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An Opportunity for Urban Renewal

by Peter Lehmuller

November 9,2010

Twenty-one years ago, in early October of 1989, I was taking a break from my job in the Ferry Building in San Francisco when I heard that the Giants had beaten the Cubs for the National League title. A couple of us ran outside and, channeling Russ Hodges, started screaming “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” over and over. None of us had been born in 1951, when Hodges made that famous call of Bobby Thompson’s home run; in fact, the other two guys were teenagers whose native language was Spanish. But somehow that call had penetrated our collective unconscious, so when the Giants beat the Cubs, we knew exactly what to do. The Giants were in the World Series eight days later when around five o’clock an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale struck the Bay Area, and the three of us found ourselves running for our lives out of the Ferry Building and onto the Embarcadero.

But this is not a story about baseball. It’s a story about urban renewal. That day in 1989, The Embarcadero we encountered was a grim affair. The Ferry Building, long a transportation hub at the foot of Market Street, had been cut off from the rest of the city by a double deck freeway in the 1950s. Walking to the Ferry Building was not pleasant. You had to cross three lanes of the southbound Embarcadero, go into the darkness under the freeway through a parking lot, then back across the northbound Embarcadero. The Ferry Building, whose original purpose as a terminal for ferry commuters had been supplanted by the automobile, and the freeway that now separated it from the rest of the city, had practically no foot traffic and even fewer identifiable businesses.

In that earthquake, a similar double deck freeway in Oakland collapsed, and the time seemed right to do something with the Embarcadero. The first order of business was to remove the damaged freeway, which meant the Ferry Building was no longer separated from the rest of the city. Today the Ferry Building Marketplace is home to one of the most spectacular farmers' markets in the country and the interior is foodie heaven, dedicated to local, seasonal, and sustainable products. The Embarcadero and surrounding plaza is filled with palm trees and is easily accessible on foot. Tourists and locals (who like to complain about the tourists) flock to the site. It is a triumph of focused urban renewal in its broad sense, and a testament to the developers who uncovered the beautiful underlying architecture of the building and resist the temptation to fill that space with national retailers and chain restaurants. Somehow, miraculously, the Ferry Building retained its original purpose – ferries still stop there – and became something new, vital, and distinctly urban.

In Charlotte, the danger of relying on banking and finance as a core industry quickly became apparent in the man-made economic disaster of 2008 and 2009. The financial crisis has forced us to consider a different economic and physical landscape. The city has already begun to consider and implement urban design that is not focused on cars. Uptown is separated from the surrounding neighborhoods by a beltline freeway that serves cars well, but connotes the modern version of a moat. A number of American cities removed freeways from their central cores. Perhaps they are looking at San Francisco’s experience, and finding both aesthetic as well as financial success (in terms of rising property values and tax receipts) in doing so.

As the people of Charlotte debate what the city will look like in 2020 and beyond, an important question is how to have a city that attracts people with diverse talents, allows them to succeed once here, and compels them to tell their friends in other cities. Charlotte cannot allow the opportunity to plan for a creative and successful 21st century following the financial meltdown of 2008 to pass. The mantra of this election is to cut government spending, but the time is right to double down on infrastructure that moves Charlotte away from dependence on the automobile into a new, diverse economic future. The Ferry Building is a great example of what a little creative destruction can do.

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