There were two big projects before the Planning & Zoning board last night. Here are some of my thoughts:
Adding a Story to Chronicle Mill
As a bona fide history nerd, I certainly appreciate the value and importance of buildings such as Chronicle Mill. Especially given the mill’s importance to the history of Belmont in particular, we should be looking for creative ways to preserve those parts of our history.
The project proposal includes adding an additional story (for a total of 5 stories) and 25 apartments (for 240 total) on the top of the mill. Right now, the ordinance sets the maximum building height at 3 stories. I have the same concerns as other people at the meeting around this excess building height, as this development takes advantage of some vagueries in the land development code about how the height of a building should be measured. In my opinion, we need to update the ordinance to clearly spell out how building heights are measured (and from where they are measured). I don’t think there’s any real good policy reason to effectively grant a “bonus” level for developments that happen to be built on hilly lots. I think that could have a lot of unintended consequences and result in projects with higher densities than were initially planned for.
Second and notably, there aren’t enough parking spaces in the current site plan to meet the parking requirements spelled out in the land use ordinance. The Chronicle Mill development would have 240 apartments, 10 town homes, and 10,000 sqft of retail. We have to think about the impact this is going to have on the local neighborhood, especially with regard to traffic and parking. This issue was basically punted to city council, but the traffic mitigation piece is really up in the air, and I don’t see how it makes sense to move forward on something like this without (at the very least) having that figured out.
North Belmont Warehouse Project
There was also a project presented that would build 2-4 warehouses on an industrial site off Woodlawn Street. Per the Gazette, the site would potentially create 250-350 jobs once the site was built out and leased. Our Pedestrian Master Plan does call for 8-foot sidewalks in that area (along Woodlawn and Acme Streets) both in recognition of some significant pedestrian activity that already occurs there but also in anticipation of additional student housing being installed in that area at some point in the future.
So, I was really disappointed to see the sidewalk and pedestrian improvement requirements basically tossed right out the window. In the same vein as the building height issue noted above, I don’t understand why we spend all of this time planning only to cast it aside as soon as a developer threatens to walk. Does anyone really think that they’re going to walk from a $35 Million project over a couple of sidewalks? I think there were a lot of valid points raised about pedestrian safety and the potential for more development in that area that the city will need to address sooner or later. And the developer didn’t really provide any reason for not doing the improvements beyond basically just not wanting to do them. I think economic development is important for the city, but at the same time, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hold the development to our plan.
At the Montcross Chamber candidates forum last week, there was a lot of talk about growth – which makes sense given the mess that our roads are in, an ever-rising cost of living, and schools that have more students than seats. So, it was quite concerning to hear the three candidates who have perhaps more than anyone given the green light to the development currently overwhelming the city (through their current positions on city council and the zoning board) indicate that not only do they not get it, they actually want to accelerate it.
In the course of a discussion on the light rail (which according to current plans would pass through the Wilkinson Blvd corridor), these three candidates said that we actually need to bring in even more apartment development along Wilkinson Blvd so that there’s more people around to ride the light rail. This is exactly wrong for three reasons:
- Clearly none of these three commute up and down the 74/85 corridor every day. If they did, they’d realize that traffic there is already a mess, so throwing in a bunch of high-density, multi-story apartment buildings is only going to make getting up and down Wilkinson that much worse. The light rail is not some magical solution that will make all of our traffic woes disappear. At best, it will take some traffic off the road – but if you don’t control growth along Wilkinson, then whatever car trips you’re saving will quickly be overwhelmed by all the new car trips generated by the brand-new apartment buildings.
- CATS (Charlotte’s transit system) always overestimates how many people will end up using the light rail. The Blue Line Extension has been open for about 18 months now – and ridership is still about 10,000 riders less than what Charlotte initially projected for the line. So, this idea that everyone who lives in these shiny new apartment buildings is just going to hop on the light rail and never drive anywhere is pure fantasy. Sure, some of those people may ride the light rail, but most won’t.
- We really need to get away from this build now and ask questions later approach to development. If there’s anything to be learned from the situation down on South Point Road, it’s that you can’t build a bunch of housing and then hope somebody else (the state, the county, Charlotte?) will swoop in and save us from ourselves. Currently, the Silver Line is nothing more than an unfunded line on a map, which even in a best-case scenario won’t be operational until at least 2030. Has anyone considered what we’re supposed to do if we build out Wilkinson and the light rail gets pushed out to a 2035 or 2040 opening? What if the project gets cancelled? It’s happened in NC before.
What we need is careful, thoughtful planning based on the actual facts on the ground. Planning for the light rail is important, but it’s imprudent to unleash an avalanche of apartment development on Wilkinson in anticipation of a project that may or may not ever happen.
Typically, when we think of Belmont’s traffic problems, we think of congestion, particularly on the city’s main roads – South Point, Wilkinson Blvd, etc. However, there’s another side to this problem that may not seem immediately obvious – speeding.
What happens is that once the main roads start to back up (especially at rush hour), people start looking for alternate routes, which usually involves frustrated commuters cutting through adjoining neighborhoods (and often at high rates of speed). Julia Avenue is one street that recently received some attention around this, but I’ve met with a lot of concerned residents who have told me that this is a problem in a lot of neighborhoods throughout the city.
And it’s really a safety issue. In a lot of the areas where this is a problem, the speed limit is only 35 mph (and sometimes only 20 mph), which is generally what you want in a relatively quiet residential area where people are out walking, kids are playing in the street, etc. However, if a car comes through that area at even 45 or 50 mph, that creates some significant risks for people who may just be out enjoying their neighborhoods.
As Belmont’s traffic gets worse, I would expect that problems like this will only continue to increase. But this is all the more reason why we need to be fully considering the impacts of development on our community before we green-light them. We need to be recognizing not only the initial impacts to congestion on our main thoroughfares, but also the secondary impacts on the neighborhoods that feed into them. One development doesn’t just impact one neighborhood, it ripples throughout the entire city.