Wednesday, September 17, 2008

University Place: Bad design hurt a bright idea

Here’s another chapter of the old story: Bad design can undermine even the best intentions.

I caught up with former UNC Charlotte Vice Chancellor Doug Orr last week at a breakfast meeting of University City Partners to note the 25th anniversary of the groundbreaking for University Place.

Orr, now president emeritus of Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, is a widely respected figure in this region. He was key to the creation of University Place in the early 1980s, which was a groundbreaking effort by a state university to shape the development near it. The place drew tours of planners from all over the world.

In those days mixed-use development (homes and stores and offices all mixed together, the way they have been in cities until the mid-20th century) was viewed with suspicion here by residents and developers alike. Orr and UNCC colleagues Jim Clay and Al Stuart worked like dogs to educate people on the value of mixed-used development, to pull together a plan and see it executed. So did numerous other people and institutions. Finally, University Place was born.

But what should have been a triumph of good city planning simply doesn’t work as a neighborhood. With all those good intentions, the project design is deeply flawed. It’s multi-use, but not truly mixed use.

The design is, inherently, post-WWII suburbia. Homes are separated from the small, but very pleasant retail area around the artificial lake. The rest of the place is big box stores and chain restaurants and surface parking lots. It needed a street grid, with stores and homes interspersed along sidewalks. It needed, basically, New Urbanist design. Compare University Place to Baxter Town Center in Fort Mill to get an idea of What Might Have Been. And it needed city zoning and building standards that would allow it. They weren't in place in the 1980s. The other component institution, such as the University Hospital and a branch of the public library, were built with standard suburbia models. They are isolated pods sitting in parking lots, without sidewalks or connections other than clogged traffic arteries.

In the 1990s, UNCC under then-Chancellor Jim Woodward turned its attention elsewhere. The rest of the University Place property became a Big Box Bonanza. The surrounding area suffered from the same disastrous planning.

Charlotte’s elected officials and appointed planning commissioners in the late 1980s and 1990s chose the “let the marketplace decide” philosophy. The marketplace – as it does – created short-term profits and the ugly development that conventional suburban zoning rules produce: horrific traffic and an unwalkable section of the city.

It was a tragic missed opportunity for a part of the city that deserved far better. Those who worked so hard for University Place deserved better. The whole UNCC community deserved better.

Today, some determined people, including current UNCC Chancellor Phil Dubois and University City Partners have undertaken the long and expensive process of retrofitting this standard-issue sprawl into something that will endure and enhance UNCC’s future. Transit may well be the factor that will save University City from its past. But it's a daily, visible reminder that no matter the good intentions, without good design, even good initiatives can falter.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

How true. That area is just a sprawling mess. I hope we can learn from our mistakes.

James said...

I do see hope for the University area with the NE light rail line. The stations will have to be augmented by bicycle paths/lanes and pedestrian sidewalks, pathways, and maybe even bridges over WT Harris and/or Tryon. Walking/biking around that area now is live-action Frogger.

Anonymous said...

You never see anyone walking the few sidewalks in the University area- everyone is driving a car. That is the problem...it's a sprawl of long shopping center that don't allow for DENSE developement that encourages walking.

eye_dee_ten_tea said...

"what should have been a triumph of good city planning simply doesn’t work"

Wow. Charlotte defined.

Anonymous said...

While walking around the concrete-rimmed basin at the center of University Place I saw what looked like a coconut bobbing listlessly in the water. As it slowly drifted closer, I saw it was a turtle that had drowned itself. Yes, University City is a soul-deadening expanse of concrete and macadam, traffic jams and garish fast-food restaurants. For lack of a bridge, the new greenway is inaccessible. There are no parks and almost no sidewalks. The poor excuse for public spaces (complements of the strip mall owners) are bombarded with loud distorted music like the yowlings of a teenager's mistuned boombox.

Anonymous said...

"Wow. Charlotte defined."

Not really. Charlotte is defined by its lack of planning. The very few areas which have been planned out in advance -- Uptown, Dilworth, NoDa, Myers Park, some of Plaza-Midwood, the core of University City, the core of Ballantyne -- are the most successful and popular locations in the city.

On the other hand, the areas that have been given up to laissez-faire development -- most of the east side, most of University City, the fringes of Ballantyne, Independence Blvd., the suburban sprawl around the edges of the county -- are the most unstable, unlovely, crime-afflicted areas in the city. Those parts of town are what defines Charlotte to most people, who wonder why there are only 2 or 3 areas in the city worth showing to visitors.

If Charlotte had started off as a well-planned city instead of trying to retrofit itself 30 years too late, it might have done better.

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