Economic Development

Back on Track

Tracy Finch would prefer to show visitors around the south side of Charlotte by train. But the city's first light-rail line won't open until this...
by | May 31, 2007
 

Tracy Finch would prefer to show visitors around the south side of Charlotte by train. But the city's first light-rail line won't open until this fall, so for now, Finch is stuck crisscrossing the tracks in her Audi. Stopped at an intersection, she cranes around in her seat, fishing through a mess of rail maps, budget documents and development plans in the back of the car. As she grabs the paper she was looking for, some artist renderings of new buildings, a car honks. Finch sees the green light and heads off, navigating a maze of construction sites strung along the rail line.

"That's going to be 400 apartments with stores on the ground floor," Finch says, pointing to an empty lot hugging the tracks. "And that," she says of a low-slung industrial building a little father down, "is going to be 11 stories of mixed-use residential and retail." Although the line is still months from opening, developers have been staking their claim along it for a few years. In the South End alone, the city is adding nearly 4,000 residential units and almost 400,000 square feet of commercial space. "There's just so much going on down here right now."

Finch should know. As Charlotte's transit-oriented development czar, she has a focused mission: to ensure that dense, pedestrian-friendly villages cluster around rail stations. In a sprawling Southern city of 600,000 people that has grown up entirely around the automobile, that's a radical new mindset. And it's working surprisingly well. Developers are investing more than a billion dollars in projects centered around Charlotte's transit stations - and the trains haven't even carried a single passenger yet. When the 9.6-mile South Corridor line opens, it will be the first leg of a regional system planned to crisscross Charlotte and surrounding Mecklenburg County with more than 75 miles of light rail, commuter trains, streetcars and bus rapid transit. With a price tag inching toward $5 billion, it's by far the single biggest infrastructure project in Charlotte's history.

Charlotte isn't the only low-density city pegging its future on the rails. Sun Belt cities from Orlando to Phoenix are building out light-rail systems, in an historic break from the car-bound past. Planners in these cities hope transit will ease traffic congestion and help residents travel more efficiently. But if you think this movement is about getting more people to the office during rush hour, you're missing the point. Places such as Charlotte view transit as a tool for redefining the very nature of the city and how it will continue to grow. These cities are banking on rail to help create a walkable, urban cityscape - a sense of place in the Land of Sprawl.

Managing this cultural shift can be a challenge. Critics complain that light rail is an expensive way to move relatively few people around, and that it hasn't been proven to reduce congestion on the roads or pollution in the air. In Charlotte, cost overruns and missed deadlines have soured some residents on the whole program. Now, a well-financed ballot drive aimed at cutting off funding for rail construction threatens to cripple the bold experiment before it even starts. Tracy Finch acknowledges that embracing transit-oriented development is an exercise in education - for a city, for developers and for residents. "There simply hasn't been this kind of development in Charlotte," she says. But, as Finch points out while zipping from one construction site to the next, the phenomenon is already changing the face of the city.

A LONG-TERM INVESTMENT

Older cities, such as Boston, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, have been shaped by their subways and "els" for more than a century. Then there were the "streetcar suburbs" of the early 1900s, places such as Brookline, Massachusetts, or Shaker Heights outside Cleveland, which lured city dwellers with the promise of an easy commute back downtown. In those days, nobody thought of trackside row houses or downtown skyscrapers as "transit-oriented development" per se. It was just how things were done before the era of suburban sprawl.

More recently, transit-oriented development has emerged as its own discipline within the urban planning profession. The tenets are fairly simple: Development should encourage walking and riding transit and discourage automobile use. To achieve those goals, projects feature pedestrian-friendly design elements such as ground-floor retail, limited parking, outdoor public spaces, enhanced streetscapes and buildings set close to the street. And, of course, easy access to transit stations. Ideally, these projects aim for a dense mix of uses within a half-mile radius of each station.

Portland, Oregon, is the most famous follower of this approach. Light rail in Portland has stimulated $3 billion in new development near stations over the past two decades. And a city-owned and -operated streetcar line has brought in $1.4 billion in new projects along its downtown loop since it opened in 2001.

Now a lot of places besides Portland are talking about transit-oriented development. Denver and some of its suburbs are building out a $4.7 billion transit system with 137 miles of light-rail and bus-rapid-transit lines. Salt Lake City is expanding its light-rail system, to stretch over 130 miles - it's already triggered hundreds of millions of dollars in new development. Other cities, including Austin, Dallas, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Orlando, Phoenix and Sacramento, are all constructing new light-rail lines. "Everybody talks about smart growth now," says Robert Dunphy, a transportation and land use expert with the Urban Land Institute. "These cities understand that transit is a huge part of that."

But transit-oriented development is more than just the latest buzz phrase, its advocates say. Growing concern over air pollution and traffic congestion has policy makers looking for ways to reduce driving and to give people alternatives to an auto-only lifestyle. Meanwhile, changing demographics are fueling demand for this type of development. Many baby boomers want to trade the house in the suburbs for a more urban way of life; an AARP study found that 71 percent of older Americans want to live within walking distance of a transit station. The same is true among the young generation of "Echo Boomers" who will soon make up more than a third of the country's population. All totaled, predicts the Center for Transit-Oriented Development, a nonprofit clearinghouse for information on the subject, national demand for living above the tracks could double by 2030.

In Charlotte, it was the city's rise as a national banking center that began discussions about finding a new way to grow. In the early 1990s, Bank of America relocated its corporate headquarters to Charlotte. Other banks, including what is now Wachovia Corp., also proliferated there. With the banks came an influx of employees transferring from cities such as Philadelphia, New York or San Francisco. "These were people used to an urban lifestyle," says Finch. "They didn't want to live on a half-acre lot at the end of a cul-de-sac. They understood the value of a walkable neighborhood." At the time, Charlotte didn't have many of those to offer; Finch says that a lot of bank employees refused to make the move.

Planners began thinking about transit by mapping where population growth was already occurring around Charlotte. What they came up with was a five-armed figure, a slightly askew star with downtown at its center. The city council adopted this "Centers and Corridors Vision" in 1994. From that, planners started to see how they could use trains or rapid buses to channel future growth along those corridors. "We always saw transit as a means, not an end," says planning director Debra Campbell. "The real impetus for transit was how it could help us grow in a way that was smart. This really isn't even about building a transit system. It's about place making. It's about building a community."

Nobody worked harder than Mayor Pat McCrory to sell Charlotte on this vision. A Republican elected in 1995 and now Charlotte's longest-serving mayor, McCrory excelled at translating planner-speak into terms that resonated with everyday people. "Planners use acronyms and words like 'density' and 'R6 zoning,' " McCrory says. "People can't relate." The mayor liked to present two competing images of Charlotte's future. One included tidy tree-lined streets with bikeways and sidewalks. The other showed "traffic lights every 15 feet, strip malls and unlimited pavement." More than anything, McCrory stressed the idea that a transit system isn't intended to be a quick fix but rather a long-term investment.

McCrory's argument worked. In 1998, residents in Mecklenburg County voted for a half-cent sales tax increase to help pay for transit. That would cover the 25 percent local share of the overall cost; the state pays 25 percent and the federal government pays half. Voters also approved $50 million in bonds to pay for infrastructure improvements related to light rail. In 2005, the federal government approved funding for the first segment of the system. All the while, the city was focused on bringing in development along the proposed South Corridor route. It wasn't easy. Developers were skittish about committing to the project until the federal funding came through.

Charlotte did two creative things to build momentum, turning its effort into a national model for transit-oriented development. First, the city ran a commuter trolley along existing freight tracks in the South End - the same tracks the light-rail trains will use. The trolley opened in 2001 and ran for only a couple of years along a relatively short section of tracks. But as a public relations tool, it helped residents and developers taste the potential. Campbell calls the trolley an "instrumental catalyst" for showing what this transit thing was all about.

Second, the city created Tracy Finch's job. Finch's position - coordinator for station area development - is evenly split between the city's economic development office and its transit agency, and may be the only such dual-purpose position in the nation. Finch collaborates with developers to make sure projects in the transit corridor match the city's new sensibilities. When one developer wanted to open a Lowe's hardware store a block from the rail line, Finch worked with him to wrap the big-box store in street-front residential units, move half the parking lot to the back of the store and put the rest of the parking on the roof.

NEW SUBURBANISM

Huntersville is a suburb 15 miles north of downtown Charlotte. Twenty years ago, 3,000 people lived there, and locals jokingly called it "Hootersville," after the tiny town from "Green Acres." Today, it's home to 40,000 residents, and remains one of the fastest-growing cities in North Carolina. Signs of transition are everywhere. At the homey, wood-paneled Toast Cafe, customers are still greeted by name, but the breakfast specials on a recent weekday morning included an asparagus-and-brie omelet and a ham-and-gruyere quiche.

Huntersville is positioned to get a rail station on its main street, a block down from the Toast Cafe. Unlike the soon-opening line to Charlotte's south, however, the North Corridor line still exists mostly on paper. Nevertheless, Huntersville planners are eager to use the line to help re-orient the town's runaway growth. In the late 1990s, Huntersville and a few other northern suburbs brought in Andres Duany, the New Urbanist guru, to sketch out a vision for development along the corridor. Duany called the stations "a string of pearls," and he encouraged the towns to design for a rail line, even though it hadn't been officially proposed at the time.

That's exactly what's happened. All along the proposed northern route, builders have made plans for high-density development. Huntersville is already moving forward on an ambitious plan to create a 400-acre transit village, a walkable mix of housing, retail and office space. Mecklenburg County plans to spend over $30 million to reroute the existing tracks so that the new development can straddle both sides of the future station. Huntersville expects the development to bring more than half a billion new dollars to the region.

Not all of Charlotte's suburbs have been as enthusiastic about transit-oriented development as Huntersville. The town of Pineville voted against having the South Corridor line extended there because, the mayor said, Pineville couldn't handle the density required to make light rail work. And commissioners in Iredell County, just north of Mecklenburg, recently voted to stop the commuter-rail tracks at the county line. Generally, though, suburbs are eagerly preparing for the train. "What they wanted to happen is happening," says Nate Bowman, a Huntersville developer who's already working on some other high-density projects in town. "All the developers have already lined up all the way up the line." In the old center of Huntersville, business leaders have erected a booster-ish sign on the spot where the station would go, urging residents to "Ride the Rail!"

But the rail may never come to Huntersville. Opponents are building a campaign against transit that threatens to undermine the future of the entire plan. The problems began last fall. Cost overruns, due partly to the skyrocketing price of cement and steel, pushed construction of the South Corridor line up to $463 million. That's $36 million over budget and more than double the original projection when the line was first proposed.

The news galvanized opponents of the transit plan. A loosely organized but deep-pocketed group of local business leaders is mounting an effort to repeal the half-cent sales tax passed in 1998. They hired a private company to gather enough signatures to force a vote on the repeal this November. For these critics, rising costs were merely the final straw. They never believed transit was a good fit for such a spread-out place as Charlotte in the first place.

"The whole thing has been a colossal mess from the start," says Don Reid, a former city council member who is helping to run the tax-repeal effort. "We don't have the density to support transit, and you can't force the density unless you spend considerably more money. Yes, transit is bringing development, but only at a huge expense to taxpayers." Reid and others would like to see the money Charlotte is spending on transit used for other purposes. "We don't have enough people to fight crime; we don't have enough room in our schools; and our roads are in their worst shape in 30 years."

Those are common arguments against transit-oriented development across the country. Many people believe funds would be better invested by expanding and maintaining existing roadways. "It can be tough," says the Urban Land Institute's Dunphy. "The forces of business-as-usual are strong to overcome." Especially in cities where residents have always driven everywhere they need to go, transit can seem like an affront to the accepted way of life. "Many people still think of 'density' as a bad word," says Tim Halbur of the Center for Transit-Oriented Development. "They think it means 'projects' and public housing."

Charlotte's transit boosters are confident they'll prevail in November. Voters have supported transit several times in the past, and city officials, from the planners to Mayor McCrory, have worked hard to build support within the community. Tina Votaw, a planner with the city agency in charge of light rail, says it's important to convey a big-picture message to the public. "You have to be honest and say, 'You're right. This transit line might not help you. But it might help your neighbors. It might help your children.' " Votaw adds that traffic congestion isn't going away, and that adding lanes to busy freeways is a short-term solution to traffic problems. "We're not traditionally good at taking the long view," she says. "But you've got to impress that upon people one by one."

MORE THAN TRAINS

Even without political opposition, it's difficult for cities to get transit-oriented development right. Most cities are stuck with outdated zoning codes that strictly prohibit the kind of mixed-use development that is critical to success. And even with the proper zoning in place, a city may find itself facing what planners often call transit-oriented development's evil twin - transit-adjacent development.

Just because a building is located near a transit station does not mean it's "transit-oriented." For example, look at what's happened around Atlanta's Lindberg metro station, in the ritzy Buckhead area. City plans called for a mixed-use village of residences, ground-floor retail and office space. While it looked good on paper, the end result didn't work as the city had hoped. The mix of uses wound up segregated into distinct areas near the station, connected by lifeless pedestrian walkways. Visitors to Lindberg can feel intimidated by the looming corporate towers and parking decks.

Another challenge is what Tim Halbur calls the "island problem." By focusing so intently on the area immediately surrounding a transit station, a city may end up with a well-designed station area that can't relate to its surroundings. That was the problem in Beaverton, Oregon, seven miles west of Portland. The city worked hard to make the area around its light-rail station, which opened in 2001, accessible to pedestrians. "They put a lot of thought into the station area," Halbur says, "and it's beautiful. But it's surrounded by automobile-oriented development. The hope is that the station area becomes a catalyst that will spread out. But it won't spread if you don't also invest in the necessary infrastructure improvements to link it with the rest of the city." That means sidewalks and through-streets that connect the station to the blocks around it.

Because transit-oriented development represents such a radical break from standard practice, it's best to get planners, residents, developers and transit managers talking at the earliest stages of planning. That's been the biggest lesson learned in Denver. The city's first light-rail trains began running in 1994, but it took another decade for the development side of the equation to catch on. "When I first started talking about transit-oriented development then, nobody knew what it was," says Bill Sirois, who manages development issues for the growing rail system. "It really has exploded in the past two years. But the earlier you can get involved in the process, the better."

That's certainly been the mantra in Charlotte. For the past 15 years of development planning, the city has worked to have as many players involved as possible. And from the beginning, transit was seen as much more than the trains on the tracks. It's the tool for building the Charlotte of the 21st century. That's hard work, but for Tracy Finch, the underlying idea is pretty simple. "You can't just put the transit line in and expect development to come."

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