Maybe It's Time to Start Listening to Tom Low
Charlotte has been called a “foreclosure hot spot” and one of the nation’s worst gas-guzzling cities. Meanwhile, fuel prices continue to climb, single-family home sales continue to dip, and developers still exert undue influence over the planning process
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Actually, new urbanism was already perking ears in Charlotte.
Around the same time that Low moved back to Charlotte, an urban design discussion group was forming. Warren Burgess, then a city planner for the city of Charlotte; Carole Hoefener and Robin Davis, both local architects; John Rogers from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission; and UNCC professor David Walters and his wife, Linda Luise Brown, then the art critic for Creative Loafing, started a monthly breakfast group for people interested in new urbanism and urban planning, called the Charlotte Urban Forum.
Mary Newsom, a former associate editor and columnist at The Charlotte Observer and a longtime follower of local urban planning issues, was also one of the forum’s founding members. “They said, ‘Let’s just all get together, have breakfast, and talk about a new way of looking at cities.’ They were very interested in new urbanism,” she remembers. “Our mind-set was more of an education thing—why this is good design, why this is bad design.”
Low was in the process of relocating to Charlotte, but attended many of the meetings. There was plenty for the group to talk about, too. During the late 1990s, while new skyscrapers and condos were re-forming uptown, a wave of development was sweeping North Mecklenburg towns.
“Belmont became a template for a lot of other towns who wanted to rewrite their zoning codes from suburban models to a code that focused on the physical form of a place,” Low says. “It was a template and a confidence builder for Huntersville, Davidson, and Cornelius. It helped them become more proactive.”
With new urbanism gaining momentum, Low, DPZ, and the Charlotte Urban Forum frequently found themselves at odds with Charlotte’s most prominent developers.
In 1999, Huntersville advocated for a bill in the state Legislature for a pilot program called transfer of development rights (TDR). TDR is complicated—even Low admits he never warmed up to it because of its abstract nature. Essentially, it’s a way for a developer to buy building rights from the owner of a patch of land and use those rights to build in a different, preapproved building zone. The idea is to preserve undeveloped land and shift growth toward the center of a city, halting sprawl.
Newsom says the bill failed to pass the N.C. House in large part because of homebuilder lobbying groups like the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition (REBIC) and the North Carolina Home Builders Association.
“It would have been a voluntary pilot program,” Newsom says. “Developers would have the option to do it … but they feared this would probably drive up the cost of land, their raw material … they just stuck a nail in that sucker’s heart.”
Bill Daleure was, at the time, the president of the land development division at Crosland, arguably Charlotte’s most prominent real estate development company (“they developed most of the suburbia in Charlotte over the last fifty years,” says Low). He was also active with both REBIC and the N.C. Home Builders Association, which he’s now the president of.
“Whenever you say, ‘I’m limiting the supply of land,’ the cost automatically goes up,” he says of Huntersville’s TDR vision. “They could never get the legislation done without our support. … I don’t remember anybody being miffed other than planners that didn’t get their way.”
A few years before that, incidentally, DPZ and Crosland briefly joined forces (a “shotgun marriage” as Low calls it), to develop an area of Davidson. The space between downtown Davidson and Lake Davidson was made up of old factories and open land, and the town decided to develop it. Crosland created a gated subdivision, and DPZ was hired to plan a more traditional neighborhood, which Crosland helped build.
“It turned out really successful,” says Low. “Crosland said it worked, but that they made more money doing sprawl.”
“It was a really tight urban design with rear-loaded garages and alleys,” says Daleure, who’s now president of Avant Garde Real Estate Consulting. “That’s 99 percent of what Tom does. We did the design, and it went OK, but it was on Lake Davidson, and the waterfront was a huge plus [for home sales]. And we learned an awful lot about cost.” Daleure says Crosland had to price homes 25 percent higher than it would have for a traditional suburb, mainly because of design challenges and costs.
The head butting and mudslinging between planners and developers continued like this for nearly five years, Low recalls. Editorials in the Observer criticized the development community. Everyone was on the defensive. And in spite of planning successes in Belmont, Davidson, and even Charlotte neighborhoods like Plaza Midwood and Myers Park, the region was, as Low says, “basically on sprawl autopilot until 2008” when the economy crashed.
In 1999, Hoefener died. Soon thereafter, Burgess left Charlotte to become the town planner in Davidson (he died in 2008). The Charlotte Urban Forum fizzled. Low says the group was exhausted and burned out.
It seemed to Low that the debate between new urbanism enthusiasts and the development community had stagnated in Charlotte. But while the city’s suburban landscape continued its slow crawl outward, Low (“full of missionary zeal,” as Newsom says) couldn’t stand by in silence.
Low and Newsom agree on this: in the past ten years, there’s been a shift in the housing market that’s significantly changing the way some cities are planning their development. It’s not just the economy. The coming-of-age Generation Y is seeking out city living, and the boomers are moving out of single-family homes into apartments or even their children’s homes.
“It’s the larger zeitgeist of what people want,” says Newsom. “There’ll be a market [for single-family houses], but it won’t grow nearly as fast. The growth in the market is going to be in multifamily housing.”
“The trend for the twenty-first century and the new economy,” says Low, “will be aging baby boomers and the millennial population … [being] interested in moving out of suburbia and into more connected communities.”
But even though “the pendulum has swung back,” Low says, he’s always been doubtful of trusting the building-and-development industry to change itself. Developers are still too content to carve out more suburban sprawl, he says, and defend it as being what the market wants, or as the best way to provide affordable housing.
“The development industry just never really changed their way of doing things,” he says. “But they’re going to have to change.”
So in 2004 he launched Civic By Design, which he hoped would give the design community a stronger voice in what he says has always been a “developer-driven town.”
Over the past seven years, CBD has met regularly at Levine Museum of the New South. Attendance varies from three- to five-dozen. They hear speakers invited by Low and discuss initiatives like Civilizing Places, a proposal to design twenty projects in twenty months—a streetcar on Independence Boulevard, for instance, or helping South End’s Community School for Girls turn its parking lot into a community garden. Low has an email list of close to 3,500, to which he sends the latest studies or articles on cities and communities, and information on upcoming forum discussions and workshops.
For the most part, the discussion forum has remained just that—a place for planners, architects, and anyone interested in urban design to come and talk about ideas for how to make Charlotte neighborhoods more connected. Some of the ideas have been picked up and put into action—the Community School for Girls’ garden, for instance. Most, however, fail to gain traction right away, like Low’s pitch to Charlotte Center City Partners to transform Trade and Tryon into a pedestrian-friendly plaza.
Debra Campbell, the director of city planning for six years since 2005, has been invited as a speaker to the forums. The planning staff, she says, “attends as many as possible.
“The tenets of new urbanism are just the tenets of what most planners learned in planning school. It’s just good planning,” she says. “But again, when you’re planning an entire community, it’s challenging, because you have an already-built environment. … Although there is a lot of opposition to the concept of suburbs, they still offer a viable housing option for people who choose that lifestyle. … [For some people] that’s their home. We’re to say they’ve made a bad choice for living in the place they’re living now?”
Daleure insists that buyers will still steer development.
“You have to develop neighborhoods for all kinds of people,” he says. “High-end, low-end, gated, urban communities … the market will tell you what’s necessary, not the planners.”
Low remains as he was in the mid-1990s: frustrated by what he sees as lingering short-sightedness, but determined to make local leaders and stakeholders at least listen to, if not immediately build, some of his many ideas.
Low is driving through Myers Park, the neighborhood designed by John Nolen that is also home to his office. Slowing to fifteen miles an hour on Kings Drive, Low points to the newest section of the Little Sugar Creek Greenway. It was, he says matter-of-factly, originally conceived by Nolen a century ago. He points out how beautiful it will be when the oak trees lining the path have grown, and how there ought to be crosswalks across Kings Drive to make it more accessible to neighborhoods across the street.
“Good ideas don’t die,” he says. “Sometimes they just take longer to implement. That’s the way I’m thinking about what we do … that’s what planners do. We’re not quick-fix artists. We take the twenty-five-, to fifty-, to 100-year view. But if we don’t plant the seed at some point, it’ll never happen.”