Charlotte's Way A southern banking capital decides that protecting its air and water is the right investment by Heather Millar
The sustainably built children's learning center ImaginOn.
"WHY ARE YOU WRITING ABOUT CHARLOTTE, ANYWAY?" the planning consultant asked, sounding amused and exasperated by my call. "Green region? Charlotte ain't one. What about Chicago? Or Memphis? Even Orlando?" Then, because Charlotte is still a tight-knit New South city, the consultant quickly asked not to be named.
Looking down at a maze of tract homes as I flew into North Carolina, I kept thinking about that question. Charlotte's population has nearly tripled over the past four decades, and the rate of development has raced along even faster. Mecklenburg County, consisting of the city and its suburbs, has lost 22 percent of its tree canopy in the past 20 years.
Charlotte is a lot like many other fast-growing cities in the United States. It's a churchgoing, NASCAR-loving community where people are proud to call themselves "boosters." Can-do. Pro-business. In many ways, it's an unlikely place for a green revolution. Yet I'd heard radical efforts were under way in this mainstream place.
Mayor Pat McCrory (R), who heads the Environment Committee of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, is pushing to improve Charlotte's mass transit and clean its air. Under his leadership, the city has passed tree-protection and water-quality ordinances and is working to make isolated neighborhoods more pedestrian friendly by adding sidewalks, bridges, and paths. The city council has just formed an environmental committee. And in 2004, the county decided to incorporate the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards into all new public buildings.
Charlotte is also a pioneer in brownfield redevelopment, cleaning up and refurbishing old industrial sites. It has promoted more than 61 such projects, including the Carolina Panthers' new Bank of America Stadium--so many that the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has a staffer in Charlotte just to handle the permits.
"We're schizophrenic," says David Walters, a professor of urban design at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "We're doing all these wonderful things to create a new pattern of development downtown and along the south rail line, but many more times that land is going into sprawl. The jury is out as to which side of our brain will come out on top."
CHARLOTTE'S POWERFUL BANKING INTERESTS, which have made the city the nation's second-largest financial center, are using their clout to move things in a greener direction. Bank of America and Wachovia have introduced initiatives to increase recycling and reduce emissions. Encouraged by the local Sierra Club chapter, which has been active here for 30 years, the city government has begun purchasing hybrids for its fleet. The move will save taxpayers up to $1,200 annually per vehicle. Charlotte legislators in Raleigh, the state capital, helped pass a law to clean up coal-burning power plants and are pushing for adoption of California's tough vehicle-emissions standards.
"Neither party has a monopoly in Charlotte, and our legislators tend to be pro-environment conservatives," says Ed Williams, the Charlotte Observer's editorial-page editor. "They don't see protecting air and water as some sort of big-government, communist conspiracy."
"If you do it right, it's a better investment. It's a conservative value," says McCrory, who jokes that he was the only Republican at an environmental summit for mayors last summer. "When I recruit companies to come to Charlotte, one of the first things I show them is our land-use and transportation plan. If our environment is ruined, our economy will follow very quickly."
Ask anyone in Charlotte who's responsible for the revitalization of "uptown," the city's core, and they'll mention Hugh McColl, the former CEO of Bank of America. Since retiring from that position, McColl, 71, has run a small investment-banking firm. When I meet him at his office, he extends a hand, his smile a little more appraising than warm. "After I got out of the Marine Corps, I won some money in poker and took a two-month tour of Europe," he says. "Their cities didn't have our suburban mishmash. Their cities had borders. I liked that."
McColl and other business leaders pushed for dense development uptown: a performance center and a relocated art museum, restaurants and new housing, and redevelopment of the Fourth Ward. This once-prosperous residential neighborhood had gone into a steep decline when Charlotte's first suburbs were built. Now blight has been replaced by parks and a mix of housing, including condos, multifamily units, and refurbished Victorians. Rather than moving its technology center to the suburbs, as so many corporations do, Bank of America built Gateway Village just inside the uptown area.
Even bigger plans are afoot in the city's historic South End, where the old annex of the Nebel Knitting Company has been turned into a sleek center for design-related businesses. The surrounding neighborhood, once a patchwork of abandoned industrial sites and down-at-the-heels strip malls, has been rechristened the South End Design District and features a mix of small eateries, offices, showrooms, and galleries. A radiator shop has morphed into office buildings. A scrap-metal yard has become a university dormitory. Not all of these sites have been cleaned up to the standard environmentalists would prefer, but the changes are unquestionably creating an economic boom--and minimizing sprawl. Construction of a light-rail line is also driving new projects. The result will be a dense, European model of development, something completely new for Charlotte.
"The exciting thing is now I don't have to push," McColl says. "Good old-fashioned greed has taken over." After we chat for a while, he gets up from the table and stares out his office window onto Bank of America Stadium and the vibrant downtown he helped build. "You know, up here, I can tell whether we're having a good day or a bad day," McColl muses. "On a good day, you can see the mountains 100 miles away."
THIS LATE-WINTER DAY OF HAZY, record-breaking heat is not one of those good days. Bad air quality on warm days has dogged Charlotte since the 1980s. In the summer, the area often exceeds federal limits for ozone--it's among the 15 most ozone-polluted cities in the United States, according to the American Lung Association--and it currently violates health standards for particulates as well. The EPA has given the region that includes Mecklenburg County until June 2010 to clean up the air, or millions of dollars in federal road subsidies will be at risk.
A flurry of clean-air efforts has ensued to address the main cause of Charlotte's air woes: vehicle exhaust. The Charlotte Area Transit System has increased ridership 50 percent since 1998 and has doubled its number of buses to 320 while adding hybrid and natural-gas vehicles. The city opened its first HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes in 2004 and hired a staffer to help develop bike trails. Local officials are working with 50 of the region's largest employers to get people to carpool, use mass transit, and telecommute on high-ozone days.
The planned light-rail system, the first in the state, has sparked controversy. Some think it's a waste of money that would be better spent widening roads, but the support of the mayor and others helped pass a half-cent sales tax to partially fund it. The first line is under construction and scheduled to open in fall 2007. Eventually, the county hopes to have five light-rail and high-speed bus lines radiating from the city's center.
Driving away from the design district at about 5 p.m., I see bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-77. To avoid the interstate, I start down Highway 74, which isn't much better. After about 10 miles and 75 minutes, I turn into a tidy development of suburban homes and stop to ask a couple of neighbors chatting on the sidewalk what they think about sprawl.
"Our house was built in 1996, so I don't really consider this sprawl anymore," says Tony Green, a 35-year-old sales representative, holding his seven-month-old son, Jake. "This used to be green fields," adds his neighbor Carrie Nance, a 48-year-old nurse. "Now you have to go 20 miles away to get to green fields. I consider this the city now."
WITH OPEN SPACE BECOMING SCARCER, Don Morgan, manager of Mecklenburg County's Greenway network, is betting that people will see the value of creating some. In 1999, the county passed a bond that included $15 million to buy land around Mountain Island Lake, providing a buffer for Charlotte's water supply. Five years later, it passed a parks bond that earmarked $25 million for the Greenway project, which comprises 23 miles of creeks thus far and has plans for 185 miles of connected parkland. Greenway planners hope eventually to link this open space to a web of trails throughout the 14-county region. Slowly, fish are coming back to local waterways, and river otters have been spotted in urban areas.
One morning, Morgan and I walk to Little Sugar Creek, a riffle that runs along the edge of uptown and then 12 miles to the South Carolina border. At the turn of the 20th century, the Little Sugar was so polluted that perfumed barrels were hung over its bridges to mask the stench. More indignities followed: dredging, channelization. Finally, it was capped for the shopping-center parking lot where Morgan and I stand, watching heavy equipment make way for mixed-use development.
"It's going to be so much prettier in ten years," Morgan says, envisioning the creek as the centerpiece of a greenways network. "This parking lot will be gone. The creek will be restored, and the banks replanted with natives like redbud trees, black-eyed Susan, and little bluestem. There will be patios and restaurants right on the creek."
It sounds great, but what about the other 100-plus miles of open space? "Land ownership is key," Morgan admits. "Of all those miles, we might have 28 percent. We ask developers to dedicate a little here and there. Each month, we gain some."
Atlanta, the sprawling behemoth 250 miles to the southwest, is a major motivator. "You don't want to be like Atlanta, with ten lanes of parking lot, do you?" people ask in horrified tones. To avoid that prospect, the city's businesses, government, and citizenry will have to work together--as they have in uptown and the South End--to rein in the sprawling suburbs. An EPA-supported program, Sustainable Environment for Quality of Life, has recruited more than 70 municipalities in the Charlotte region to adopt the hundreds of sensible measures cities will need if they are to thrive. The problems of growth can't be solved piecemeal. They must be addressed regionally.
"It's easier to get approval for smaller projects, and so you get this chessboard of disconnected subdivisions," says Todd Mansfield, CEO of Crosland, one of the largest developers in the Southeast. "It's more expensive to have vision, to embrace thoughtful, large-scale development, but that doesn't mean you can't do it." And can-do Charlotte has an impressive head start.
Heather Millar is a frequent contributor to Sierra.
Photo by Tom Kessler, courtesy of Holzman Moss Architecture