Can Charlotte fix SouthPark’s problems in a week?

Can Charlotte fix SouthPark’s problems in a week?
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SouthPark has a problem. It has all the elements of being a second downtown but has basically none of the walkability and accessibility that make up a good city center. What you have is massive amounts of cars and gridlock connecting some of my favorite places in Charlotte.

City leaders have been talking about this for at least a decade, and they’ve got a new plan to address it.

The Charlotte City Council is planning to vote Monday on committing $125,000 to hire the Urban Land Institute to examine SouthPark’s issues.

Over the course of one week in March, they will convene a panel of national land use and real estate experts to put together a report and action steps to make the area more walkable, cut down on traffic congestion, bring in more investment and strengthen the neighborhood.

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If Charlotte can pull it off, it would be a huge shift for an area that was originally envisioned as a suburban shopping center and built accordingly. The mall opened on February 12, 1970 in farmland on the outskirts of town.

It’s since become a major office and entertainment hub (and a major commuter headache). There’s obviously SouthPark Mall, the largest in the state. There’s 5 million feet of office space, including the headquarters of Coca-Cola Bottling Co., National Gypsum, Nucor and Piedmont Natural Gas. There’s the summertime Pops in the Park concert series, a huge draw. There’s 17,000 or so people who live in central SouthPark itself and tens of thousands more who live in the upscale neighborhoods around it.

Image via city of Charlotte

Image via city of Charlotte

So you’ve got all the elements of a great neighborhood, the cliche of live, work and play. But you’re going to need a car to get to any of it.

The sidewalks are uninviting, the massive amounts of cars and traffic are intimidating, and all the cool places to go are physically separated from each other.

About 300,000 cars come through the central mall area every day, according to Charlotte Department of Transportation. About one-third of them are on trips that begin and end within SouthPark.

The city’s strategy at this point is to begin building out the interior street network — think Uptown’s city blocks — so that people can get around without having to drive on Farview, Colony or Sharon.

More cars are coming. Synco Properties is turning the 27 acres at The Colony apartments at Sharon and Morrison into a massive mixed-use complex with homes, office space, retail and hotels. Childress Klein is turning Sharon United Methodist Church (the ski slope) into something similar. There’s a hotel going up off Sharon just south of Fairview and a drive-through Starbucks is going in nearby.

With all that stuff coming in, there will always be a lot of cars around. The city just needs to figure out how to make them less imposing. Slow down traffic on Fairview and Sharon, and maybe even reduce the number of lanes. Bring retail spaces all the way out to street level instead of hiding it in little enclaves. And a real pipe dream: Figure out a way to bring mass transit besides buses down to SouthPark.

City council members complained last month that their vision plan for SouthPark was created in the year 2000 and desperately needs updating. Instead, they’re taking on individual rezoning plans one at a time, and that makes it difficult to create a cohesive area.

Maybe this will give the city the momentum to get serious about fixing SouthPark.

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