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.
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.
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.
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.
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