Let’s make Charlotte world-class: Digging deeper on the 7th & Caswell development in Elizabeth

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Whether you realize it or not, you have a chance to make Charlotte truly great.

Seemingly every day, plans are drawn up for new buildings around Charlotte. Upon their completion, some of these buildings are chastised as big boring beige boxes. Others are praised as developments that were built the “right way,” structures that activate and improve the communities in which they reside.

So what happens to these projects between initial concept and finished product that results in a “good” or “bad” building? The answer is you, or at least people like you, and how involved you choose to be in your community.

The process through which Charlotte’s citizens influence large developments is on display right now in Elizabeth with the development going in at 7th Street and Caswell Road, a project frequently referred to as “the apartments going in at Jackalope Jack’s and the old P-stone site.”

Elizabeth-development-map

Photo via Google Maps

Perhaps you heard about this project on this very site, where we wrote a glowing review of the development, based on the site renderings. That article reviewed these early renderings, which depict a project that is undoubtedly better than many other recent developments that have sprouted up around town, but renderings are just one aspect of a development’s impact on a community.

This is an iconic intersection in Charlotte’s second-oldest neighborhood. In a city that strives to be world-class, this is an opportunity to create a world-class intersection. Shouldn’t we be demanding more than just, “hey it’s not as bad as those other ones?”

overhead-view-of-7th-and-Caswell-currently

A building’s beauty is only skin deep

For high-profile developments such as this, much more than initial renderings needs to be taken into account for evaluation. How will the project affect traffic in the area? What will the effect be on pedestrians and the walkability of the neighborhood? Is this really the best use of this space? Will the development take steps to preserve whatever art and history is currently in the area?

If the development process is a nine-inning baseball game, this particular project is in roughly the top of the fifth. And a lot has already happened in those first innings. It took many hours of discussion, consideration and even head-butting just to get to this point and it’s going to take a lot more work to get this project looking how the neighborhood would like.

A few questions that have been raised by the neighborhood about this particular project include the length of the building facing 7th Street. That’s a really long continuous structure facing the street. Long stretches of building are great for cramming in a bunch of apartments, but they also mean it’s a loooooong walk to get around the structure. Can the buildings be split to create a public alleyway and make the area more walkable?

7th-and-Caswell-from-7th

Additionally, how will people entering and exiting this new building affect current traffic patterns, especially considering there are nearly 100 new apartments being built right now across the street? And where will people park? Especially with the retail (yay!) that will be on the ground floor?

How about the mix of tenants? Will these apartments market to residents who are invested in the neighborhood for the long-term? Or is this apartment complex just a place for the residents to party before moving on to more permanent housing?

7th-and-Caswell-corner

These are some of the points that the Elizabeth neighborhood continues to raise in conversations with the developer — and they’re extremely important conversations to have. Charlotte’s community associations are the custodians of our collective future. Each one of us, regardless of where that neighborhood is, has a responsibility to make the most of these development opportunities during times of expansion.

Our challenge: Make Charlotte world-class, one development at a time

One way to approach this development activity is to just be happy something is happening. Another approach is to curse the development and fight to preserve the status quo. There are merits to both of those, but a third approach is to challenge everyone involved to strive for objective greatness on a world-class scale, whether that means preservation, high-concept new design, or both.

Each of these new projects in our city presents us with the chance to create an area that can become the pride of Charlotte, neighborhoods that other cities around the country would point to as an example of urban walkable design done right. That should be the baseline for a project like this. We shouldn’t just strive to be happy that the project isn’t an eyesore. “Not being terrible” is not a strategy.

Tom Low of Civic by Design posited similar ideas at his Civic by Design meeting in early February at the Levine Center. This is a great series and something you simply must attend if you’re interested in urban planning and design. The February session focused specifically on this Elizabeth project and what could be possible for this iconic intersection.

One of the themes of this discussion was to get creative and not settle for the way we’ve always done things, and that subtle civic design decisions can have a major impact on activating communities and (my words here), alter the trajectory of a city’s future for the better.

For example, why not break up the buildings of this project to create new alleyways and fill them with murals on the walls or small cafes/coffee shops? How great would that be!?! Why not creatively use the existing public easements to activate a more walkable environment and connect with existing public space and Independence Park? The possibilities are endless. And we should all believe that.

7th-and-Caswell-potential-alleyways

Some of the more off the wall concepts discussed in the Civic by Design forum about the project included a roundabout at the intersection, creative materials on the roadway in the intersection (i.e. cobblestone), and a “Pedestrian Scramble,” which is so crazy it just might work. These need to be the boundaries we are pushing.

So what can you do?

Developers and design firms don’t set out to create poor designs (quite the opposite!) but they serve many masters and have multiple constraints to creating an ideal design, chief of which is to have a pro forma with many large, non-red numbers on it.

Asking designers to guess right the first time on a design is not realistic, nor is it fair to anyone involved, including the designer. There’s no reason that all the stakeholders in a project can’t emerge satisfied, but to get there takes an immense amount of work by all parties.

Ensuring that all stakeholders in a project collaborate so that Charlotte’s communities wind up with developments they deserve can be achieved by establishing neighborhood plans that outline a shared vision for the community. This gives the various governing bodies a standard against which to measure new developments.

So think long and hard about what elements you’d like to see in your community, make sure you know how to make that opinion heard through engagement with your community association and early discussions with the developers of projects, and most importantly, show up to open meetings and hearings and state your case.

Nobody cares you sent a tweet or communicated your displeasure via Facebook comment. That does nothing. Go to a meeting, talk to your neighbors and forge a path forward together. Go make Charlotte truly great.

All renderings courtesy of Faison and BHM Architects

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I live in Elizabeth, work in Uptown, and spend my time loving where Charlotte's been and thinking about its future.