By Susan Shackelford
In University City, plans are underway for a makeover that’s somewhere between a few tweaks and a reset. The suburban northeast area of Charlotte is transitioning from an auto-centric environment to one connected by light rail, centers of interest and walkability.
“We are trying to deliver the original suburban concept in the best way possible,” Tobe Holmes told approximately 200 Realtors® at a Hot Topic presentation on University City, held Oct. 2 at the Hilton Charlotte University Place.
For the last three years, Holmes has been director of planning and development at University City Partners, a community and economic development organization. University City Partners exists as a Municipal Service District funded by property taxes from businesses and other organizations in the district, similar to how Charlotte Center City Partners operates.
Modifying University City’s suburban upbringing to fit today’s lifestyle preferences is a big challenge, Holmes noted. “I spent a few years as director of Historic South End, where we had fish jumping in the boat,” he said of desired development. “Then I came to University City, and it’s fishing at its finest.”
He and his group try to hook businesses and developers that fit with the updated vision for the area and are willing to come there. They also work closely with local and state government as well as institutions, residents and special interest groups.
Light Rail, Remaking
The opening of the Lynx Blue Line Extension in March 2018 is helping shift University City from a car-centric area to one with light rail connecting to uptown Charlotte and areas south of the city. The Blue Line is 19.3 miles long with 26 stations and runs from the western edge of the UNC Charlotte campus on North Tryon Street to I-485 north of Pineville.
University City Partners is also working with the N.C. Department of Transportation to develop more pedestrian crossings and to lower speeds on major roadways.
On a bigger scale, University City Partners has promoted streetscape improvements to J.W. Clay Boulevard and McCullough Drive, which are connector roads to major thoroughfares.
For J.W. Clay Boulevard, design is expected to be completed by summer 2022 for a project that will add sidewalks and buffered bike lanes to the portion of the road between North Tryon Street and East Harris Boulevard. The McCullough project is what Holmes calls a “complete street” — with bike lanes, wide sidewalks and medians in a variety of spots.
“These types of connecting streets get you places without having to sit in traffic,” Holmes explained. “They will change how University City operates over the next couple of decades. They will be great for walking and biking without having to be on major thoroughfares. The McCullough project should start in the next couple of years.”
University City Partners found “walkability” the second highest priority in a survey it did of area residents and businesses in 2017, second only to safety and security, and ahead of improving local schools.
“We need an urban core in University City and not having to drive in every instance,” Holmes noted. “We are chasing rabbits (to find the right development to make this happen); we can’t create demand out of the sky. But we can focus development and create centers of interest and let the edges be what they are until they ripen.”
Centers of Interest
He sees local light rail stations playing a key role in supporting and creating centers that complement the existing ones of UNC Charlotte, University Place and the University Research Park.
The two most notable examples to date are the J.W. Clay and University City Boulevard stations.
At the J.W. Clay station, two big things are happening to add to the lure of UNC Charlotte and University Place. The $87 million UNC Charlotte Marriott Hotel and Conference Center began site work last spring. The hotel is projected to have 226 rooms, and the complex is located on North Tryon Street as part of the UNC Charlotte campus, between the PORTAL Building and J.W. Clay Boulevard.
The other big change is redevelopment of a portion of nearby University Place, built in the 1980s as a retail and residential area. The new development, Waters Edge, will have about 300,000 square feet of commercial space, 600 multifamily units, parking decks and the possibility of a hotel. There is also potential for the University City library to relocate there, Holmes said.
“The aim of this project (Waters Edge) is to shape the Western part of the University Place property into a mixed-use development,” he noted on a slide shown to the audience. “This site creates a better urban form for U-City while constructing a new home for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.”
While Waters Edge and the new UNC Charlotte conference center are boosting the area near the J.W. Clay Transit Station, the University City Boulevard Transit Station, near Ikea, is slated to be a key part of an entirely new center of interest — entertainment.
Topgolf — which offers golf-oriented games and whose first Charlotte location was in Steele Creek — is building a 14.2-acre location near the station. “We see Topgolf anchoring an entertainment area,” Holmes said.
Across I-85, University Research Park is poised for two significant additions in coming years. In the planning stage now are approximately 300 townhomes by Mattamy Homes. Also coming is a connecting road and bridge from J.W. Clay Boulevard across I-85 to the park.
Dubbed the “North Bridge Over I-85,” the project will increase walkability by providing both bike lanes and a sidewalk separated from motorist traffic. Once design is complete this year, land acquisition is expected to begin in 2020 and be completed in 2022.
In closing his presentation, Holmes displayed a quote from “The Geography of Nowhere,” a book by James Howard Kunstler. The words said simply: “The twentieth century was about getting around. The twenty-first century will be about staying in a place worth staying in.”
The sentiment sums up what University City Partners is trying to encourage — a sense of place where people want to be spend time and don’t always have to drive to their destination.
Editor’s Note: Joining Holmes on the Oct. 2 program were Kathy Cornett and Monica Carney Holmes, both with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department. They shared perspectives of overall planning in Charlotte-Mecklenburg (Cornett) and transit-oriented planning (Carney Holmes; yes, she and Tobe are married.)