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Public input wanted for Charlotte's first true 'linear park'

If Dorothy had been a hipster and come to Charlotte instead of Oz, she might have hoped to see more beer gardens, farmers markets and unicorns.

Such amenities could soon show up in the real world, along the Blue Line light rail. (Minus the unicorns. Sorry.)

In the next 10 or 15 years, land designers will transform what's now mostly walkways along the light rail into the Rail Trail. The urban linear park will connect South End neighborhoods to Uptown.

On a rainy, cold day this month, about 100 people gathered at South End's Triple C brewery, beer in hand, to share with designers and city planners what they'd like to see along the 3.3-mile trail. Ideas ranged from the playful to the creative to the practical: a dog park, hammocks, graffiti walls, vegetable gardens, bike-repair stations and space for corn hole. A beer garden outside Triple C, with walkways to connect it to the Rail Trial, and shaded benches were among the more popular suggestions.

LandDesign, an urban design company in Charlotte, is charged with developing the project. It has scouted 70 spaces along the light rail — some small, some as large as 3 acres — that could host some kind of public amenity.

"How could we enhance this asphalt pathway that was built by CATS basically as a surface way alongside the Blue Line?" asks Cheryl Myers, senior vice president for planning and development with Center City Partners. Center City Partners, the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County funded the plan for the trail, but money to build the park will come mostly from the private sector.

Larger cities have incorporated such parks into their landscape — sometimes to mixed reviews. About five years ago, New York City transformed an elevated freight rail line in Manhattan's West Side to the High Line.

Though excitement for the project was high at the beginning, the "park" quickly took on a different feel.

"My skepticism took root during my first visit," wrote Jeremiah Moss in August 2012 for The New York Times. "The designers had scrubbed the graffiti and tamed the wildflowers. Guards admonished me when my foot moved too close to a weed. Was this a park or a museum? I felt like I was in the home of a neatnik with expensive tastes, afraid I would soil the furnishings."

He added: "The High Line has become a tourist-clogged catwalk and a catalyst for some of the most rapid gentrification in the city's history."

Though Myers and others refer to the High Line in the same breath as the Rail Trail, New York is very different from Charlotte. The High Line attracted about 4 million visitors in 2011, only half of them New Yorkers. Myers says she hopes the Rail Trail will become a tourist destination, but it likely won't receive the same kind of foot traffic as the High Line.

Last week, the Times wrote a much friendlier story about Indianapolis' Cultural Trail, an 8-mile web of walkways and biking routes that is "helping residents rediscover their city and reshaping how outsiders view it."

Myers recognizes the economic development opportunities but speaks of the park in user-friendly terms. She says ideas such as a graffiti wall or public-art space are welcome.

"How could we take these places and convert them into places for people to play, for food vendors, for pop-up retail, for just sitting and reading a book," Myers asks. "We also, through the process, began to look at this rail line ... as an urban linear park that would connect community, culture and commerce."

Residents of parts of Charlotte that need more economic development than South End said they'd welcome such a park.

At the Triple C gathering was Audrea Smith, who lives in northwest Charlotte. She said she was excited about the Rail Trail but hoped to hear of such development reaching into her neighborhood.

"All these things are great for South End, but we have other sections of town that need a trail" and the economic development that could come with it, she said.

City planners said that as light-rail lines spread to other parts of Charlotte, projects like the Rail Trail would follow.

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