Looking east on 10th between Church and Tryon MIG Inc.
Looking east on 10th between Church and Tryon MIG Inc.

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Vision for North Tryon: Smaller blocks, mix of uses, pedestrian corridors

November 19, 2015 11:00 AM

UPDATED November 20, 2015 07:52 AM

Smaller blocks bisected by pedestrian walkways, a variety of building heights and uses, affordable housing and an “urban play area” along Seventh Street: It’s all part of the draft North Tryon Vision Plan unveiled Thursday.

And to make it happen, the plan’s backers hope to leverage large county-owned tracts that can be put on the market for redevelopment, with conditions attached. Covering dozens of blocks, the plan is meant to reshape a part of uptown that shows promise but still faces challenges.

Realizing the plan will require a complicated ballet of public and private actors over many years, and it could involve design mandates and affordable housing requirements that are usually unpopular with developers.

“There are a lot of pieces in this,” said Michael Smith, CEO of Center City Partners, one of the principal groups behind the plan. He said the 20 government, civic, nonprofit and business groups that have crafted the plan are committed to seeing it through.

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“We are not comfortable with the idea of it sitting on a shelf,” said Smith.

The vision plan is helping guide a game of catch-up: Uptown’s north side hasn’t grown as fast as the south side, where developments such as the Charlotte Knights ballpark, the Levine Center for the Arts and a slew of apartments have transformed whole swaths of the landscape. And a potential conflict looms with some local business owners who want to see homeless charities in the area relocated, a change Center City Partners doesn’t support.

The plan’s highlights include deliberately breaking up large blocks into smaller areas with pedestrian “paseos,” or public paths. The plan also calls for mandating ground-floor retail and other uses to “activate” streets and avoid blank walls, a variety of uses such as office, residential, retail and cultural institutions, and demolishing and rebuilding the uptown library branch.

Although it won’t have the force of law, the plan’s ambitions are sweeping. Smith said the groups behind the plan might fund at least one full-time staffer to help make it happen. The group could also pursue the creation of a new “overlay district” for the area – an ordinance that would mandate stricter design requirements for new buildings, such as ground-floor retail.

The vision plan covers roughly the area bounded by 11th Street, Sixth Street, Church Street and Caldwell Street, straddling parts of First and Fourth wards uptown. The city of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, Foundation for the Carolinas and other local groups have been working with Center City Partners and MIG Inc. consultants on the plan for almost a year.

One of the biggest landholders in the area is Mecklenburg County, which owns the Hal Marshall Center and adjacent sites at 700 N. Tryon Street, as well as Spirit Square. The county is moving personnel out of the Hal Marshall building to other sites, a process that should be complete in 2017. County Manager Dena Diorio said staff could be out of an adjacent annex next year. That site could then be demolished and made ready for development.

“We want to put it back on the tax rolls. It’s valuable property,” said Diorio. And when development agreements are signed, Diorio said the county will be able to include requirements to make the plan a reality, such as including affordable housing.

The North Tryon Vision Plan is a long-term guide, with recommendations meant to play out over several decades and multiple real estate market cycles. There’s no cost estimate yet for parts of the plan that would require public investment, such as renovating Spirit Square and building new pedestrian walkways.

Opportunity and challenges

The city’s current boom certainly hasn’t skipped the North Tryon area. Projects such as the new SkyHouse apartment towers on North Church Street, First Ward Park and the Blue Line Extension are already rearranging the landscape. SkyHouse alone will bring about 1,000 new residents when both towers are complete. Levine Properties, the biggest private landowner in the area, plans to build apartments, two hotels and an office tower around First Ward Park.

But the area still faces challenges, including persistent negative perceptions, numerous surface parking lots and pedestrian dead zones that dot much of the landscape. And the persistence of transients in the area has been seen as a negative.

There’s been conflict between some business owners and two facilities – the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte and Urban Ministry Center – that serve homeless individuals in the area. The groups draw hundreds of clients who walk in the area to access services and shelter. The nonprofit North End Partners has called their presence an “eyesore.” The group has argued the North Tryon corridor won’t reach its full development potential until the centers are relocated.

The nonprofit groups don’t have any plans to move. In fact, the shelter is launching a campaign to raise $7 million to renovate its site just north of the Interstate 277 loop.

“We don’t want them to relocate,” said Smith. He said that once more development comes, filling in empty parking lots and other areas that can look sketchy after dark, the homeless population won’t stick out or appear threatening. “What we’re talking about is creating more balance.”

Different from South Tryon corridor

One of the biggest keys to the North Tryon Vision Plan will be creating smaller blocks instead of the large buildings that take up whole blocks in much of uptown around South Tryon Street.

“It’s a deliberate departure from the superblock,” said Smith. The pattern of smaller buildings with more pedestrian walkways leads to a more engaging area and less of a corporate feel, the thinking goes.

“It’s going to be very different from what you see on South Tryon,” said Smith.

Daniel Iacofano, the lead consultant from MIG Inc. on the project, said the goal is to create “human-scale” development.

“Design standards for all these streets have to be carefully made” to avoid blank walls and dead spots for pedestrians, said Iacofano.

Another goal is to create friendlier plazas and public gathering spaces, with less “monumental” architecture, to attract more people. Smith said many of the uptown plazas right now simply aren’t that inviting.

North Tryon offers a do-over, learning from past mistakes. Said Smith: “Up here, we get a fresh start.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

Five highlights from the North Tryon Vision Plan draft

1. A new uptown library: The vision plan calls for tearing down the uptown library at North Tryon and Sixth streets and opening a library branch in a new, mixed-use office and retail building on the site. The county is a major funder of the library system. Spirit Square would be remade to emphasize the building's historical elements.

2. Diagonal pedestrian cut-throughs: Two blocks would be sliced in half diagonally, with new walkways connecting corners at Sixth and Tryon streets and Seventh and College streets, and between the light rail at Ninth Street and 10th and College Streets.

3. A new “urban play area” on 7th Street: Connecting Discovery Place, ImaginOn and the new First Ward Park, a “play area” running along Seventh Street could attract pedestrians. Other cities have opened such “linear parks” with features such as giant chess boards, water splash areas and outdoor pingpong tables.

4. Stricter design standards: Ground-floor retail and other “active uses” could be required for new buildings in the area. Smith said it might take a special zoning district to reach that goal.

5. “Extreme mixed-use”: That’s the way consultant Daniel Iacofano described plans for buildings in the area, which will be designed to house everything from below-market-rate apartments to high-tech business, light manufacturing and 3D printing.

You can see more details online at http://www.northtryon.org/.