The University City area of Charlotte has 73,000 workers and more than 160,000 residents. It has a major university and a major hospital.
What it doesn’t have right now, even area boosters will admit, is a funky energy and social cachet.
But there’s now a major initiative in the works to change that. University City Partners unveiled this week a plan that would give this part of a Charlotte a true “downtown” and a new “college Main Street” and — hopefully — lure the type of businesses that give cities their vibrancy.
The sparkplug is the light rail train extension, which will ferry passengers to and from Uptown along a line that will run along North Tryon Street straight through the University area onto UNC Charlotte’s campus.
Construction on the Blue Line Extension, as it is called, has turned University City into something of a traffic war zone over the past few years. But it is coming to an end — the train is expected to roll in fall 2017.
That is expected to draw more and more interest from developers, young professionals and companies — just as the current light rail line has done in South End on the other part of town.
“It’s like magic in a bottle,” says Darlene Heater, executive director of University City Partners.
The primary effort is in creating a “downtown” and a “college Main Street.”
This plan centers around the JW Clay stop along the light rail line. It’s already home to arguably the coolest part of University City, the Boardwalk shopping center along the lake.
“The lake is the centerpiece,” says Tobe Holmes, planning and development director at University City Partners. Before taking this job, Holmes was the director of Historic South End.
The Boardwalk is a great start, University City Partners says. But it’s not walkable, truly. It’s a place you drive to. Apartments are a part of the plan.
The shopping center could also use a little revamp, too. When the Boardwalk area gets redeveloped or refreshed, they’d also like the retail to be more concentrated, rather than spread out around the pond as it is today.
One huge need is for more open green space, University City Partners says. This would allow for more festivals and other programs, a la Romare Bearden Park in Uptown. This would be incorporated with a “festival spine” to allow people to travel through the area.
All this is closer to reality than you might expect. Construction is already underway on a new set of shops. And the property owner appears to be starting to let leases lapse at the Boardwalk in preparation for more development.
All told, the plan here would add 4,000 housing units and 80,000 square feet of additional retail space. The vision is “Birkdale with transit,” a reference to the popular Birkdale Village in Huntersville, with the addition of light rail.
The “college Main Street” would unite the retail corridor and the main UNC Charlotte campus.
Most college towns have one spot where people know to go for bars, restaurants and retail. Think Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. University City doesn’t have that right now, even if there are plenty of places nearby that cater to the college crowed, Holmes said.
The University City Partners plan wants to change that and create a destination area, a college town.
Two shopping centers directly across from campus are already well-traveled among college students. Mallard Pointe has a Food Lion that’s directly across from main campus buildings.
And a little farther north, the Terraces at University Place is home to the Flying Saucer Draught Emporium and Angry Ale’s.
Both shopping centers are due for a refresh and a repackaging.
University City Partners has their eye on an internal street along the route that could be well-served as a retail corridor — a “stroll street.”
In the meantime, they’re planning some pop-up retail events at Mallard Pointe.
Another development push will be along University City Boulevard.
This one is harder to envision. Most of this land, some 60 acres, is forested, around the area’s Waffle House.
It’s ideally suited for office space, with visibility from I-85 and a Tryon Street address. An apartment complex with just under 400 units is in the works now.
Plans call for a mixture of retail, apartments and office space — likely more vertical than the sprawling offices in University City today — with a central park area.
Boosters are already knocking on the doors of trendy retailers and restaurants.
University City is already well-served by big box stores and chain restaurants. What’s lacking are the local and regional retail and restaurants that make South End and Plaza Midwood cool — places like the Common Market.
University City Partners staff has been beating down their doors pitching them on opening new locations there — and they’re starting to get some traction.
“They want to be part of energy,” Holmes said.