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East Charlotte blues

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If you're hoping to see neighborhood transformation in Charlotte, don't look at Independence Boulevard.

Despite land use studies and promises from politicians, Independence is still a decaying corridor of empty retail stores and land that some say is unable to be developed.

But it's not just empty stores and empty promises that have residents in east Charlotte clamoring for change. Advocates for east Charlotte say an excess of Section 8 housing and a freeway running through the middle of their part of the city, among other problems, make it easy for the eastside to be ignored.

Last year, the Eastside Political Action Committee held a rally to bring attention to the blighted Independence corridor. And according to the group's chairman, Ed Garber, politicians like State Rep. Becky Carney and City Councilwoman Nancy Carter showed up and made promises to meet with residents and get things moving in the right direction -- including the creation of a transportation plan that featured a designation for light rail.

But one year later, nothing has changed except the dates on the calendar, said Garber.

"We're tired of studies and plans in east Charlotte," Garber said. "They don't get followed in the end. It's upsetting and par for the course when you live in east Charlotte."

Carter, however, claims that there is work being done to spark development in east Charlotte.

"The land use study has been ongoing. There have been numerous meetings regarding the issue. We have staff committed to this," said Carter. "Council support for the eastside is as strong the last two years as it's ever, ever been." But she cautioned that change to east Charlotte is going to take time. "How long has it taken to recreate Wilkinson Boulevard and Freedom Mall? It's taken a while. And unfortunately, government does not move rapidly. I wish I could wave a wand and things could happen tomorrow."

But Garber contends that the city's had plenty of time get things moving in the right direction and to clean up the mess that was made with the widening of Independence Boulevard.

"Over the past 10 years, there's been a lot of secret dealings, but none of them have come to fruition. I don't see any big land deals going on right now. We have another mile of widening scheduled to happen, and the same thing is going to happen there. The city has confirmed it and the state has confirmed. There is no plan to buy out the business owners. What you see right here is what's going to happen down the road," Garber said. "We know what the result is. Why is this next widening still going to occur?"

Eastside resident Stephanie Nance hopes that the rest of Independence Boulevard doesn't turn into a ghost town.

"I love my community, and I want the city to help us make it better," she said.

Nance said she grew up in Gastonia, and as a high school student, she remembers coming to Charlotte to shop on Independence Boulevard. "Now, it's turned into nothing, and it's sad. I live over here and I love my neighborhood and they need to bring it back. We're so close to Uptown and so many people travel down Independence and this is what they see," she said as she stood in front of the nearly empty Coliseum Shopping Center.

When asked why she thinks east Charlotte has been ignored, Nance candidly replied that maybe the residents don't make enough money for politicians to pay attention to them.

Garber said east Charlotte is a secondary priority in the city of Charlotte and the area has never gotten the commitment that it needs for revitalization to begin.

"It has become the biggest eyesore in Charlotte," he said.

To bring renewed interest to the Independence corridor, the Eastside PAC held a rally at the Coliseum Shopping Center last Thursday. Residents of east Charlotte held up signs with messages like, "We don't need another study" and "Stop putting trash in east Charlotte."

Teresa Pender, a 16-year resident of east Charlotte, said the lack of development on Independence has hurt area property values in and "it's taken away from what we need on our side of town."

She said there's too much talk about redevelopment and not enough action. "We need someone to step in and let us know what's going on, instead of having this long period of waiting. The longer we wait, the more stores are closing."

The other trend in east Charlotte that has residents simmering with resentment is the large amount of Section 8 housing.

Taking a look at the Charlotte Housing Authority real estate property map, (www.cha-nc.org/realestate/properties.asp) the largest concentration of Section 8 housing is in east Charlotte.

Garber said with the redevelopment of Uptown, city leaders turned east Charlotte into a sort of a dumping ground.

At-large councilman and mayoral candidate John Lassiter said he understands the frustrations of east Charlotte residents.

"I think the folks in east Charlotte are impatient, for good reason. They've got a lack of trust. But I think we are at a point now where we can make good things happen," he said, adding that the city is working to revamp Eastland Mall and attract high-quality retail on Independence. "We're going to do the things so that the rest of this property can be developed," he said.

Lassiter added that the city is working to bring Wal-Mart to Independence. He and Carter said that as early as Monday, there was to be a vote on the transition setback yardage along Independence. That vote and the agreed space for the right-of-way on Independence in relationship to the store's entrance will determine if Wal-Mart will come to the Amity Gardens shopping center.

"That will trigger the redevelopment of the rest of this land," Lassiter said. But don't expect to see a transition like Wilkinson Boulevard had when a new Wal-Mart opened over there.

"This will be different because Wilkinson Boulevard is not a freeway," Lassiter said. "This is always going to be a freeway. But in the short term, we have to figure out how to re-orient the development internally so that it begins to work back toward the neighborhood."

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