Last year, a group of Charlotte developers, architects, attorneys, and other stakeholders came together with a big idea: To turn the rail yard just outside Uptown into an expansive community park.
I spoke with the team back in October 2019, when Queens Park proposal was still in its early phases. In the months since, the organization, a nonprofit called Friends of Queens Park, has been working behind the scenes to push the plan forward. The group has:
- Met with local neighborhood advisory groups to gather input on everything from concerns over gentrification to ways to hold events in the park.
- Garnered support from prominent policymakers such as city planner Taiwo Jaiyeoba.
- Expanded its board.
- Brought in engineers to determine how this plan would work, and how much it would cost.
“We’ve gone from a kernel of an idea to something that’s endorsed by major policymakers in Charlotte,” said Eric Spengler, a local attorney who serves as the executive director of Friends of Queens Park.
Why it matters: Charlotte is in the midst of planning the future of its infrastructure for the next several decades — including buses, light rail, roads, greenways, and sidewalks.
To fund all of the area’s transit needs, city leaders are considering a one-cent sales tax hike that voters and state leaders would have to approve. The group advising the city on the transit needs and recommending the sales tax is the Charlotte Moves Task Force, which former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt heads. Spengler says he plans to engage with the task force to collaborate on goals and funding.
The need for green space: Queens Park 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.
Charlotte leaders have acknowledged the need for more green space. A recent study ranked Charlotte 95th of all 100 major U.S. cities for access to parks.
At the same time, Charlotte is becoming less car-centric. This fall, city council approved plans for a car-free apartment development in Seversville. The city’s been working to trim the wait time for buses down in an effort to improve ridership, too.
“This ties into the larger conversation Charlotte is having (about transportation),” Spengler says.
But the ambitious plan comes with a major asterisk: Norfolk Southern owns the land the park would occupy.
And the railroad giant hasn’t always been cooperative with local transit plans.
For years, the Charlotte Area Transit System has considered a Lake Norman commuter train, the Red Line, to connect Charlotte to northern towns like Huntersville, Cornelius, and Davidson. As a cost-saving measure, CATS has proposed using Norfolk Southern’s tracks that run parallel to Interstate 77 for the Red Line.
So far, Norfolk Southern has refused, calling the plan “fatally flawed,” the Observer wrote in 2014. The railroad transports slow-moving coal on those lines, and has said it’s not possible for freight trains and commuter trains to share tracks. “Until the NS passenger rail policy changes there is no path forward,” CATS has said.
Norfolk Southern did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Building an entirely new rail would be too expensive, so the project remains paused.
A central park for Charlotte is “such a cool concept,” says Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt. But the Norfolk Southern hurdle is a big one. And the city wants a commuter line to Lake Norman.
But, she adds, “the Red Line would probably be the city’s top priority with regards to negotiating with Norfolk Southern.”
Jaiyeoba, the city planner, spoke with the Queens Park team this fall and says he was impressed with their passion and work.
“I know there is much more to be done (Norfolk Southern etc.) but I have asked them to stay engaged in the process and see how we can be of support,” Jaiyeoba said in an email.
How it would work: Theoretically, if the Queens Park plan came to fruition, Norfolk Southern would have to agree to give up, sell, or swap the land.
“The railroad here holds all the cards. It’s still their land and until we reach an agreement with them, it’s not a done deal,” says Spengler, the head of Friends of Queens Park.
He hasn’t lost hope, though. “We haven’t heard anything to make us think this cannot happen.”
Renderings courtesy of Odell, the local architecture and urban design firm with whom Friends of Queens Park is working (it’s also Harvey Gantt‘s old firm) and Stantec’s Urban Places, a planning, architecture, and engineering firm. The group is also partnering with local developer The Flywheel Group, The Agency Marketing Group, and Stewart, a Raleigh-based engineering, design, and planning firm.