Greenways are nothing new for Charlotte. These pedestrian and bicycle paths are scattered throughout the county, but most sections are only a few miles long. That’s about to change. A project is in the works to link some of these paved paths and create one continuous greenway from Pineville northeast to the Cabarrus County line. The effort isn’t just about recreation, but also economic development.
Bicyclist Dean Brodhag and his friend are out for a leisurely ride along the Little Sugar Creek Greenway just east of uptown.
“It’s a hot day and we’re just trying to truncate our time so we get to the nice greenways and not spend time on the side streets and such,” says Brodhag.
But they’re not just bikers. They’re also consumers. They plan to stop to get a cool drink at a restaurant along the way. That’s part of the reason developers like Edens, the owner of Park Road Shopping Center in South Charlotte, see a benefit to being located close to the greenway.
“When we first bought this center one of the greatest assets that we saw, even though we didn’t own it or control it, was this Sugar Creek Greenway,” Lyle Darnall with Edens tells city council members.
They’re on a tour of the greenways. The county now has 42 miles of them. The plan is to create a 26 mile continuous greenway called the Cross Charlotte Trail, by linking some existing trails and building the rest. The idea is the longer the greenway the more usage and development dollars it attracts.
Darnall tells them he’s seen a lot of developments located on greenways all over the country. He says the ones that truly work are “fascinating” to see how much they mean to the community.
Developers in the early twentieth century envisioned such breezy paths for Charlotte, but Mecklenburg County first got serious about them in the 1980s. At that time many cities began turning their best land taken up by abandoned industrial facilities into parks and trails.
“It was really a consciousness changing where people started to realize this was not a constraint, this was an opportunity. That was the genesis of the changed thinking of green space and economic development,” says Ed McMahon with the Urban Land Institute.
Baltimore has the Inner Harbor. Charleston has Waterfront Park. Here, local leaders want the Cross Charlotte Trail. It’s expected to cost about $35 million. Much of that would come from a bond package going before voters next year.
A bus shuttles city council in between greenways. The tour isn’t about persuading city council to support the trail. They already do.
“All of this territory from the northern part of Mecklenburg County to Charlotte to the South Carolina line, you open all of that territory for re-development and development,” says Mayor Pro-Tem Michael Barnes.
The tour is more a feel-good session about the work accomplished and the work to come. They stop at a section of Little Sugar Creek Greenway with wide paths, fountains and sculptures.
Little Sugar Creek used to be one of the most polluted streams in the state. Barrels of perfume used to hang off the bridges to cover the stench of the creek. Parts of the creek were enclosed in concrete slabs up until a few years ago.
Now, the Metropolitan complex with its five restaurant terraces, office suites, and dozens of condos overlook this section of the creek. Its developer Peter Pappas tells the group he had to persuade tenants the location would be a big plus.
“Now that they’re here and now that the greenway is finished, it’s working very well. But that was a challenge early on,” says Pappas.
Further down the path, a 300-unit apartment complex is going up, trying to lure residents with the tagline, “explore your backyard one mile at a time.” There’s certainly a lot of momentum for development so close to uptown, but the trail will also go through many struggling parts of the county.
“The true test of it will be as we approach neighborhoods that perhaps were neglected. As we try to improve those, how do we cultivate both the people that live there now as well as the people who want to live there,” asks council member Vi Lyles.
If the bond passes, the trail’s southern portion stretching from Pineville to uptown is expected to be completed in the next four years. The northern portion through NODA and past UNC Charlotte would take longer.