Can SouthPark Retain Its Chill?

By David Mildenberg, Develop CLT

Despite its glitzy appearance and abundant construction, the SouthPark neighborhood faces significant challenges because of its  disconnected design and an inability to widen existing roads connecting it to downtown, says Craig Lewis, a principal in Charlotte with the Stantec consulting company.

SouthPark2To be sure, SouthPark has enormous strengths: More than 40,000 people work there, including at the headquarters of Coca-Cola Consolidated, Nucor and Piedmont Natural Gas, says City Councilman Kenny Smith, a commercial real-estate broker with New South Properties of the Carolinas who represents the area. About 800 apartments have opened in the last year, with another 1,000 under construction, while property values of nearby homes are soaring. While the Harris family or their joint ventures developed the mall and most of the property at SouthPark, more major developers are involved in the $750 million of development underway or planned. Simon Property Group, the largest U.S. public retail property owner, owns Charlotte’s biggest mall.

But concern about the neighborhood’s future is so significant that the city and private groups raised $240,000 to pay for a study of the area and then hopefully help implement some changes. About 10 urban planners affiliated with the Urban Land Institute visited Charlotte last week issuing initial thoughts on March 18. A final report will be shared later this year. Then it’s up to the public to comment and local public officials to respond, says Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble, who is chairman of Charlotte’s ULI chapter. Because most Charlotte politicians represent areas that are less affluent than SouthPark, attracting support for greater public spending there is often challenging.

Among the ULI group’s suggestions:

  • Create a more connected grid of streets instead of the disconnected cul-de-sacs that ring the area.
  • Create a strong advocacy group for the neighborhood, akin to Charlotte Center City Partners, the nonprofit funded by downtown interests that has an annual budget of  $6 million.
  • Build a promenade of parks around the mall, giving people options of walking and biking instead of just relying on their cars.

In an interview with DevelopCLT before the experts’ visit, Lewis made some interesting points, mostly aligned with the opinions of the outsiders, who included Harvard lecturer John Macomber. (We didn’t pay a nickel for Mr. Lewis’ analysis, though we have great respect for his skills.)

Here are some of his insights, edited for brevity:

  • It’s ironic that the 46-year-old, 1.6 million-square-foot mall that is the area’s landmark may be its biggest challenge to reducing congestion because its massive size makes it hard to improve north-south connectivity.
  • Charlotte’s goal should be developing a street grid that improves traffic flow and encourages transportation that doesn’t require a car, especially on the area’s main drag. “Fairview Road should be like Tryon Street downtown, a walkable, thriving Main Street.”
  • Complaints about SouthPark traffic probably outnumber downtown’s, a credit to the grid system that give people more options on getting in and around the area.
  • A few similar suburban magnets are making the transition away from being so car-centric. He cites Atlanta’s Buckhead and Reston Town Center in Virginia as examples.
  • Most suburban development patterns have not focused on creating better transportation systems within an area. “Developers haven’t cared as much about getting through an area as they do about getting you there.”
  • As SouthPark’s population increases, including more apartment dwellers, residents will demand better amenities such as public parks. Right now there is very limited public space in the neighborhood. Developers didn’t make parks a priority.
  • Connecting SouthPark to downtown Charlotte via mass transit should be studied along with mobility within the area. “In terms of light rail, we are completely ignoring our other large business center (SouthPark). It needs to be part of a larger conversation.”

(Source:  Develop CLT)

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