3 big ideas for University City’s growth

3 big ideas for University City’s growth

A rendering of the Waters Edge project in University City. Courtesy of Crescent Communities.

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A pedestrian promenade along North Tryon Street. A lakefront town center. A rail trail for north Charlotte.

That’s just part of the future nonprofit University City Partners sees for the second largest employment center in the city.

  • The group released a vision plan this month designed to guide growth over the next two decades in the area.
  • Of course, it will require buy-in from developers and the city to be implemented.

Why it matters: The vision plan is part of a push to transform the largely car-oriented, suburban University City into a more mixed-use, walkable environment.

Some of the items on that wishlist are already coming to life. Crescent Communities recently broke ground on NOVEL University Place, the 311-unit multifamily community that will be the residential anchor of Waters Edge, the planned redevelopment of a former shopping center.

NOVEL University Place apartments. Courtesy of Sprouthouse Agency.

  • “You’re starting to see the beginnings of the evolutions of suburban transforming to urban,” says Darlene Heater, executive director of University City Partners.

Yes, but: The University area is known for its diversity and relative affordability compared to some other parts of town. Leaders must balance preserving that with embracing change.

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Heater said the diversity was one of the factors that drove her to settle down in University City with her family 30 years ago.

  • “Our job is to protect that,” she says. “You do that by questioning every single investment, every single development, every initiative that you work on — it has to be intentional. It is not just going to happen.”

Here are some of the ideas for the future growth of the area.

A town center

What’s happening: Texas-based developer EB Arrow is transforming a former shopping center into offices, homes and retail along the lake in the middle of the property.

University City Partners envisions the development, and the area around the JW Clay Boulevard Station, as University City’s “downtown.”

  • According to the group, there are 176 acres of developable land within half a mile of the transit stations in the area.
  • The plan seeks to bring a mix of housing, offices, homes, parks and retail to each of the stations.

Between the lines: EB Arrow’s “Waters Edge” project, at the intersection of W.T. Harris Boulevard and North Tryon Street, will bring open space, including a park and trail, to the lake.

  • The developer was also in negotiations with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library to locate the University City branch to the project, as I reported for the Observer in February.

What they’re saying: Katie Maloomian, Crescent’s director of development, tells me the project is a catalyst for implementing the vision plan.

  • “I feel like this development kind of fills that void along the lake edge, where you see big boxes (stores) with loading docks,” she said. “It wasn’t activated, and now sections of the lake will be activated.”

A conceptual rendering of a more pedestrian-friendly North Tryon Street. Courtesy of University City Partners.

Employment growth

The big picture: The University area is already home to major corporations like TIAA, Wells Fargo and Allstate. More people are employed there than in Ballantyne, assistant city manager Tracy Dodson told council members recently.

  • And now, St. Louis-based health care giant Centene Corp. is building an East Coast headquarters and tech hub that will employ 3,200 in University Research Park.
  • The company will receive up to $450 million in incentives from the state, city and Mecklenburg County if it meets certain hiring targets.

Centene has said it plans to work with the city to improve connectivity in the area.

  • For instance, the company wants to one day use self-driving buses (a “last-mile” transit option) to connect the light rail station to its campus. It’s a way to provide better access for employees who’ll ride the Blue Line to and from work, as the Ely Portillo of UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute recently wrote.
  • City Council will consider reimbursing Centene 50% of the cost, or up to $6.6 million, for making improvements to two intersections.
  • “How do we work together in getting some of those regional improvements that don’t just benefit the Centene campus but benefit the traffic in the larger area?” Dodson said.

Dodson told council that the first phase of the campus will open in the third quarter next year.

Much of University Research Park, where many large employers are located, is comprised of suburban-style office buildings that aren’t very walkable.

  • University City Partners hopes that future development will connect University Research Park to North Tryon Street and UNC Charlotte.
  • A planned bridge across Interstate 85 will also help link the two areas.

And the redevelopment of a 200+ acre office park home to TIAA, Wells Fargo and some of the other major employers in the area, is part of that transition too.

  • The new owners plan to build more than 1,000 multifamily housing units, hotel rooms, retail and new offices.

More green space

University City has no parks, according to the vision plan, despite the area’s rapid expansion.

Driving the news: In addition to parks and open space near light rail stations, University City Partners wants a “Greenbelt” system for the area.

  • That would connect multiple greenways in the area with public transit and the other amenities that are underway.

A planned walking/biking trail. Rendering Courtesy of University City Partners.

The group is also hoping the local government will help fund a trail that would run parallel to the busy North Tryon Street, similar to the Rail Trail in South End, or the planned loop in SouthPark.

  • The hope, Heater says, is to make a more inviting place for people to walk and bike between the light rail stations.

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