On a recent Sunday afternoon, families strolled along Tryon Street and snapped photos of the freshly painted Black Lives Matter mural on the asphalt. Customers sipped coffee and mimosas on the McCormick & Schmicks patio. Nearby, a musician strummed his guitar. There was not a car in sight.
Soon after a group of 17 local artists painted the mural, the city of Charlotte announced plans to temporarily close off the 400-foot stretch of Tryon between 3rd and 4th streets to cars. They haven’t decided when it’ll reopen. It could be weeks. Could be months. Could be years.
The idea of permanently closing some Charlotte streets to cars in dense areas has become popular. It’s something that city planning director Taiwo Jaiyeoba supports, and wants to explore expanding in other parts of town.
“I would like to see more of that happen,” Jaiyeoba says. “But I want to make sure we do the necessary engagement with the community.”
The idea isn’t original. It’s worked before. The town Belmont, for instance, recently started shutting down its Main Street to car traffic on weekends to allow for more outdoor restaurant seating. Towns all around the country have turned once-active streets into pedestrian malls for years. And last month, Charlotte marked off 2.5 miles of city streets to encourage more pedestrian use as part of its Shared Streets pilot program.
No-car streets, parking-less apartment complexes, and widespread usage of the bus system are all novel concepts to Charlotte, a sprawling car city that until recently hasn’t really emphasized being pedestrian friendly all over.
But the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, coupled with a deliberate push to make Charlotte more walkable, prompts the question: Are we ready to start ditching cars?
At least one Charlotte developer is betting on that.
In the Seversville neighborhood in west Charlotte, Grubb Properties is planning a five-story apartment complex. The 104-unit building will have just six parking spots. Residents have to agree in their leases that they won’t buy a car.
Grubb will evict them if they do, Clay Grubb told city council last week.
Spending less on building parking, the developers say, makes it possible to charge tenants less for rent. The cost of building a parking lot equals at least $30,000 per parking space, according to Grubb.
The thinking is, eliminating parking frees up Grubb to set aside more affordable units without relying on public subsidies. Grubb says it will maintain 50 percent of units for tenants who make 80 percent of the area median income for 15 years.
Eric Applefield, director of development at Grubb Properties, says that this development could help pave the way for other such carless projects.
If it doesn’t work, Applefield says, it could make it more difficult for other similar projects down the line.
For one, the rezoning for this apartment complex could shape how the city views future projects. Secondly, the developer needs to get a construction loan from the bank, and the bank is more willing to loan for a project it knows is successful.
“If this model works, I really hope it is replicated,” Applefield said.
“We’re committed to this idea of creating this positive alternative community that really wants to live a different lifestyle. I think that’s missing in Charlotte.”
Another project Grubb is planning in Charlotte, the redevelopment of the Herrin Ice property in NoDa that’ll include apartments and office space, will have a similar scaled-down parking setup. Parking won’t be eliminated altogether; rather, apartment renters and the daytime work crowd will share spaces.
“When we first started building apartments, we started with 1.5 parking spaces per apartment. We went down to 1.25, then 1, now we’re at .9,” Applefield says. “We’re going to continue to ratchet down that ratio.”
During a rezoning hearing last week for the Seversville complex, members of the community who opposed the project pointed mainly to the elimination of cars.
One resident of the area, Viltis Palubinskas, pointed to the fact that there aren’t amenities like grocery stores close enough that people can walk to. “This project does not set up tenants for success,” Palubinskas said.
City councilman Braxton Winston said that as Charlotte grows into a larger metropolitan area, “this shouldn’t be an experiment. This should be more of a normal thing.” But, he later added, the total prohibition of cars does give him pause.