Reflections on a Changing Charlotte

An article in the August issue of Charlotte Magazine, Last Land on 485: The Oehler Family Farm, recounts the changing nature of Charlotte and its impact on those who have lived here for many years. It evokes a number of thoughts I’ve been pondering since our arrival, most based on my observations and grounded in the long period of time I spent living and growing up in Los Angeles.

I’ll put this out here right now for you to consider; Charlotte reminds me of a long ago Los Angeles, a place where you could find a new life, reinvent yourself and pursue the American Dream, or a particular version of that dream, relatively unhindered. As crazy as L.A. is now, there once was a time when you could drive the freeways pretty much any time of day and get where you wanted to go fairly quickly.

Charlotte skyline

Charlotte skyline

It led to the belief that you could move out to the suburbs and buy that little piece of the American Dream thinking that your 30, 40, 50 mile commute would always be a breeze, driven at freeway speeds, a mile a minute. When more housing was built on what was once an orchard, farm or dairy, another road or two would get built to accommodate the growing number of folks moving farther and farther out from the center.

Over time this model becomes untenable. You just can’t build enough roads and even if you try, you’ll more often than not be years, if not decades, behind the demand curve. We see glimpses of that now in Charlotte, particularly where we live, in the northern part of the city, not far from the University where I worked and smack dab in the middle of the area described in the article.

We ride our bikes out here, one of the benefits of the location, being two short blocks off of the Mallard Creek Greenway, which leads directly to campus. It’s a starting point for many of our rides as well as traffic free and shaded (important on summer days in North Carolina). We can also head north on West Sugar Creek Road, which turns into Browne Road, then into Ashbury Chapel at Eastfield Road and at that point, you’re out in the country. We rode this route on Saturday to Davidson, 38 miles round trip with only a few stretches with heavy traffic.

The Greenway not far from our house

The Greenway not far from our house

As we ride, we witness the continuing development that is coming this way. Former fields, pasture and farm land is leveled and large house or apartment complexes take their place. The bucolic two lane country lanes that used to serve an under populated area well are now overwhelmed with a daily deluge of commuter traffic. Developments here usually have one or two ways in and out, which places a heavy load on the feeder roads around them. Rides along Robinson Church, Rocky River Road, and West Sugar Creek that used to be peaceful are now busy, very busy.

Further congestion can be found on the interstates and ring roads that channel the bulk of our commuter traffic, in particular I-77 through downtown all the way up to Mooresville north of Lake Norman, an area of explosive growth, and the southern portion of the 485 loop around Ballantine. A third lane was recently added to that section of the 485 and a controversial toll lane will be added to the north and south bound I-77. But funding and support has not been found to extend any kind of light tail in that direction, a common failing in our nation’s rapidly growing cities.

As a boy growing up in Los Angeles, I can recall a time when you could drive to San Diego and you’d pass many open fields, particularly in South Orange County. In elementary school we’d take day trips to dairy farms that existed out near Pomona and no one who lived there during those years can forget the smell of orange blossoms from the groves that dominated, you got it, Orange County.

View from our screened in porch

View from our screened in porch

I see that happening here in Charlotte. The last ten years or so have witnessed impressive increases in population, averaging 10.7% since 2010 as people flee harsh northern winters for our milder climate combined with a strong economy (now recovering from the 2008 crash) that promises opportunities that may not exist back home.   Given this trend, predictions are that Charlotte will grow by 47% from its 2010 population of nearly 1.87 million to 2.74 million by 2030.

So, Charlotte’s growing and will continue to grow. For now though, except for a few stretches of certain highways, it still feels like a small town to me. When I go out, I’m on the look out for people I might know, having run into folks often like one would do in a small town. Traffic still flows smoothly; I just made a run out to the airport this morning, Monday, at 8:00 am and encountered little if any traffic on the I-85, a fast journey out and back. It’s interesting to me how quickly we adapted to this place and how we’ve come to call it home. Let’s just hope Charlotte learns from the mistakes made in other cities that grew to fast and that the quality of life we escaped from In Los Angeles doesn’t follow us here.

Charlotte at Night

Charlotte at Night

Links

Last Land on 485: http://www.charlottemagazine.com/Charlotte-Magazine/August-2015/Last-Land/

UNC Charlotte: http://www.uncc.edu/

Mallard Creek Greenway: http://charmeck.org/mecklenburg/county/ParkandRec/Greenways/OpenGreenways/Pages/MallardCreekandClark’sCreek.aspx

Charlotte’s Growth: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article21523356.html

Charlotte’s Predicted Growth: http://www.bizjournals.com/charlotte/news/2015/02/03/growth-surge-charlottes-population-to-swell-by-47.html

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