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Parallel Universe 

We can learn from other cities

The Porsche's chrome trim haughtily reflected the late fall sunlight through the third floor window. On the second floor, an all-black Mini-Cooper with tinted windows gazed coolly down at potential drivers in the street below, while at ground level shiny BMWs flaunted their wares at pedestrians walking from the tram stop to Starbucks.

Sitting in the coffee shop window, I appreciated the innovative thinking that transformed a space-eating car dealership into a neat multi-story urban building, and watched assorted shoppers hurry by, perhaps students from the big university campus on the other side of the street, or folks who lived in the apartment buildings that lined the street. Trams rumbled by every few minutes while cars maneuvered for parking spaces or hurried by en route to other destinations.

This hearty dose of urbanity was my Thanksgiving gift, but I didn't have to go to Paris or Vienna or any exotic European city. I didn't even have to leave the USA. I was in Boston, watching the world go by on Commonwealth Avenue. But it was almost like being in a foreign country.

Beginning in the Back Bay on the south side of the Charles River, Commonwealth swings by Boston University and extends past Boston College, a few miles to the west. A well-used branch of the Green Line tram system accompanies the cars and terminates at the college campus. It's a very interesting urban street, a wide boulevard that accommodates pedestrians, slow moving local traffic, faster through traffic and, of course, the trams. The public space is lined along its length by apartments, clusters of shops, offices, and university buildings.

I was studying Commonwealth Avenue for its applicability to Charlotte. The street measures 200 feet between building facades, but it's broken down into several distinct parts that allow it to function efficiently for its variety of different uses and still retain a pleasant pedestrian scale at its edges. The success of this street lies in its details, and it's worth describing how it works.

The buildings that line the avenue are close to the sidewalk and generally three or four stories tall to create a pleasant sense of enclosure. If they're apartments, the facades have porches and stoops that raise the main floor above the pedestrian's eye level to protect the visual privacy of those living inside. If the premises are commercial, then the spaces open directly to street level, inviting customers inside.

The sidewalks themselves are wide, about 12 feet from building to curb, and are lined with shade trees. Then comes a lane of parking, accessed by slow-moving traffic on a one-way "frontage road." This slow-speed lane is buffered from the through traffic by a tree-planted median, and the twin tram lines along the middle of the street neatly divide the four lanes of fast-moving traffic into inward and outbound flows. The same pattern is repeated symmetrically on the other side of the space to complete the composition.

As we race against time in Charlotte to retrofit our car-dominated, monoculture metropolis for a more fluid, flexible future -- one that provides more freedom of choice in lifestyles and places to live, work and play -- this Boston example is very instructive. My Community Planning class at UNC Charlotte, for example, is currently engaged in exploring alternative urban futures for University City at the request of local business leaders. We're trying to craft a pedestrian-oriented "town center" amid the prosperous clutter of our car culture that characterizes that part of town.

In the not-too-distant future, light rail trains will glide along the asphalt strip that is today's Highway 29, and substantial urban buildings could replace the mediocre mish-mash of lightweight structures along its length. There's no reason why North Tryon Street couldn't be remodeled as a great urban boulevard along the lines of Boston's Commonwealth Avenue. What it takes is a clear vision, clever traffic planning and urban design, a lot of determination, and creative partnerships between the city, the university and adjacent property owners.

In Charlotte, we're so used to the suburban-dominated paradigm that frames our daily lives that it's easy to forget there's another America, a parallel urban universe, exemplified by cities on the east and west coasts such as Boston, San Francisco, and Portland, OR. Patterns of urban life that are standard in these cities, like walkable neighborhoods, mixtures of uses, choices of transportation, are still radical, "unproven" innovations to some in Charlotte. Here, it's hard for us to learn from cities beyond the South. There's an inbuilt resistance to change and innovation in our local culture, even if the examples have an illustrious American pedigree.

While Porsches on the third floor of car dealerships may be a stretch for Charlotte, Boston and cities like it needn't remain in a distant, parallel universe. They follow different trajectories from us, with disparate histories and aspirations, but our paths can and should intersect. America contains a wealth of urban innovations. All we need do is open our minds.

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