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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Charlotte developers' handiwork


People sometimes ask me why I give developers such a hard time. The answer is: they usually deserve it. Much of what they build is poorly planned and badly designed. Although there are several thoughtful, conscientious and careful developers in our region who build good projects that will stand the test of time, they're outnumbered by their colleagues who give their industry a bad name.

Accordingly, I'd like to recognize two progressive Charlotte developers, Clay Grubb and Peter Pappas, for their commendable efforts. I mentioned them in passing last week, and these two individuals, and the folks who work with them, deserve to be separated from the herd and publicly praised for the good work they do. Their efforts exemplify more than just a better type of development; it represents town building in the traditional sense of partnerships between public interests and private capital.

Grubb's project to revitalize the Elizabeth neighborhood along Elizabeth Avenue between CPCC and Presbyterian Hospital, in conjunction with Michael Gallis and Associates, is an excellent piece of patient work. It rejuvenates a part of the city that has festered for decades. The new design puts the emphasis back where it belongs -- on the pedestrian and an active street life.

Pappas's stubborn determination to develop the old Midtown Mall site as a mixed-use urban village along the Sugar Creek greenway looks as if it's about to pay off. After his successes at Phillips Place and Birkdale Village in Huntersville (as a joint venture with Crosland), Pappas has put together a project that reclaims old, disused land and creates attractive urban open space around Sugar Creek. With its ambitious agenda, his development will benefit not just the immediate locale, but large areas of the surrounding city.

I call out these two projects in particular because they illustrate the difficult, but rewarding, marriage of private profit and civic improvement. This is a potent mix of ambitions rarely seen in America since the days of the City Beautiful movement over a century ago. Then, business leaders and municipalities made common cause around the principle that good civic design was good for business. It's a legacy that subsequent generations of developers have trashed and cities neglected.

A lot of my work in the Carolinas involves creating new growth plans for communities, helping towns regenerate themselves after a period of decline, or crafting a new framework for future development. In these efforts, my main task is to bring civic design and private development back together, guiding developers, elected officials and citizens to see how good design can heal urban wounds and promote healthy, new and profitable neighborhoods.

In this context, run-of-the-mill developers are the main problem. They've got so used to producing standardized products -- generic strip shopping centers, office parks or cookie-cutter subdivisions -- that they've forgotten what their grandfathers knew: good design is a partner of good business. Too many developers believe ugly is cheaper and skillful design irrelevant. My colleagues and I try to educate developers about the potential good design brings to their bottom lines; usually, we can take a crummy scheme and redesign it to provide more profit to the developer and tangible benefits to the community. It's generally not very difficult to improve on the status quo.

Many communities are also negligent in safeguarding their futures, rarely guiding development with detailed town plans that incorporate sophisticated design. More often than not, towns have either welcomed or opposed new development on the basis of plans that are little more than colored blobs on a map, plus pages of dense legal language. In fact, civic design in the sense Pappas and Grubb understand it is rarely on the table for discussion; most planners haven't been educated in design, and most developers don't care.

One reason I don't pull punches in critiquing the quality of new development is that developers otherwise get such an easy ride in Charlotte. They have access to city staff and elected officials that can't be matched by private citizens or neighborhood groups. When planners untrained in design meet with developers uninterested in the topic, the only guaranteed outcome is a continued decline in the quality of our urban and natural environments. The public comes to believe, not surprisingly, that all development will have low standards and will worsen their quality of life. It's a vicious cycle of declining expectations. Developers, by crass actions like clear-cutting woodlands instead of incorporating trees into the design, only reinforce the public's perception of them as profiteering vandals.

The best way out of this declining spiral is to relearn a lesson from history: good civic design can resolve differences and create a cohesive vision that's good for all parties. Charlotte planners have begun making better plans that integrate good design concepts. Now we desperately need better developers.

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