Huge changes at UNC Charlotte in recent years have transformed the way that students can live, study and play. The extension of the LYNX Blue Line to campus has made Uptown Charlotte and many other regions of the city more accessible. The renovation of Belk Plaza and the ongoing construction of the new University Recreation Center are marked additions to the campus amenities. However, while there has been an emphasis on connecting students to the rest of Charlotte and to UNC Charlotte’s own campus, one vital aspect has been neglected — the connection to the areas immediately surrounding UNC Charlotte’s campus.
Many colleges have vibrant districts immediately off campus, oftentimes a street that is full of unique restaurants, coffee shops, book shops and other cultural offerings. These places are often the focal points of student social life. For example, UNC Chapel Hill has Franklin Street, NC State has Hillsborough Street and Appalachian State University has King Street. However, UNC Charlotte has no equivalent. The Shoppes at University Place is the nearest comparison, but while it offers a good variety of restaurants, it is rare to see large amounts of students congregating there. Although it is right across the road from campus, students are much more likely to grab a drink, study or shop in neighborhoods that are a thirty-minute train ride away.
While it may seem that I’m disgruntled simply for trivial reasons, like the lack of variety in coffee shops (I’m not denying I am), I believe that there are larger consequences. UNC Charlotte is currently trying to attract students to live on or near campus to revitalize the student culture, especially since we are considered by many to be a commuter school. Although improved dorms and campus attractions will help recruit some students, many other students also heavily factor off-campus amenities. If the off-campus amenities pale in comparison to those in other regions of Charlotte, students will opt to live in other regions. Additionally, UNC Charlotte is trying to promote its connection with the greater Charlotte region. The light rail improves the accessibility to campus from other regions of Charlotte, but it does not necessarily add any incentive for people to visit the area. For example, UNC Charlotte football will attract some people, but UNC Charlotte football paired with a unique, bustling off-campus shopping, dining and cultural area would attract a lot more people.
At the moment, there are several unintended impediments to the formation of such a place. First, the entire campus is bordered by four roads with a high volume of vehicular traffic: University City Boulevard, WT Harris Boulevard, North Tryon Street and Mallard Creek Church Road. Additionally, many of the academic and residential buildings on campus are distant from, rather than adjacent to, the existing off-campus commercial areas. These commercial areas are also largely characterized by large surface parking lots which face the street and oversized, generic store fronts. So while successful districts are typically easily accessible for pedestrians and bicyclists and have unique, lively properties where academic, commercial and residential uses seamlessly blend, nowhere near UNC Charlotte quite fits the bill.
UNC Charlotte will never have the natural advantages that some other schools have. While many schools developed as an extension of an already walkable, small town, UNC Charlotte was granted an undeveloped tract of rural land separated from the city. Easy vehicular access was prioritized over a well-integrated, pedestrian friendly urban district. However, I think that there is a lot of potential for change. Obviously, there is a limit to what UNC Charlotte can do: they do not own the property surrounding campus, so they cannot physically reshape the infrastructure. In my opinion, there is something more important than physical restructuring, and that is changing the perception of the area in the minds of students. Since the areas around campus have offered so little for so long, they are not perceived as places to be enjoyed in comparison to somewhere like NoDa or Uptown. If UNC Charlotte were to sponsor low budget, low effort initiatives to fuel activity in these areas, it would go a long way towards changing this stigma. For example, since many of the parking lots along University City Boulevard and North Tryon Street are heavily underutilized, UNC Charlotte should coordinate with business owners and other agencies, such as University City Partners, to host food truck events or free concerts. This would have the dual effect of keeping students in University City on weekends and also stimulating the existing businesses. If these kinds of initiatives were to be instituted, it would hopefully prove that the areas near campus are a desirable district while also encouraging future development geared towards unique, vibrant, accessible uses.
UNC Charlotte is making tremendous strides in the development of its campus and its connection to the city of Charlotte. However, in order to continue its successful growth, it should focus on the missing gap of development: its own backyard.