Is Charlotte ready to start ditching cars?
On a recent Sunday afternoon, families strolled along Tryon Street and snapped photos of the freshly painted Black Lives Matter mural on the asphalt. Customers sipped coffee and mimosas on the McCormick & Schmicks patio. Nearby, a musician strummed his guitar. There was not a car in sight.
Soon after a group of 17 local artists painted the mural, the city of Charlotte announced plans to temporarily close off the 400-foot stretch of Tryon between 3rd and 4th streets to cars. They haven’t decided when it’ll reopen. It could be weeks. Could be months. Could be years.
The idea of permanently closing some Charlotte streets to cars in dense areas has become popular. It’s something that city planning director Taiwo Jaiyeoba supports, and wants to explore expanding in other parts of town.
“I would like to see more of that happen,” Jaiyeoba says. “But I want to make sure we do the necessary engagement with the community.”
The idea isn’t original. It’s worked before. The town Belmont, for instance, recently started shutting down its Main Street to car traffic on weekends to allow for more outdoor restaurant seating. Towns all around the country have turned once-active streets into pedestrian malls for years. And last month, Charlotte marked off 2.5 miles of city streets to encourage more pedestrian use as part of its Shared Streets pilot program.
No-car streets, parking-less apartment complexes, and widespread usage of the bus system are all novel concepts to Charlotte, a sprawling car city that until recently hasn’t really emphasized being pedestrian friendly all over.
But the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, coupled with a deliberate push to make Charlotte more walkable, prompts the question: Are we ready to start ditching cars?
At least one Charlotte developer is betting on that.
In the Seversville neighborhood in west Charlotte, Grubb Properties is planning a five-story apartment complex. The 104-unit building will have just six parking spots. Residents have to agree in their leases that they won’t buy a car.
Grubb will evict them if they do, Clay Grubb told city council last week.
Spending less on building parking, the developers say, makes it possible to charge tenants less for rent. The cost of building a parking lot equals at least $30,000 per parking space, according to Grubb.
The thinking is, eliminating parking frees up Grubb to set aside more affordable units without relying on public subsidies. Grubb says it will maintain 50 percent of units for tenants who make 80 percent of the area median income for 15 years.
Eric Applefield, director of development at Grubb Properties, says that this development could help pave the way for other such carless projects.
If it doesn’t work, Applefield says, it could make it more difficult for other similar projects down the line.
For one, the rezoning for this apartment complex could shape how the city views future projects. Secondly, the developer needs to get a construction loan from the bank, and the bank is more willing to loan for a project it knows is successful.
“If this model works, I really hope it is replicated,” Applefield said.
“We’re committed to this idea of creating this positive alternative community that really wants to live a different lifestyle. I think that’s missing in Charlotte.”
Another project Grubb is planning in Charlotte, the redevelopment of the Herrin Ice property in NoDa that’ll include apartments and office space, will have a similar scaled-down parking setup. Parking won’t be eliminated altogether; rather, apartment renters and the daytime work crowd will share spaces.
“When we first started building apartments, we started with 1.5 parking spaces per apartment. We went down to 1.25, then 1, now we’re at .9,” Applefield says. “We’re going to continue to ratchet down that ratio.”
During a rezoning hearing last week for the Seversville complex, members of the community who opposed the project pointed mainly to the elimination of cars.
One resident of the area, Viltis Palubinskas, pointed to the fact that there aren’t amenities like grocery stores close enough that people can walk to. “This project does not set up tenants for success,” Palubinskas said.
City councilman Braxton Winston said that as Charlotte grows into a larger metropolitan area, “this shouldn’t be an experiment. This should be more of a normal thing.” But, he later added, the total prohibition of cars does give him pause.
Another recent trend that hints at Charlotte’s craving for non-car transportation options: Demand for bikes.
The Re-Cyclery in Charlotte specializes in refurbishing and reselling older bikes. Since mid-March, the shop has been slammed with orders for first-time bike owners as well as people who’ve dug out old bikes collecting dust, in need of a repair.
The shop’s been operating at a limited capacity — amended hours, visits by appointment only — since the pandemic began. Some customers have waited for weeks to get an appointment, Re-Cyclery manager Paul Cunningham tells the Agenda. These days, the shop can easily sell out of its entire inventory in a day.
The surge in refurbishing old bikes puts a strain on the supply chain for bike parts like tires, tubes, and chains, Cunningham says. His shop is doing its best to keep up.
“The request for bikes has been absolutely crazy,” Cunningham says. “I’ve spoken to many friends who own/work in other bike shops and they are experiencing the same thing.”
He attributes the surge mostly to families in need of some fresh air. Bike-riding is good exercise, sure, but it’s also a safer mode of transportation right now with fewer cars on the road.
“We’re really happy to see so many first time bike owners out there now and we hope to see the bike community grow from this,” Cunningham says.
For city leaders like Jaiyeoba, the city’s planning director, improving non-car transit options is a crucial step in addressing equity issues in Charlotte.
That’s the idea behind a concept policymakers call 10-minute neighborhoods. The idea is, Jaiyeoba says, wherever you live, you should be able to access critical services within 10 minutes. That means without use of a car, and instead by walking or using public transportation.
Nearby access to a reliable bus route makes it possible for you to get to work on time, for instance. Having a grocery store within safe walking distance makes it possible for you provide nutritious food for your family. Being able to take the light rail to the primary care doctor improves your access to preventative medicine.
The city’s doing this in a number of ways.
For one, Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) is working to trim bus wait times down to 15 minutes or less soon for at least 10 bus routes in the system. They’re revamping routes and adding more buses to the fleet. The city’s also in the design phase of the Silver Line, the east-west light rail that’ll run from Gaston County all the way down to Matthews. City leaders continue to push for “micro mobility” options like electric scooters, which returned last month after a coronavirus hiatus.
Charlotte leaders know the city has a ways to go. According to ratings from the national group Walk Score, Charlotte is the is the 49th most walkable large city in the U.S. Walk Score considers Charlotte a “car dependent city.”
In a recent post about car culture in Charlotte, Ely Portillo of UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute noted that the city is working to fix past infrastructure “mistakes.” For instance, the Blue Line light rail never originally provided a connection between South End and Uptown.
Now, the city, thanks in part to a donation from U.S. Bank, is moving ahead with an $11 million bike and pedestrian bridge.
“The fact of the matter is we are not going to eliminate the automobile,” Jaiyeoba says. “But if we can reduce the use of it substantially, it frees people up in terms of the economic advantages.”
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