New York has Central Park. Chicago has Grant Park and Millennium Park. San Francisco has Golden Gate Park. What if Charlotte, too, had its own central park?
The Matheson Avenue bridge on the edge of NoDa currently provides one of the clearest views of the city skyline. Two miles from Uptown, it’s a postcard frame, with the crown of the 60-story Bank of America tower flanked on either side by buildings of descending heights.
Look down from there, though, and you’ll see an industrial yard jammed with about 18 train tracks lined up in a row. Dozens of power lines criss cross. Little Sugar Creek flows through somewhere below, obscured by brush.
The property has been a rail yard for over a century. Back in Charlotte’s early industrial days, North End was considered the outskirts, and the neighborhood was a hotbed of manufacturing. Textile mills sprang up near the rail yard so that they could have easy access to transport their goods by train.
But now, a rail yard is not the best use of that real estate.
At least that’s the opinion of a consortium of architects, developers, and attorneys who are proposing turning the rail yard property into a 220-acre park. That’s roughly a quarter the size of Central Park in Manhattan, and more than twice the size of Freedom Park in Dilworth. Charlotte’s current most prominent urban park, Romare Bearden in Uptown, is 5.4 acres.
One major potential hangup? The land belongs to Norfolk Southern. The group is already considering ways around that, though.
Queens Park, the site’s proposed name, would be the area bordered on the west and east by North Tryon and Brevard streets, then Matheson Avenue and 16th Street to its north and south.
The park, supporters say, would be a way to connect neighborhoods that aren’t accessible to one another today, such as the North Tryon corridor and Optimist Park. A park is also an egalitarian use of the space — free for all to use. And the park could one day provide a vast staging ground to host major events, such as concerts or an NFL draft.
“We see this as a great opportunity to introduce more green space, stitch the community back together in this particular area, and also plan for the future growth of Charlotte in that direction,” says Rugel Chiriboga, a principal with Odell Architects.
Odell is the local architecture and engineering firm behind a number of high-profile local projects, including the Knights Stadium uptown and the old Coliseum on Tyvola Road. It was also former mayor Harvey Gantt’s first employer when he moved to Charlotte in the 1960s.
Odell has worked with developer Tony Kuhn of the Flywheel Group to determine roughly how the park would be laid out.
Odell and Kuhn envision vast stretches of trees, gardens, and pathways. Like other urban parks, Queens Park could include a music venue and art installations. In one rendering, Odell includes a massive metallic globe. Not unlike Chicago’s Bean statue — an identifiable meetup spot, seemingly made for Instagram.
“Why can’t we do exactly what all these other cities are doing?” says Todd Serdula of the Flywheel Group.
Also working on the effort is Eric Spengler, a local attorney with Spengler & Agans, PLLC, who recently formed a nonprofit called Friends of Queens Park LLC.
With the rapid redevelopment throughout North End, along the light-rail corridor especially, developers and city officials need to be more mindful about creating green space, Spengler says.
“It’s going to take some heavy lifting and some investment, but that’s the whole point,” Spengler says.
“Without that type of bold action you’re just going to have another South End, which is great, but it could be even better.”
A major challenge in the plan to turn the rail yard into a massive park is that the property doesn’t belong to Friends of Queens Park. It doesn’t even belong to the city, county, or state, either.
It belongs to Norfolk Southern, the railroad behemoth that has in the past proven uncooperative.
Take, for instance, in 2012, when Charlotte Area Transit System was planning ways to build a commuter train to connect Charlotte to Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson, and Mooresville. As a way to cut down on costs, CATS proposed using Norfolk Southern’s tracks that run parallel Interstate 77 for the Red Line passenger train, the Charlotte Observer wrote in June 2014.
But Norfolk Southern called the plan “fatally flawed,” and continues to refuse to share its lines with CATS. The railroad operator has said that it’s not possible for freight trains and commuter trains to share the same tracks. Meanwhile, building an entirely new rail line for a commuter train would be too expensive for CATS. The Lake Norman commuter train project remains on hold, five years later.
“I’ll be very honest with you, they usually are tough to deal with,” Charlotte’s city planner, Taiwo Jaiyeoba, says of Norfolk Southern.
“But it’s not impossible. We’ve had some successes with them.”
The city did work with Norfolk Southern to expand its intermodal facility at Charlotte’s airport in 2012. The intermodal is where shipping containers transported by train are transferred to truck trailers to be driven elsewhere throughout the region.
Norfolk Southern could move the bulk of its functions currently handled at the rail yard out to that intermodal area, according to Kuhn and others pushing for the park. At least two main commuter lines would remain at the park, Kuhn says. But there are ways to integrate them into the area’s design.
Through a spokeswoman, Norfolk Southern said it does not publicly discuss real estate transactions or matters. The company would not make any executives available for comment, either.
Shannon Binns, CEO of Sustain Charlotte, has been advising Friends of Queen Park. Binns says since the rail yard is privately owned, the city and county could work on some sort of land swap with Norfolk Southern to turn it into public space.
It is hard to imagine the idea for a central park going very far unless Norfolk Southern gives up control of that land, or sells it.
That’s what happened in Greensboro recently, though. Last Friday, the city closed on an $8.5 million deal with Norfolk Southern to turn an inactive railway corridor into a four-mile walking path around downtown.
The land was the final piece the city needed to connect its 15-mile Downtown Greenway, the Winston-Salem Journal wrote.
Greensboro Greensboro City Manager David Parrish called it a “significant day,” as the deal was in the works for 11 years.
A nonprofit community group called Action Greensboro has been working with the city to oversee the land acquisition and the project’s construction. The Norfolk Southern transaction was made possible through a combination of funds, including city bond funds, as well as contributions from Action Greensboro and the state of North Carolina.
Greensboro’s deal with Norfolk Southern, Kuhn says, shows that “it can be done if the city really prioritizes it.”
Kuhn’s group doesn’t have a projected cost or timetable yet for Queens Park. The project would likely, though, have to depend similarly on some kind of public-private partnership.
In addition to private developers and Norfolk Southern, public officials — including those in economic development, transportation, and parks and recreation — would need to be involved, according to Jaiyeoba, who has not been in formal discussions yet with Kuhn’s group.
“It would have to be structured in such a way that it’s attractive to everyone,” Jaiyeoba says.
It’s not unheard of to move centrally located rail yards to make way for parks. Many cities have done it successfully in the past.
Millennium Park in Chicago was once home to a massive rail yard owned by Illinois Central Railroad before the city took it over.
A Chicago Tribune article from March 1998, with the headline “Proposal to turn rail yard into park draws praise,” details Mayor Richard Daley’s ambitious plan for a multipurpose park with 17 acres of green space, art installations, and a free music venue. The park, built atop an underground parking garage and commuter rail station, opened in 2004.
In 2016, Sacramento’s city council approved plans to turn a 244-acre rail yard, the former endpoint for the 1860s Transcontinental Railroad, into a major transit-oriented development just north of downtown. To be called Sacramento Railyards, the project will include millions of square feet for residences, office space, medical facilities, and hotels.
Sacramento’s project is also slated to be home to a 20,000-seat Major League Soccer stadium. MLS officials awarded Sacramento an expansion team last month, and the team will begin playing in 2022.
Railroads were one of the main reasons Charlotte blossomed. They were the Internet of the 1850s, local historian Tom Hanchett says. The more you had, the more prosperous your town was.
Near the North End rail yard was Highland Park No. 3, which opened in 1903. For a while, it was the biggest mill in North Carolina, churning out cotton for decades. The booming business spurred other development nearby, including a 40-room hotel, mill houses, and even a trolley line.
Years after the mill stopped operating in 1969, it was renovated and turned into trendy loft apartments.
So, Hanchett explains, there’s technically no operational need for the rail yard to be where it is now.
“Moving it to a less central spot in the city seems like it wouldn’t hurt the transportation function anymore and would help other aspects of urban design,” Hanchett says.
A recent study of Charlotte’s parks ranked the city near the bottom of all major U.S. cities for access to parks — 96th out of 100, to be exact.
The study — cited frequently by supporters of the recent quarter-cent sales-tax referendum that failed — found that 36 percent of residents in Charlotte live within a 10-minute walk of a park. That’s well below the national average of 54 percent.
Binns, Sustain Charlotte’s president, says the nonprofit supports the idea of a Queens Park. “I love the big vision and we certainly need more green space in Charlotte,” he says. “It’s very much compatible with our own goals for the city.”
Former Charlotte mayor Jennifer Roberts is now the director of an organization called ecoAmerica, which consults communities on sustainability solutions and climate change. In addition to the environmental benefits to parks, Roberts notes, they provide a sort of “social cohesion.”
“That’s really important in a city that’s growing as fast as we are, and that has new residents all the time, and needs to have those spaces and those events that bring people together,” Roberts says.
Another enticing element of the park for the developers? Much of the property’s 200-plus acres are part of the county’s opportunity zones. That’s a perk of the 2017 tax reform law that provides tax incentives for investors to buy land in certain underserved areas.
The Friends of Queens Park group sees the opportunity zone designation as a way to potentially help fund the park. In other words, private developers could buy parcels on the park’s periphery to be turned into commercial or residential zones. The interior would be preserved for a park.
“The idea is to get buy-in, and have developers share the cost of that green space,” Kuhn says.
Kuhn, the developer, had the idea for the central park about 14 years ago when he was getting his masters in architecture at UNC Charlotte. He shared it around a bit — to former mayor Roberts, back when she was a county commissioner, as well as to Michael Smith, CEO of Center City Partners.
At the time, the city was trying to figure out ways to create more green space uptown. Problem was, everyone wanted to focus on land within the Interstate 277 loop, Roberts says, and there just wasn’t enough land.
“I think we’re looking at our city more broadly now,” Roberts says. “(Looking outside 277) does open up more possibilities.”
Smith says there’s a lot to like about the idea of turning the rail yard into a park.
“The rail yard is a canyon that we’ve got to figure out ways to connect across,” Smith says.
Chatter about a Queens Park fizzled around the recession.
Kuhn started the Flywheel Group in 2013. In recent years, he’s turned his attention to assembling dozens of acres in NoDa to turn into a small town center. Near the Sugar Creek light rail station, the Greenway District, as Kuhn’s development is called, will include multi-family housing, retail, and office space.
Kuhn recently revived the Queens Park idea recently with the help of his Flywheel colleagues, along with Spengler, Odell, and Sustain Charlotte.
Friends of Queens Park will soon form a board and meet with surrounding neighborhoods on the proposal. It’s a way, they say, to garner public support first, then show elected officials that this idea is a popular one.
Last year, a UNC Charlotte urban design professor posed the idea of transforming the rail yard to her graduate students. Deb Ryan, former chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission, had the students plan a hypothetical redevelopment in place of the rail yard.
The site, which students called “The RailYard,” would be an urban neighborhood made up of 26 acres of green space, along with shops, streets, offices, and homes. Ryan and her students then presented the idea to a handful of city leaders, according to a story by the Urban Institute.
“What if we took that big scar in the fabric of the community and turned it into a neighborhood?” Ryan asked a group that included City Manager Marcus Jones and City Councilman Larken Egleston.
Kuhn’s group didn’t work with the UNC Charlotte class. But he sees the recent interest in the rail yard as an indication that it’s time to put his original plan into action. Several others, including Smith of Center City Partners, agree.
“The idea of a large central park within walking distance of our central business district I think is an absolute must,” Smith says.