re making changes.
“We have learned some lessons,” Holmes said. “We are raising the bar from where we currently are.”
New rules expected to be approved by the Charlotte City Council in the coming months include stricter requirements for parking garages in pedestrian-friendly areas.
Some projects will need to fully wrap their garages in retail space, rather than perhaps having one or two spots. Other rules might include minimum standards for building these spaces, like using a range of sizes to lure in different kinds of businesses and including hookups for a restaurant rather than just a blank shell.
Charlotte walks the talk
Charlotte is also trying to use its own parking garages to set an example for what’s possible.
The University City Boulevard station parking deck has five retail spaces below room for 1,500 cars. The parking deck at J.W. Clay Boulevard station has seven retail spaces at the bottom of five levels of parking.
“The strategy is, how can we activate this bottom floor where we have a pedestrian type of feel?” said Tony Korolos, real estate division manager at the city.
Leasing the J.W. Clay parking deck has been in the works for more than a year, and they’ve just landed their first tenant — an Atrium Health urgent care center. They’ve signed a 10-year lease for a facility that will include X-ray services and lab tests.
That still leaves more space for retail. The idea is to bring in breakfast spots, coffee shops, dry cleaning and other “neighborhood” services.
“The market demands it,” Korolos said. “We have some transactions close to fruition.”
While that continues, the city of Charlotte is now looking at whether they can add more retail to the ground floor of the Government Center in Uptown’s Second Ward, which currently has a relative dearth of options.
The final frontier — no parking at all
Though this will all make progress, it still doesn’t completely solve the problem, some urban thinkers say. With the growth of services like Uber and Lyft and driverless car technology, a Charlotte with little to no structured parking seems to be in reach.
The new Legacy Union building under construction on Stonewall Street right now has a hulking parking garage about a dozen stories tall. It will have retail spaces included in it, but one day the dream is that it won’t be needed at all.
“We see a future with technology where we won’t need the car storage,” Furman said. “We’re not going to need that in 10 years, and certainly not in 20 or 30.
“We are kind of in no man’s land right now.”