Back to the Future
"Those Who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it," goes the famous line. With Charlotte's growth on hold, it's time to look back at what we did right -- and what we screwed up.
Illustrations by Jennifer Thermes
In 1989, this city was on the brink of a boom. Uptown's resurgence was barely a glimmer in the eye of bank titans and energy executives. Construction had barely begun on the Bank of America Corporate Center and I-485. City leaders were huddling to plan for the coming growth, growth that would surpass even the most optimistic projections.
Enter Michael Gallis. The erudite architecture professor with the mane of gray hair and flurry of Technicolor maps offered leaders and planners a vision of a future. They could create a thriving, globally recognized city-state, he told them, with Charlotte as the hub and the surrounding towns along its spokes, if they would all work together, as a region. They seized on Gallis's ideas -- simple yet revolutionary at the time -- and it could be argued that no single planner has had more influence over the design of our regional infrastructure system than him.
Gallis has been spreading the religion of regionalism to the rest of the country ever since. After leaving his UNC-Charlotte professorship in 1997, he consulted on projects as an "urban strategist" in a slew of cities, including Detroit, San Diego, Memphis, San Antonio, Cincinnati, and Orlando.'
Now our boom is over and -- as in 1989 -- we're struggling to see the future. Once again, Gallis is joining the local conversation. This time he's taking a look back, giving himself and others some pats on the back for what they've done right (see sidebar, "The Right Moves"), but also thumping local leaders for where he thinks they've gone wrong. Gallis and several other planners and community leaders talked recently about what Gallis sees as missteps, how they will affect our future, and what -- if anything -- should be done about it now.
It might be hard for some to see the gleaming luxury wing of SouthPark mall -- with its Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and abundance of exclusive boutiques -- as a mistake. But Gallis views the zoning change that allowed for that wing -- approved unanimously by the City Council in 2001—as a long-term blow to the success of uptown. At that time, Michigan-based Taubman Co. had plans to redevelop the old uptown convention center site into a 1 million-square-foot mall that Gallis -- who did the market research for Taubman -- says would have attracted visitors from up to 100 miles away, seven days a week. But when SouthPark owners won the zoning battle, it dashed Taubman's uptown retail plans, he says, because the high-end retailers went to SouthPark instead. And Gallis thinks significant retail will never locate downtown now that SouthPark has become such a destination.
Many reject Gallis's premise that -- had the SouthPark expansion been stopped -- Taubman would have pulled off its ambitious plan.
"Maybe it would have happened, but I think [Taubman] would have been coming back to the city for a multimillion-dollar subsidy to make it work," says architect John Tabor, a former planning commission and city council member.
The convention center site is now EpiCentre, which is dominated by entertainment venues and has been criticized for having mostly inward-facing storefronts. Two years ago, Charlotte Center City Partners unveiled an initiative to attract retail downtown, but that plan was shelved when the economy tanked. But citizen feedback gathered during the current 2020 Vision Plan process (see sidebar, "Looking Ahead") shows that "no matter where they live, people want to shop uptown," says Cheryl Myers, a senior VP with Charlotte Center City Partners.
Attracting retail uptown is an uphill battle, says Bill McCoy, director emeritus of UNC- Charlotte's Urban Institute. His solution: a joint city-bank effort to help with small-business start-ups.
For those in the downtown-is-doing-just-fine-anyway camp, Gallis has this to say: "All great cities in the world have a strong retail component. ... The entire island of Manhattan is like one big mall. Getting from good to great will be very difficult for uptown now."
No Major Park
Golden Gate Park
New York has Central Park. San Francisco has Golden Gate Park (pictured). Charlotte ... doesn't. Freedom Park, while a beautiful spot south of the downtown core, does not count because it's too small, says Gallis, and neither do any of the "postage stamps" uptown. Particularly regrettable is local leaders' failure to build a major waterfront park on the Catawba River or one of its lakes, he says. He scoffs at the suggestion that Lake Wylie's McDowell Nature Preserve or the U.S. National Whitewater Center along the Catawba could fill the bill.
"I'm talking about a park with ten miles of waterfront," he says, citing Minneapolis's impressive series of parks along the meandering Mississippi.
Prior to the luxury waterfront housing boom of the past two decades, city leaders never thought of the Catawba or its lakes as a place to recreate, says Gallis, and instead they ventured to the mountains and coast during their time off. That mentality is why they never saw acquiring significant Catawba riverfront land for a public park as a priority, he posits.
And, unlike Minneapolis and many other major cities, Charlotte has no urban waterfront that would serve as the logical spot for a civic gathering place, Tabor points out.
"Wouldn't it have been great if uptown had been built on a 500-acre lake?" Tabor muses. "But it just wasn't."
To assign blame for that, however, one would have to go back several hundred years to the Native Americans who established two trade routes that intersected a good ten miles from the nearest river frontage, or to the eighteenth-century European settlers who made that intersection -- today known as Trade and Tryon -- the center of their new community.
Of course, that doesn't quite excuse the fact that the city never set aside a large swath of green space downtown. Debra Campbell, Charlotte's planning director, says uptown will get a boost with the planned Romare Bearden Park in Third Ward (5.2 acres to Central Park's 843) and a proposed First Ward park (4.5 acres to Golden Gate's 1,017). But she's not worried that we don't have a marquee park.
"Just because we're not New York and we're not San Francisco doesn't mean we have failed," says Campbell. "What's important is that we have places for the community to gather. And we have that."
Cheryl Myers says feedback gathered for the 2020 Plan shows people are clamoring for more green space downtown. "That was something that came up ten years ago in the 2010 plan," she says, "and it's even more important now." She says the 2020 plan's consultants are studying ways to create an interconnected system of trails, greenways, sidewalks, and parks in the center city.
The sixty-seven-mile, 90-percent-completed ring around our city known as Interstate 485 didn't register on Gallis's best or worst list, but when we talked to area planning leaders about where they think we've done right or gone wrong, almost all of them mentioned it. Two decades after the first leg opened, there's no consensus about whether its impact has been negative or positive. Even those who criticize it don't agree on what makes 485 flawed. UNCC's David Walters says even if one supports the planners' original intention -- to route interstate traffic around the city -- that's certainly not what it's primarily used for today.
"People are getting on the highway to drive a mile for a gallon of milk," he says.
Leaders caved to political pressure from developers by allowing dozens of exits, he says, when really just two or three would have been preferable.
Pat McCrory, Charlotte's mayor during much of the interstate's construction, says city leaders actually with -- stood pressure for more exits. He lists the Pineville exit -- which is chronically clogged and frequently backs up onto the interstate -- among the city's worst-designed intersections. But after that initial calamity, he says city planners did a good job.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Director Debra Campbell says the city did the best it could planning land-use at the interchanges, but it was handicapped by what she sees as 485's biggest flaw: it's too far out. It caused growth to leapfrog out toward the city's borders, where there wasn't infrastructure to support it, she says, and it did more to aid mobility in surrounding counties than in Mecklenburg.
Perhaps 485's biggest fan: Walter Fields, a former city planning staffer. He says the beauty of our beltline is that it's entirely within Mecklenburg County and only travels through four municipalities, so Charlotte-Mecklenburg leaders were able to tightly control development at the interchanges and keep a lid on the number of exits.
"It was a good day's work," says Fields. "It took ten or fifteen years to do it, but we did it."