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The Edge as Opportunity

by Rip Farris

February 4,2005

Dynamic and healthy cities resonate with diverse economic layers and cultures. Charlotte must protect and support diversity. The city must not only foster historical ethnic diversity, but diversity in its availability of lower priced housing options for our multi-layered society.

Defining housing stands as a critical element to achieving these objectives.

Center City Charlotte has experienced tremendous change over the past twelve years. There is an emerging need to develop a coherent urban strategy that offsets the rising land price and the typical impediments to lower and moderate priced housing. Nationally, our region is second to Las Vegas in terms of growth over the past twelve years. And that growth pattern projected out twenty years, points to a rise in our metropolitan statistical area from the current 1.3 million to 4+ million residents. That is staggering growth.

Now is the time to face difficult and too often unpopular urban development policy choices.

With more than $5 billion invested in the redevelopment of the Center City, land prices have risen to the extent that the average price per square foot for residential exceeds $32, a cost that prevents moderately priced housing opportunities. These increased land values require increased density, public/private cooperation and creative development. Land prices in the Center City are much higher in part due to UMUD zoning —and its maximized density options. Perception among certain UMUD landowners suggests that the most probable and best use of land is commercial, in part because of perceived higher economic returns. These land economic conditions significantly reduce the possibility of housing prices affordable to those who earn near our median income level of $43,000 per year.

Most of the present housing offerings cater to the “dominant” rather than the “diverse.” Typically we portray the dominant—the single-family detached suburban house—as the cultural norm, the ideal and standard. Even the term for the physical structure of the dwelling—the “single family” home—presumes a certain elevated social structure. We cannot allow our current social trends and housing patterns to fail the need for many forms of housing.

The troubling reality here is the gap of in-town housing affordability. Many poor single parents cannot live near their workplaces; some spend more than two hours daily commuting between home, work and day care, thus leaving little time to spend with their children. Day care and public transportation are often unavailable when the working poor work and lower middle class outside the nine-to-five workday hours.

However, surrounding the Center City are edge conditions that fall between our established neighborhoods. These areas offer the most opportunity for housing development because of reduced land cost. These edge conditions present a prime opportunity to explore public and private collaboration utilizing transit-oriented development concepts, joint-venture development models and urban development concepts not typical in Charlotte.

It is into these edge neighborhoods that people with the interest, but perhaps not the budget, to live in-town might be attracted. These edge areas are generally less defined in physical terms, i.e., density or architectural character, and they generally have a substantial number of vacant parcels and buildings. Edge neighborhoods present unfettered options to explore planning, urban design, open space and architectural typologies. But they also present challenges, especially in terms of integration and gentrification. Our neighborhoods reach back to the late 1700’s and memory remains quite powerful. We need to do a better job acknowledging our past layers.

Urban design, efficient architecture, public and private partnerships and planning policy can assist in the needed offset for land price and zoning challenges. The private sector provides knowledge, efficiency (cost and speed) and entrepreneurial skill, as well as freedom from legal restrictions that tend to bind the public sector (equity can be more important to the public sector). The public sector provides formal powers (eminent domain, regulatory approval, zoning and informal powers, infrastructure, cash-subsidies in the form of tax subsidies, grants and other non-cash assets).

Perhaps in the next few years, we can see an emergence of change in the way we perceive and approach these forgotten and often underutilized blocks of city fabric. Indeed, these neighborhoods are gifts to help us inform and diversify the city.

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