Charlotte Moves toward a Car-Free City Center - Next City

Driving up Interstate 77 from the south, downtown Charlotte jumps out at you suddenly. Much of that is a function of North Carolina’s inland topography — not yet Appalachia mountains, not the flat coastal plains either, but somewhere in between. The skyscrapers visible suddenly from the highway, only a few miles from the city center.

Five of those high-rises are more than 50 stories tall (and 15 are more 30 stories tall) — not as many as in New York or Chicago, but moving in that direction. In 1990, the population was 396,000. Today, it hovers around 860,000, moving the city from the 35th to the 17th largest in the U.S. in less than 30 years. Charlotte is now the third largest financial center in the U.S., after New York and San Francisco, and a key east-of-the-Mississippi metro that moves products through the supply chain.

Many would expect 21st-century Charlotte to manage this growth the way they did in the latter half of the 20th century: to erect big-business campuses adjacent to highways in the exurbs; to build more housing for workers on nearby suburban cul-de-sacs; and to preserve a staid, quaint downtown that only animates when sports teams have home games.

But Charlotte seems headed in the opposite direction. In a part of town that houses old churches, the main branch of the library and the NFL and NBA stadiums — plus all the surface parking lots that come with that — the city has designated a 60-acre, 50-square block area as a place for modern, urban redesign, dubbed the North Tryon Vision Plan. The plan prioritizes walkable areas, a shrunken complete-streets grid, limited underground parking, play parks, and other small gathering places built for people and not their cars. That’s an especially tall order for a southern city so car-centric that it’s the home of the NASCAR Hall of Fame as well as the Charlotte Motor Speedway, one of the busiest racing venues in the country. The sport brings an estimated $6 billion a year in economic impact to the region.

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