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
In the mid 1990s, Low and the company he works for, DPZ, were hired to remake Belmont’s downtown. Partly by restructuring the town’s zoning ordinance, Main Street gradually became a more inviting place and began to thrive. Belmont then became a model for other nearby small towns suffering from the effects of sprawl.
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It’s just after noon on a sunny, temperate Monday in May in downtown Belmont, a former textile hub that blends vestiges of its twentieth-century industrial heyday with cheerful new shops and restaurants. On Main Street, the general store (where mill workers used to pick up paychecks and provisions) sells bolts and measuring tape, toy trains and garden flags. Awnings shade the entrances of antique stores and pubs, and brightly painted old streetcars sit on the retired railroad tracks overlooking Stowe Park, where a hedged-in fountain pond sprays all summer.
It’s hard to imagine that, just fifteen years ago, Belmont’s now quaint and lively main strip was a high-speed road, framed by faux aluminum façades and a boarded-up building. The park was unused land—the backyard to a gas station.
One of the people responsible for the town’s turnaround is Tom Low, the director of town planning at Duany Plater-Zyberk’s Charlotte office. Today, he walks slowly down Main Street, the “historic strolling district,” as he calls it. His hands jammed into his pockets and his baseball cap tugged low over probing blue eyes, he stops and lifts his gaze from the sidewalk. He puts his hands, palms out, in front of him.
“What would you say,” Low, fifty-four, skinny, and almost entirely bald, begins in his gentle drawl, “is the ratio of the distance between those two buildings”—he spreads his hands to point to two storefronts facing each other across Main Street—“and that one building’s height?” He shifts his body toward the right-hand storefront, pointing to its roof. “If the building were to fall forward, where would the roof land?”
Turns out, it’s about a three-to-one or two-to-one ratio. Low explains how Michelangelo and Leonardo applied human body scale and proportion to architecture and streets during the Renaissance. Spatial relationships, he continues in a fascinated, reverent tone, are key to creating great neighborhoods. They determine how comfortable people are in their public spaces.
Everywhere he goes, Low is hyperconscious of physical spaces—how he feels in them, how walls, walkways, and landmarks are laid out in relation to one another.
He darts into the local hardware store. “This is the coolest hardware store in the world,” he says, giddy. In 1993, when Low and other DPZ architects and planners were invited by Belmont’s city planning department to restructure its zoning ordinance, the storefront was empty. This is where the team held its charrettes, or mini-planning sessions.
Low zips and loops through the store, noting out loud how the merchandise layout affects customers and maximizes their spending. He points at the children’s toy section to the left of the entrance. “Kids can go there while grown-ups roam the rest of the store.” He circles a rack of garden flags, pawing at the pastel fabric (“for the ladies!”). He beelines toward the hardware section, digging his fingers into the display of assorted nuts and bolts (“I love this stuff!”). From one corner to another, up the stairs, down the stairs. Outside, he grabs a push-reel lawn mower and wheels it for a few strides. “The most sustainable kind of lawn mower you can buy,” he says.
At the 1993 charrette, restoring Belmont’s main street was one of DPZ’s primary concerns. The firm also specified that no awning should be no less than six feet across over a sidewalk, that some of the old textile mansions be converted into conference centers, and that new, mixed-income houses and apartments be built alongside old neighborhoods rather than sectioned off.
“They didn’t want a series of McMansion subdivisions coming into town,” Low says.