The above shot is taken on Central Avenue in Charlotte, NC, in the heart of the Plaza Midwood neighborhood. Founded in 1910 as a street-car suburb, the neighborhood is roughly comparable to Highland Park in Birmingham, both historically and in its close geographic relationship to downtown. Each neighborhood is now known for its eclectic, diverse environment.
Signs of a healthy urban place abound in the picture above: sidewalks with people; lots of projecting signs beckoning those people into shops and cafes, a well-branded transit sign announcing bus routes; crosswalk signals that tick down the seconds left to cross, easing pedestrian navigation. In the background, however, you see a strip center and suburban-style Family Dollar sign that are evidence of the decline the neighborhood underwent in the 1950s and 60s, with a familiar tale of suburban flight and increasingly auto-centric development.
The Harris Teeter supermarket above, an anchor in the business district, is an example of the poor site planning of an earlier era. Unappealing, blank walls face the street; parking and a random patch of grass are much more prominent than the building itself, whose entrance is off the parking lot rather than the sidewalk. Luckily, Harris Teeter is completely rebuilding the store, in a much more urban-friendly design, seen below:
The market has been moved to the corner, with storefronts and entries opening off the sidewalks, and parking moved to the rear of the lot. Outdoor seating, a green roof, and an art-deco-inspired design have pleased neighborhood leaders, who have long been pressing for a renovation of this property.
The plan above illustrates the new building hugging the corner, thus becoming a real anchor. It’s a cautionary note too: while “green space” at corners in urban areas is sometimes touted as perfect for “gathering” or “pocket parks” or what have you, it often ends up being unused and un-programmed–like the existing corner of Central and The Plaza in Charlotte. Not always, but often.
Charlotte, as some know, already has a great Harris Teeter full-line supermarket right at the CBD (Uptown, in the ever-cheerful Charlotte-speak), pictured above. At another prime corner, this time it’s the base of a mixed-use development, and shows the chain’s confidence in Charlotte’s center city. I will argue that Birmingham, building-stock-wise, has it hands-down over Charlotte–we were a much, much bigger city than Charlotte in the 1910s and 20s, and our fabric shows it.
But in terms of downtown (Uptown) amenities, well, it would be nice if we had a version of the Harris Teeter. Charlotte, of course, has moved beyond that: behold their Uptown Dean and Deluca, a branch of the famous food emporium from New York, and dream: