As COVID-19 fades from the front pages but normalcy still hovers out of reach, Charlotte’s two biggest employment centers want to resemble each other a bit more in the decades to come.
On the surface, University City (a sprawling, suburban landscape dominated by cul-de-sacs, strip shopping centers, the university campus and office parks) doesn’t seem to have much in common with Charlotte’s center city (the compact domain of glass-and-steel towers, professional sports stadiums and breweries). But each has something the other wants, as the heads of Charlotte Center City Partners and University City Partners laid out Monday in a meeting with Charlotte City Council.
For uptown, it’s residents.
For University City, it’s a sense of place.
Center City Partners and University City Partners are both funded by a special property tax that covers land within their boundaries (the city is adding a third municipal service district-funded organization in SouthPark), designed to promote their respective areas. Both have been dealing with the challenges posed by COVID-19 and its aftermath, as work, school, commuting and development patterns were all disrupted.
“It’s great to watch this springtime renewal of our urban core,” said Michael Smith, president and CEO of Center City Partners.
Uptown and South End
Perhaps nowhere was the impact of the pandemic more evident than in Charlotte’s central business district. Emptied of workers overnight, and with no concerts, football games or conventions, the area was rendered a near-ghost town.
The reason is simple: About 120,000 people work in the area, while only about 34,000 live there. Although the number of residents has grown in recent years, uptown remains heavily dependent on workers and special events to fill its restaurants, bars and sidewalks.
“I’ve never seen a force more disruptive to ‘urban’ than a pandemic, and the loss of employees,” said Smith. “Our uptown is too dependent on one of the many things that make a great place, and that’s employment.”
Office occupancy in central Charlotte has returned to over 50%, Smith said, citing swipe data obtained from major employers. That puts Charlotte ahead of the national average, 42%, but still means that on any given day, half the people who went uptown and spent money aren’t showing up.
That leaves a vacuum. In addition to the drop-off in businesspeople spending money on lunches and happy hour drinks, Smith said that other problems like street homelessness, disorderly behavior and speeding are more visible with fewer people around.
“The best antidote for speeding is traffic,” quipped council member Ed Driggs.
Big employers like Bank of America are wrestling with their return-to-office plans, especially as employees who can push back against the expectation of commuting in to put butts-in-seats every day. Still, center city will see an influx of another 5.5 million square feet of office space in the coming years. Smith said that uptown has to attract more residents – and build dense housing to provide them with somewhere to live. Center city is projected to get another 5,600 apartment units in the coming years, a 25% increase.
“Over time, we are going to want to densify residential,” said Smith. “There’s so much more land to work with in that densification. There are still so many surface lots, there are still great concentrations of land holdings, like what Levine Properties has, what the county has.”
New stores will be needed to serve those residents, Smith said. Even though some retailers like Whole Foods uptown businesses are bars, restaurants and other food-and-beverage joints, making it harder for residents to do all their shopping uptown and lure others to uptown for “destination” shopping. South End (which also falls into Center City Partners’ area) has attracted more retailers in recent years, such as Anthropologie, Bonobos and Warby Parker.
“We see the absolute value and need for us to invest and recruit, and create, a more complete shopping environment,” said Smith. “It comes down to creating the space for it, is always what I hear from retailers.”
University City doesn’t have trouble with attracting more residents. Tobe Holmes, interim Executive Director of University City Partners, said the area is adding about 1,700 housing units per year. That means probably at least double that many new residents arriving annually.
What University City is trying to build is a sense of place, putting the proverbial “there,” there. It’s a part of town that’s grown rapidly in the past several decades, from farmland to suburbs. Holmes said that building an identity and a sense of community are key goals, and University City Partners has supported initiatives like a new farmer’s market to help.
A big part of building that sense of place is to physically stitch University City together. The area developed along mostly suburban, car-centric lines. Translation: Wide roads with speeding traffic, missing pedestrian infrastructure, huge asphalt parking lots and looping streets that don’t connect to each other in anything close to an orderly grid pattern. To top it off, many of the key roads in the area like N.C. 49 and W.T. Harris Boulevard are state-owned, meaning there’s little local control or influence over how they’re built or changed.
“We have got a lot of state roads in University City, which is fantastic if you want to move your talent in and out of the market faster than almost anywhere else,” said Holmes. “But it does bring its challenges.”
To try to knit University City’s transportation infrastructure into more of a connected, multimodal system, Holmes said University City Partners is focused on expanding and improving greenways like Doby Creek and planning an “urban trail” paralleling the light rail.
“We are looking to build an urban spine…and creating our own core, our own density around our 15-acre lake,” said Holmes. “Tryon Street, with the train and a significant amount of cars every day, is not the most walkable place in our community.”
But Holmes said other transportation projects, like the Northeast Corridor Infrastructure plans approved a decade ago, have been delayed by problems like utility relocations. The NECI projects include more pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and “complete streets” initiatives on major roads like J.W. Clay Boulevard.
“We struggle to understand the timeline for committing some of our projects. We hope that we can…find a way to move these forward,” he said.