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.
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.