Charlotte may not have Austin’s culture scene or NYC’s urban landscape — but shouldn’t we aspire to?

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New York City's Highline

This is the second of a two-part series on what Charlotte could learn from similar cities to address variety of issues facing the city. Today’s article focuses on the arts scene, urban landscaping and park land. Here is the first article, “Charlotte is way behind on mass transit and walkability. Here’s what we can learn from Denver and other big cities”.  

Over the past five years, Charlotte has consistently been in the national spotlight for its commercial real estate prowess, millennial influx and to some extent, culinary advancements. When it comes to park land, urban landscaping and a thriving music and arts scene … not so much.

It’s nice to look toward our peer cities and some bigger cities to see how they go about tackling the issues that plague Charlotte. Here are two case studies that Charlotte could look to for inspiration.

Improving the cultural/entertainment realm using Austin as inspiration

I fondly remember my first outdoor concert. I was only five, and I was dragged to a New Kids on the Block concert at Memorial Stadium with my sister. If I remember correctly, I told my friends MC Hammer was there to excuse myself for going to a “girl show.” This was apparently a story I believed until researching for this article, and learning they never played a show in Charlotte together. I’m fairly certain I eventually saw MC Hammer when I was seven, but I digress.

These shows, along with the defunct Center City Fest, started my passion for music and led to me attending countless concerts, festivals and shows. As a teenager, I practically grew up at Tremont Music Hall, watching, performing and enjoying myself.

While Charlotte is still on the concert circuit for the usual national acts, it’s lagging behind when it comes to cultivating, nurturing and helping grow local talent. As venues like Double Door, Tremont and Chop Shop die, Charlotte bands lose places to play, and it gets a little more vanilla.

Tremont Music Hall

Austin’s live music roots reach back decades, by some accounts nearly 150 years, to the German Beer Halls that dotted the city in the late 1800s. Austin’s cultural/musical revolution gave us Willie Nelson, Janis Joplin, Stevie Ray Vaughn and others. Austin City Limits, and later South by Southwest, brought Austin into the national spotlight. Today, the city boasts that on any given night you can find a hundred venues playing live music.

Charlotte might never be able to live up to Austin’s status, but I think it’s at a level Charlotte should aspire to. Even though Charlotte doesn’t have quite Austin’s college student population, I think there is a demand for more live music. It’s time someone tries to organize a festival on the same level as SXSW, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, etc. Charlotte has tons of open space, and it would help bring outsiders to the city to see what it has to offer.

I’d also like to see developers give back to displaced venues. In a lot of cases, these venues spend years building a culture and vibe that’s nearly impossible to replicate. The retail spaces that developers have been including in their new developments (when they actually do) are generally too expensive for these music venues.

I suggest developers offer profit sharing with low base rents, in lieu of their usual rent prices. This method would be a fantastic way to ensure local entrepreneur John Doe can afford to have a live music venue in the heart of NoDa versus a Jamba Juice, Chipotle and a FroYo spot in the same spaces. Prospective tenants would need a solid business plan to apply for occupancy and this might even help businesses further succeed.

Turning wasted space into urban assets/park land using New York City as inspiration

One of Charlotte’s biggest shortcomings is park land, ranking near the bottom nationwide for park accessibility. In a city and county where people question every government expenditure, it’s tough to remedy this issue. The county simply couldn’t buy park land fast enough to keep up with the growth of Charlotte’s neighborhoods, especially in close-in areas like South End and the neighborhoods in South Charlotte. Thanks to this, the city falls far behind in neighborhood park accessibility, providing only 1.06 acres per 1,000 people, 30 percent below the suggested 1.5 acres per 1,000.

Charlotte’s Rail Trail and greenways have done a lot to overcome some of these issues, and the expansion of these assets, plus the development of the Cross Charlotte Trail, will somewhat have bridged the gap. There are plans on the books to add a park at Clarks Creek, 13 new greenway projects and upgrading existing citywide assets.

Future projects include decreasing the size, but increasing the functionality of Marshall Park, and adding a one acre park in Wilmore. Compiling land for new parks is a difficult and lengthy process, and there needs to be more strides made, sometimes in a more unconventional manner.

In New York City, there is a similar, but vastly different issue with park space. New York City is one of the most well programmed cities as far as park lands. You don’t have to walk too far to escape the hustle and bustle and to find some trees, grass and solitude.

The population is growing, and there is always a need for new activated spaces for neighborhoods that have experienced stark reversals in land usage in the past decade. Former industrial areas in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn have started becoming residential districts and the city has turned to reimagining decommissioned shipping piers, train lines, aqueducts, and active landfills to remedy this issue.

Manhattan’s Highline is the most notable and well-known example of creative park solutions. The Highline is a 1.45-mile-long elevated linear park, greenway and rail trail, created on a former New York Central Railroad spur on the west side of the city.

New York City’s Highline

Charlotte is already working to create something similar. The Rail Trail is Charlotte’s version of the Highline, but it does need better programming and a more cohesive direction, especially when it comes to its gaps, most notably across I-277. It needs to be connected. Charlotte needs to find a way to mitigate 277’s impact, and simultaneously add new public space for the thousands of new residents of Stonewall Street and the other 277 adjacent land.

I-277 Rail Trail cap rendering

Since a full cap of I-277 seems unfeasible at this time, I’d love to see a partial cap connecting the Rail Trail to Uptown. Camden’s new townhouse project facing 277 is adding an extension of the Rail Trail toward 277, and I’d love to see it connect to Crescent’s transit platform and then over Stonewall to the Convention Center.

Off ramp park rendering

I’d also like to see the last of the DOT owned on/off ramp land get reimagined into pocket parks. These pieces of land lack the accessibility for residential, but could help bridge gaps between Uptown and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Photos: Clayton Sealey, Curbed NY, Charlotte Observer file, SXSW

16 COMMENTS

  1. BLAH BLAH BLAH – If you love those places so much, move there. Charlotte has its own unique character, including a tree canopy that most cities envy. Charlotte will continue to morph into what makes it unique. You talk about parts of NYC transforming into residential areas – thus I guess you were not around prior to 2000 when all of those apartments in South End did not exist.

    • There’s nothing wrong with taking tips from other cities in order to improve Charlotte. It isn’t about, “Let’s turn Charlotte into ____ city”, it’s more like a, “Let’s improve Charlotte in this area that ____ city has done well, and let’s do it in a Charlotte way.” You say that Charlotte will continue to morph into what makes it unique, but so far what has happened has been multiple closings of music venues and a severe lack of park development (which is what the article addresses). Sometimes city development actually requires city planning, and there is no sense in re-inventing the wheel sometimes.

    • Born and raised in Charlotte, have lived or readily visited all the cities mentioned. I said New York reacted to those neighborhoods making a transition. I feel Charlotte has not reacted enough. The residential has come, but the services, amenities greenspace and infrastructure has not.

  2. I can’t speak to the rest of the issues, but I would be willing to bet that the issue with music comes down to the wierdo alcohol laws NC has.

    • Please explain what you mean by “wierdo alcohol laws”? I’ve lived in TX (where there are many pockets with limited alcohol sales) and TN (with limits on % alcohol in beer, restrictions on only buying wine in liquor stores, etc). IMHO, NC alcohol laws are either in line with or more liberal than either state and that doesn’t stop Austin from having a vibrant music scene or Nashville from having lower Broadway music district.

  3. Charlotte for a long time tried to copy other cities. Now it’s got it’s own character and energy. Beer head venues with mediocre music is not its thing. Last time I looked there was plenty of beautiful green space. March on Charlotte to your own drummer.

  4. I agree Yon, when I go to other cities I see where the Arts & Entertainment are visible in around the city. I agree with the closing of these iconic music venues has diminished Charlotte’s visibility for local musicians to perform and eventually grow. Not every section of town wants a Smoothie King or Chipotle strip mall. Planning for more green and city infrastructure would be welcome and a big plus to Charlotte. We just can’t have high rise condos, upscale restaurants to give a city flavor, the arts are sorely needed as well. Excellent article.

  5. NYC locals actually avoid the High Line and surrounding neighborhood because it’s so clogged with tourists. And many locals don’t like super-gentrification that it brought to the area, costing people their homes and displacing many longtime businesses.

    It’s nearly impossible today for normal people to live in NYC. Charlotte should not want to be like NYC.

    • I’m actually a New York City Resident, and I go on the highline very often. I never advocated that I would be wanting to create a similar park congestion issue as New York City. That wouldn’t be possible, New York City gets 61.6M visitors a year. I’m saying they should use it as a inspiration in their Creative Direction.

  6. Totally agree with this article. Glad to see that there people with bigger voices who share my hopes. Ignore the naysayers; Charlotte is going to continue to grow, the question is whether that growth improves the city. Parks and a dynamic cultural scene improve the standard of living, making the city more desirable to both existing residents and possible newcomers.

  7. Why are we limiting our purview to NY and Austin? What about other cool cities like Singapore or Toronto where architecture, nature, and technology really come together. We have plenty of boring buildings after tearing down lots of historic places, so why not push for some really neat (outside the US) ideas of what a city should feel like.

  8. I think a critical success factor in Austin, NYC, and other places is the active role of city planning and conservation. I’m proud to call Charlotte home but am frustrated because I believe City and County leaders have consistently given in to every development proposal, causing the absence of park space, etc. in town. Further, I’ve never been someplace that is so eager to bulldoze history – virtually every week we tear down a historical building and replace it with a shiny new one (see Noda or South End). This speaks to the lack of preservation activists fighting to retain these spots.

    We keep talking about not wanting to be the next Atlanta and wanting to be “Charlotte” but with each decision our city creeps closer to Atlanta 2.0.

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