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A collaborative planning process helps chart a new course in Charlotte, North Carolina

October 29, 2018

By Craig Lewis

The community-driven South End Vision Plan will help transform the area into a cohesive, dynamic, urban transit-oriented neighborhood

Charlotte’s South End district encompasses 750 acres along a two-mile corridor outside Uptown. Home to a local arts scene and a thriving brewery culture, it’s one of the fastest-growing apartment submarkets nationwide. This project features an important component we find in many of the successful urban projects we work on–a public/private partnership. South End Vision Plan stands out as a community-driven collaboration that identified goals and initiatives for future development and established urban design standards to help transform the area into a cohesive, dynamic, urban transit-oriented neighborhood.

With proximity to Uptown, the 9.6-mile Blue Line light rail, and many available underused sites, it’s no wonder that South End is one of the fastest-growing districts in the country. The Vision Plan—completed in partnership with the City of Charlotte Urban Design Division and Charlotte Center City Partners—identified a set of goals and initiatives and a companion document of enhanced design standards to help South End become a truly vibrant place. Unanimously adopted by the Charlotte City Council in June 2018, the plan capitalizes on South End’s real estate value and maximizes its potential to become Charlotte’s most walkable, transit-oriented neighborhood. But how did we get there?

Future vision of South Boulevard as a multi-modal corridor with mixed-use development, wide sidewalks, and parking protected cycle tracks.

The underlying driver for the plan was the question of how to capitalize on a $1.5 billion transit investment while still holding onto a district’s authenticity? It’s a fine line to walk when a transit-oriented district wants to grow up, but thankfully, the South End of Charlotte has long been a place where innovation and experimentation have come to play.

Originally an industrial area, South End morphed into a redevelopment hot spot throughout the last decade thanks to construction of the Blue Line and four transit stations. In 2017, the corridor ranked as the fastest-growing submarket for apartments in the United States. Rail transit, proximity to booming Uptown, a popular urban trail network, a funky, urban vibe, and favorable zoning gave developers more than enough encouragement to build in South End. But all that development activity didn’t always yield the best results. In South End’s case, urban density didn’t equal good urbanism.

An illustration of transit-oriented density—a mix of existing buildings with character and new mixed-use towers within a short walk of the East/West Station.

New apartments were low- to mid-rise wood-frame structures with little in architectural detail and often adorned in an uninspired shade of beige. Streets also lacked interest, with few quality ground-floor shop spaces and scarce retail and restaurant offerings. The City decided it wanted a course correction to create the walkable South End the community had always envisioned—a South End that represented the best of Charlotte, not just off-the-shelf mediocrity.

The South End planning process demonstrates something we firmly believe: We not only create better communities through interdisciplinary design, but we’re also better working together.

To answer the call for change, Charlotte Center City Partners (CCCP) launched a planning process. Because of other priorities that year, however, it had less than a third of the budget such an ambitious planning process would normally require. So, the group turned to two trusted partners—the City of Charlotte’s Urban Design Studio (composed of many Stantec alumni) and Stantec’s Urban Places. The partners each took on equal parts of the standard consultant-led process, with the City leading the analysis and the regulatory elements; CCCP, playing to their events and programming strength, led public engagement; and our team focused on developing a vision and goals, the design of key focus areas, document layout, and the plan narrative. We received strong help from a steering committee comprising some of Charlotte’s most creative thinkers, innovative developers, and active residents who lent the process energy, expertise, and enthusiasm. 

Conceptual illustration of an urban park surrounded by adaptively reused buildings and new mixed-use buildings with strategic density.

Consistent with the theme of avoiding the traditional, our public engagement reflected the population in South End—active and creative, with a glass or two of alcohol. South End is known for its breweries, so it was no surprise that two of three events took place at one. Hundreds turned out for our kickoff, where we used an alley alongside a design center—a co-working space for artists, graphic designers, and architects—to create a carnival atmosphere, with various events designed for both fun and valuable public input. Participants raced on stationary bikes while answering surveys, provided input during games of cornhole, described their vision of a better future to a sketch artist, and even wrote postcards to their future selves, all while listening to live music and having a drink with friends.

The closing event, also at a brewery, featured a beat poet who described the plan’s vision and pitted teams from local breweries against each other in a quiz show about the goals of the plan in front of hundreds of residents, property owners, developers, and elected leaders. Oh, and did we mention that beer and wine were available?

Conceptual illustration of South Tryon Street depicting the full build-out potential of the Wilmore Centennial Park surrounded by grand mixed-use buildings.

The result of all this fun (and work)? An award-winning plan that not only presents a new vision for South End but also completely turned the conventional planning process on its head. It answers the challenges of housing diversity with new regulatory and capital improvement strategies; makes a forceful argument for supporting small business and entrepreneurs; increases development quality by establishing more explicit design standards; designates locations for new public spaces, large and small, throughout the district; anticipates and accommodates new forms of smarter mobility; and sets the expectation of increased density in certain areas, with the fiscal and affordability benefits that brings, while preserving other areas for the next generation of South End’s creatives.

The South End planning process demonstrates something we firmly believe: We not only create better communities through interdisciplinary design, but we’re also better working together—collaborating with the community and our clients to craft an inspiring but entirely feasible vision. The South End Vision Plan harnessed the creativity and innovation of the South End community and stakeholders, and it built on the strengths of the three partners to create an award-winning road map—enthusiastically adopted as official City policy—for South End’s next chapter.

  • Craig Lewis

    Craig has more than 30 years of award-winning experience implementing walkable, vibrant urbanism in hundreds of communities throughout North America.

    Contact Craig
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