At Charlotte's New Walmart, a Transit Promise Unfulfilled

The city pledged transit-oriented development around the store — so why is it building roads?

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Reuters

In late summer of 2009, after years of consideration, Walmart finished plans to build a new superstore in a run-down shopping center in East Charlotte. The city was hit hard by the 2008 crash, and municipal leaders saw the chain as both a creator of jobs and a signal that the local economy was on the rebound. They also saw it a first step toward a more livable, sustainable east side:

"I think we have a real opportunity for transit oriented development next door and further out. This will anchor all of those developments," said Nancy Carter, of the Charlotte City Council.

Well it's two and a half years later, and part of that promise has been fulfilled. The 150,000-square-foot Walmart opened in late January to much fanfare. The site created 250 local jobs, and Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx compared its societal impact to, uh, the moon landing: "This is one small step for retail, and one huge step for [east] Charlotte." No pressure there.

But the shipment of TOD is still awaiting fulfillment. Instead of transit-oriented development, East Charlotte residents have a tangle of automobile congestion, according to several local news reports. The new Walmart is situated on Independence Boulevard just east of a cloverleaf interchange and just west of a major intersection with Albemarle Road. Despite its name, Independence is not a cozy boulevard in the pedestrian sense but a roaring six-lane expressway. That means drivers leaving the Walmart parking lot must merge into speeding traffic, and those who want to make the Albemarle exchange have to cross multiple lanes in about the time it takes to say "low prices."

Meanwhile residents of the nearby Amity Gardens neighborhood are complaining that drivers are speeding development to get to the store's back entrance. And if you were hoping transit might ease some of that congestion, you better hope a bit harder: buses on Independence run express from uptown Charlotte to Sharon Amity Roar, more than half a mile away, so there's no stop at the store itself.

To be fair, city transportation officials tell reporters they're going to install a bus stop at the store sometime in the next month. That should be easy enough on the Walmart side of Independence, but what about across the freeway? Placing a responsible stop there would also require a safe pedestrian crossing in the middle of six-plus lanes of heavy car traffic — an unlikely project, and at best a very lengthy one. In other words, transit riders going the other way on Independence will have to board the store-side stop, then transfer at the next stop with a crossing to head the other direction.

That's not what most urbanists have in mind when they hear "transit-oriented development." So what happened? The short answer is the recession. Charlotte had an ambitious 2030 Transit Plan in place, and it even had a finance mechanism in a voter-approved half-cent sales tax. But tax revenue plunged with the downturn, and after construction of the Blue Line light rail corridor, the city delayed the development of all other planned lines (though it's still trying to fund at least one of the projects by offering freight access to its tracks).

Among the delayed lines is the Silver Line — a 13.5-mile, 16-station bus-rapid transit (or possibly light rail) line expected to carry some 15,500 people a day along Independence Boulevard. Delayed, yes, but not defeated. This past May the city adopted an updated plan [PDF] that still regards completion of the Silver Line as an essential part of a broad overhaul of Independence Boulevard. Should that plan survive, Walmart will get a transit station right at its doorstep (the circle is the Amity Gardens station, and the store is positioned at B-4):

If that vision ever sees the light of day, then perhaps the new East Charlotte Walmart will anchor transit-oriented development in the corridor after all, as my colleague Kaid Benfield once felt confident it could. But right now that seems a long way off, and in the meantime the city appears to be working at odds with the spirit of its own transit plan. As the Charlotte Observer reports, the next project in store for Independence Boulevard is to widen it even more:

The stretch of road that houses the new Walmart has seen numerous businesses close as Independence has been widened and converted to an expressway. That's made it harder to access businesses. The next phase of the widening will begin soon, converting Independence to an expressway for another 1.6 miles, to Wallace Road.

That has already prompted the closure of nearby businesses such as Compare Foods and T.J. Maxx in Independence Shopping Center near Idlewild Road, and demolitions of several businesses between North Sharon Amity and Idlewild roads. The state will ultimately demolish an estimated 30 businesses to make way for the wider expressway.

It's great that East Charlotte attracted a new Walmart, and years from now let's hope residents look back and see the store's opening as the moment when the area's economic recovery and transportation redevelopment began. But right now all it has is a mega-store fronted by a vast parking lot, a boulevard that favors fast cars over a balance of sustainable transport modes, and an underfunded transit plan taking a back seat to highway expansion. That doesn't sound like transit-oriented development. It sounds like another Walmart.

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