Monday, July 28, 2008

The Central Avenue challenge

Wonderful discussion about retrofitting suburbia. If you haven't read the comments, I recommend them.

Retrofitting can be expensive for taxpayers, when a city has to build sidewalks, add storm drains and so on. The city's changes in recent years -- requiring sidewalks, better street designs, etc. -- help with new construction only. Even the city's admirable, if slow-moving, sidewalk-building gets at only part of the problem.

Most of the potential retrofitting happens as part of the natural economic evolution of a city: A business closes, another business buys the building and renovates it, or tears it down and build again. Or a business expands its building.

The city's passivity is hurting those small-scale opportunities all over town. Here are two examples, both a couple of years old, are the Bank of America branch at Kings Drive and Charlottetowne Avenue (a.k.a. the old Independence Boulevard), and the Bojangles at Third Street and Charlottetowne. Plenty of other examples abound all over the city, especially along the so-called International corridor of Central Avenue, between Eastway Drive and Eastland Mall.

That branch bank and the Bojangles are welcome businesses. I just spent a year in Massachusetts, suffering withdrawal from good fried chicken and biscuits, so believe me, I value Bojangles. The bank replaced one that was demolished for the Little Sugar Creek Greenway and was needed in the neighborhood.

BUT ... The two buildings -- not the businesses within, but the buildings and lot designs -- are awful for the location. They're suburban in design -- one-story buildings with deep setbacks from the street and huge parking lots out front. They're unsuitable for an in-town location, especially an area where other developers are trying to build more urban patterns. Those two small buildings should have helped with the urban retrofit of Midtown area, yet they didn't. Why not?

The city's old-fashioned zoning codes are to blame. Although I often praise the city's planners for devising a variety of urban codes in the past 10 or 15 years (MUDD, PED, TOD, etc.) those standards apply only to property that holds that zoning. If your property has the older, suburban-style business zoning (B-1 or B-2) you can build suburbia with no trouble from the city. You're virtually required to, in fact, because of the required setbacks and buffers. You have an economic incentive as well, because going through a rezoning costs money. Keeping your old zoning doesn't.

Plenty of other examples abound along Central Avenue. Small owners, small buildings, and old zoning codes add up to lost opportunities for small retrofitting steps over time.

If you're one of the hundreds of people deeply wishing to see a Central Avenue revitalization, you should push the city to change its B-1 zoning standards. I'm getting tired of visionary plans that don't address this issue. Central Avenue still looks like bedraggled suburbia because the underlying rules that govern building designs haven't changed under the old zoning that exists along Central Avenue. To change the way things look, change the rules that govern how things look.

(UPDATE as of 7:30 p.m.: Got an e-mail this afternoon that said the city had adopted a PED overlay for Central Avenue. If that's the case it would do exactly what I'm hoping for -- require more urban-style development. But I can't find it listed on the planning department's web page. Doesn't mean it didn't happen, but means I can't, tonight, confirm or deny it.)

And before you go off about how the city shouldn't set design standards, let me just open your eyes to the reality that B-1 zoning, which requires deep setbacks, is less favorable to property owners than a zoning that would allow them to build closer to the property line and cover more of the land with buildings and less with setbacks and buffers. If you're required to keep 35 feet of property vacant in front, you can't build as much income-producing square-footage as if you're required to keep only 15 feet of property vacant in front. I'm not proposing ADDING a lot of design controls, only altering the ones that already exist.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

I agree Mary. We need more businesses that front the street with parking in the back, especially in in-town locations. It is a lot of wasted potential.

Anonymous said...

I really think Charlotte should really push and embrace the whole international thing on Central Avenue. Eastland Mall could be converted into an International Mall with vendors from all over and an International Farmers Market. That would be pretty cool.

Anonymous said...

The Eastland idea just mentioned above is already working at Fiesta Plaza (the old Outlet Marketplace) near Carowinds. Bring it on!

As for the zoning restrictions, I agree with mary on this one. How about some loosened guidelines on some of those codes so business don't need to request a zoning change in the first place. central is one example, South Blvd. is another. 3030 South near the New Bern station is a perfect urban design, but the Chick-Fil-A just built across the street is just another suburban spot. I like Chick-Fil-A and have stopped by a few times, but what a waste of space for what was potentially a good urban center near the New Bern station.

Anonymous said...

I use the BofA branch and the Bojangles referenced in the post and can vouch that both often have full parking lots. And guess what -- I drive to them and park there. Those sites would not have been useful to the businsses that located there without parking. Currently we're bound to our cars and we need parking lots. Surely you can find better examples somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Good blog topic Mary. I also absolutely agree that we need to change the whole way of looking at how buildings sit on their sites & form the street fabric --- and codify those details --- if we're to begin transforming our cities back again into pedestrian-friendly places. As a customer who's used both those places you mention along Charlottetowne, I never really thought about this till you pointed it out, but yeah, why WEREN'T they subject to such scrutiny when they're in such high-profile redevelopment areas?

And (sorry to beat up on a developer, but) it's likewise disappointing to see the re-do of the strip along Central (formerly Gay & Lesbian Center, across from Family Dollar) with the same setback design. Rumor has it that Einstein's Bagels is moving in, but for all the attention given to that area by those of us in Plaza-Midwood/Morningside/Commonwealth Park, with our optimism for it becoming one of Charlotte's coolest 'hoods within the next five years, this just isn't consistent with the whole streetcar-thing we expect to see passing through eventually.

To tie this back into your previous topic of whether the 'burbs can be "retrofitted", I have to say I'm pessimistic........even with these kind of site-specific codes, building yet another vinyl-clad 'New Urbanist' (hah) townhouse away from city centers does not a "real" city make. You can put lipstick on a pig but it's still a pig. The patterns of auto-centric development are so intrinsically bred into the suburbs --- road layout & size; utility infrastructure; private investment --- that nothing short of a massive earthquake or wartime destruction (e.g. post-WWII Berlin or London) would provide any reasonable excuse to level 'em & start over.

Anonymous said...

To the previous poster - nobody said no to parking lots. They could have built the parking lot in the rear, out of sight from the street, with the restaurant and bank fronting the street/sidewalk. Instead, the parking lot sits in front and the building back away from the street. That kind of development discourages walking.

Anonymous said...

To anon 2:55, I think Mary meant that zonng should require that parking be built behind the buildings, instead of in front, which creates a more pedestrian-friendly environment.

But to a larger point, I am all for the idea of bringing buildings in urban neighborhoods right up to the street, and tucking the parking in back. But it seems to me that businesses that do this suffer for customers, while businesses with parking in front (i.e. visible) do better. Case in point: The shopping center on Selwyn next to Selwyn Pub. At most of those spaces, it's been a revolving door of retail establishments. Another example is Latta Pavilion in Dilworth. Grubb can't keep anyone in there. (Of course, there are exceptions: Paper Skyscraper being one)

What about a happy medium that allows on-street parking, perhaps even angled, so that there is the appearance of available parking? Because I think if there's the impression that there's nowhere to park, or that the parking is hard to find, it means tough going for any retail establishment.

Anonymous said...

Uh, if CMPD is telling city council that the city's streets are too dangerous to allow street vendors to operate past 9pm, shouldn't we fix that before assuming that moving parking lots will "create walkable" development?

JAT

Anonymous said...

Really Mary? You spent a year in Cambridge? We'd hardly know it, after all you only work it into every single column.

I was born in Cambridge, I love Boston, but I choose to live here, as have you. If we keep trying to be someplace else, we won't ever be our own city.

Central Ave is one of the cooler places in Charlotte, warts and all. If we could make places like Central Ave and No-Da and the south end all more accessible and walkable the city would come alive in those areas - and it would be Charlotte, not South Cambridge or North Atlanta!

Anonymous said...

JAt - Ask any police officer which district he'd rather patrol... one with dense, walkable development or one with a bunch of spread-out strip malls.

Common sense tells criminals not to do dumb things in plain view of strangers. Walkable districts, especially those which have a diverse local economy and therefore draw foot traffic 24/7, make it VERY difficult for criminals to feel comfortable that witnesses won't spoil their plans. That's why uptown is the safest district in the city -- there's always someone around to see what you're up to.

Make Central Avenue ped-friendly and watch the rate of street crime decrease. The safer it gets, the more people will walk there - the cycle is self-sustaining. Unfortunately the opposite happens in ped-dangerous neighborhoods (little street activity = more crime = less street activity = more crime...).

Eric said...

Interesting Mary. I wasn't aware of the legacy zoning laws and how the new urban ones aren't retroactive. I lived in Plaza Midwood for a while and tried, as much as I could, to steer new Charlotte visitors away from Central when driving to my house.

While I agree with several of the comments that Central has a unique charm, especially close to the city center, I also side with Mary that design 'best practices' (standards might be a bit too choking) need to be followed - read, encouraged - as the city morphs.

What about that trolley plan up Central? Might that lead to urbanization like the Blue Line is doing for South End?

Anonymous said...

I'm not at all certain that Mary is talking about simply moving parking to the rear, since she mentioned smaller setbacks resulting in increased usable square footage. If the parking size remains the same, so does the building size no matter what the street front setback.

Typical traditional urban settings such as are found in older urban neighborhoods don't include significant on-site parking for each retail establishment. I can see that being a serious problem for a bank certainly, and given their market, for fast food estalishments as well. Banks rely on commercial deposit accounts: I can't envision store managers parking three blocks and walking with the days receipts to the bank. I would guess they'd be much more likely to select a branch at which they CAN park. Fast food relies on an impulse purchase and a very quick turn around. Rmeote parking works against both of those things.

That's not to say that those two properties couldn't be traditional urban designs and have found tenants, but I'd bet a good bit that with alternative choices that DO have convenient parking, banks, fast food and others (for example dry cleaners) will avoid designs that deny them that on site parking.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
I agree Mary. We need more businesses that front the street with parking in the back, especially in in-town locations. It is a lot of wasted potential.

7/28/2008 02:20:00 PM

Anonymous said...
To the previous poster - nobody said no to parking lots. They could have built the parking lot in the rear, out of sight from the street, with the restaurant and bank fronting the street/sidewalk. Instead, the parking lot sits in front and the building back away from the street. That kind of development discourages walking.

7/28/2008 03:02:00 PM

Kudos and I am in total agreement with Mary on this one (that felt wierd to type) and with both of you. Why do you have to see the parking lot? A nice store front with parking in the back. Encourages walking and just looks better.

Anonymous said...

"with parking in the back."

Super. The better for the QC's catch-and-lease class to operate out of sight.

Macro before micro.

JAT

Anonymous said...

Her reference to building more square footage due to the smaller setbacks indicates something other than simply shifting the location of parking. So does the entire concept of an urban design. It isn't just a matter of a disguised suburban car-dependent appearance. The typical urban neighborhood small commercial building just doesn't have on-site parking. Dense urban neighborhood commercial spaces don't consist principally of one story, single use buildings with parking and a main customer entrance in back, for heavens sake.

At least as regards the structures, the block on Central when you find Johns Country Kitchen and Nova Bakery is typical of an urban neighborhood commercial design type. Those buildings are built to the street and they are approached from the front, not a rear parking lot.

Cato said...

On the whole, I like mixed use areas and walkability, but the buildings-on-the-front-of-lots bugaboo, especially in places like Plaza-Midwood, is probably tangential.

Consider the intersection of 7th and Pecan in Elizabeth. A significant portion of it is suburban, stip-mall style development. But does having to walk twenty yards across a parking lot really discourage foot traffic? Plaza-Midwood already has similar retail (the Harris Teeter and the strip mall across Central from it).

Could these sites have been developed in a way that gives New Urbanists more warm & fuzzy feelings? Sure. But the small scale of these outlets offers a trade-off. Parking in the front invites car traffic, which gives the stores there a better chance at profitablity, while remaining more or less walkable, if not perfectly so.

Eric said...

These comments make me want to become an urban planner for the city. Takers anyone?

Kim Lever said...

Speaking of embracing the "whole international thing" Charlotte East puts together an event that recognizes the delicious ethnic restaurants on the East Side and help revamp the area at the same time. It is called Taste of the World and this year will be our sixth annual event! Please show your support by attending the event or even signing up for a sponsorship! Your culinary voyage begins with a reception at the Charlotte Museum of History followed by a guided motor coach tour to sample cuisines from three different international restaurants including: African, Asian (Indian and Thai), Central and South American, Cuban, Jamaican and Mexican. Then guests are swept away to the beautiful Van Landingham Estate for dessert and coffee.See www.charlotteeast.com for more details!

Anonymous said...

Placing buidlings up to the street line decreases the amount of beautification the city has enjoyed- trees and grass.

I do think 35 feet or greater back is way too much. I think 20 feet is good- moves business closer to the street, yet allowing room to plant grass and trees. It's a win win.

Anonymous said...

^ I agree, Charlotte is not the kind of city to have buildings almost up to the curb. If anything the urban flavor of the city involves setbacks, with a short walkup and trees planted close enough to create shade for pedestrians.

IMO, the worst thing about Atlanta is that there is no shade in the center city because buildings were placed too close to the curb. I hope we can maintain an urban fabric in Charlotte without forcing people to walk in 100-degree heat over asphalt with no shade.

jackson said...

Mary, I've mentioned it before but I feel the need the mention it again since it concerns the same block area as the Bojangles.

Please look at the ABC store on 3rd that opened while you were away. It is the single worst design for a retail shop I've seen in my 27 years in Charlotte.

They built the building close to the curb with a parking lot in back, but they 'forgot' to add a door and signage at the street! You can barely tell it is a state liquor store because its missing the standard ABC red-dot sign featured on nearly every single liquor store sign in NC. They have added another lit sign for easier recognition at night, but its still pretty dismal. If there is any way you could look into this and how it happened.....maybe talk to someone at Meck ABC?