Urban planners learn from Charlotte’s Corridors of Opportunity
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Urban planners learn from Charlotte’s Corridors of Opportunity

May 21, 2023

Charlotte's fast-changing neighborhoods are under a magnifying glass this week, as the city hosts several hundred urban planners. As part of the annual gathering of the Congress for the New Urbanism, the group is looking at the city's Corridors of Opportunity. Planners are checking out Five Points Plaza in Historic West End, neighborhoods including McCrorey Heights and Oaklawn, and developments like Camp North End.

Urban designers think a lot about how decisions shape cities. Congress for the New Urbanism's President Mallory Baches says social and racial challenges are baked into the built environment.

"There are communities that have been invested in over time because they were communities that had power and there are communities that haven't seen that investment," said Baches.

The latter describes many communities along Charlotte's Corridors of Opportunity which haven't seen a lot of investment until recently.

"Our task is to try and un-structuralize — literally, physically — un-structuralize segregation, racism, disinvestment, marginalization, and work on both the regulations, the policies that can empower integrative cities and, also build out those integrative cities, actually invest in the communities that have been ignored for generations,"

It's a tall order. Baches says Charlotte through its city officials and community leaders is taking it on.

WFAE's Lisa Worf spoke with Baches. Here's an excerpt of the interview.

Baches: Part of what interested CNU in coming to Charlotte for this Congress is that Charlotte's tackling this space that is sort of a harbinger of the past auto-centric development that cities all across the country have instituted. When you look at corridors across any given city in the U.S., you so often see just a traffic-clogged nightmare that's unsafe, unwelcoming. The condition divides communities as opposed to bringing them back together. And Charlotte's working to focus on reforming these corridors across the city, making sure that you can walk, but you can also cycle and you can also drive and you can also take a streetcar, take a trolley, take light rail along these corridors - and then further making sure that the development that happens along these corridors and the redevelopment that happens along these corridors is serving a broader population. It's serving a variety of uses. It's making sure that it's not displacing existing residents and seeking equitable outcomes from the development that occurs.

Worf: One of the corridors that's getting a lot of investment now is the Beatties Ford Road corridor. You're seeing a lot of property prices go up. How do you have an area like this when investment is happening and you want to keep longtime residents there? I mean, what kind of mechanisms can you use to do that?

Baches: Well, you know, there's a lot of different tools. Some of those will be regulatory. They'll have to do with what sort of development is being allowed. And Charlotte's [Unified Development Ordnance] goes into effect, which is allowing for an increase of density in residential districts around the city.

Worf: And it's being rethought at this point too. Back on the table.

Baches: The challenge there, of course, is two-sided. There's the challenge of wanting to empower the property owners in these districts to be able to redevelop their property for their own financial benefit, as well as for the betterment of the community in many cases, but also wanting to avoid the sort of consumptive real estate approach that often happens with larger projects and the immediate displacement that can occur, both from just the physical pressures of larger scale development, but also from the appreciation over time and the challenge that puts on local residents to be able to pay their property taxes that have increased because the value of the land is increased. There are certainly regulatory tools that can be used to manage what we might call gentle density.

Worf: So in other words, maybe not talking about a 20-unit apartment building in a single-family area, but duplexes or triplexes.

Baches: Right. The New Urbanism likes to describe that as missing middle housing. But also there are other financial tools that can be used and certainly empowering developers to build affordability into the projects themselves. That's the sort of multifaceted approach that has to happen. You can't solve affordability with a single silver bullet tool. And you can very easily push people out of homes and communities that they've been in for generations if you aren't careful about the sort of development that you allow to occur.