'Green' author: Redevelop in increments

Monday, March 5, 2012

Architect, planner and author Stephen Mouzon, did more than just give some lectures from his book, Original Green: Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability, when he was in town recently. He also took a look at a section of south Charlotte that he thinks might be ripe for a different kind of long-range plan: the Park Road-Woodlawn Avenue neighborhood.

City planners are drawing up an area plan for that part of town, home to Park Road Shopping Center and Montford Drive's burgeoning restaurant and bar scene, among other things.

Like many places in Charlotte, the area has most elements of a strong city neighborhood – houses, apartments, condos, shopping, offices, schools, churches, parks and greenways – but is suburban and auto-oriented in its layout and the way it functions. I've long thought it would be a good area to transition to a more urban flavor as it redevelops over time. But the zoning now in place for most of the area requires suburban-style building: stores and offices sitting behind huge parking lots, single-uses, apartments quarantined from single-family houses, and all the buildings too far apart to make walking practical, much less pleasant.

An aside: Don't get me wrong; I love Park Road Shopping Center, despite its hopelessly car-focused design. It opened in 1956 as Charlotte's first open-air shopping center, and for years has offered a mix of stores that works exceptionally well. I hope to heaven its new owners, Edens & Avant, don't mess up a good thing.

Mouzon suggested the area could show how to do what planners and developers call a suburban retrofit: Taking an aging suburban area and making it a more village- or town-center type of area, with housing and stores and workplaces closer to one another. But, he said, most redevelopments require a developer buying up a big chunk of property and doing a big-footprint development. [Much of uptown Charlotte was redeveloped this way. Example: The EpiCentre.] Why not try something different, he proposed. Why not do it incrementally? Code every street frontage to its climax condition – that is, put codes in place that envision 30 years out and work toward that vision over time, as property changes hands and owners of small parcels redevelop and rebuild. Don't wait for one deep-pocketed savior developer.

He said he's going to draw up an idea and send it to the city. I asked him to share that with me, as well. I'll write more on it, if this comes to pass.

During his public lecture, sponsored by the Charlotte chapter of the Urban Land Institute and by the Charlotte Department of Transportation, he expounded on many of the ideas in his book: Build buildings that are designed to be able to transition from one use to another over time; live where you can walk to the grocery story; don't be afraid to look to the past for wisdom about how to design buildings and construct cities.

Indeed, Mouzon's pitch is what many architects might scorn as nostalgic. He said his goal is for audiences to leave his lectures having no idea what his politics are.

This article originally appeared in Mary Newsom's Naked City Blog.