Car dealer wants to build auto mall near light rail extension

The owners of Parks Chevrolet want to build an auto mall near the planned northern extension of the Lynx light-rail line, but critics say that’s the exact opposite of the dense, pedestrian-friendly development the line spurred south of uptown.

The Charlotte City Council plans a public hearing Monday on a request to rezone 39 acres across University City Boulevard from IKEA to allow up to five car dealerships.

The Arden Group out of Winston-Salem wants to cluster the dealerships in a 275,000-square-foot auto mall, according to the rezoning petition.

Stuart Parks, head of the Arden Group, manages assets tied to his family’s 20-plus car dealerships, including a Parks Chevrolet on North Tryon and one in Huntersville.

Parks Chevrolet couldn’t be reached. But Paul Williams, an Arden Group project manager, said the North Tryon dealership needs to move to the new site nearly two miles away because construction of the light rail line is taking about 60 feet of its current frontage on North Tryon.

“That’s a fairly large percentage of our inventory display space,” Williams said. “Our first choice is to pick a (new) spot close to where we are now, but not directly on the light rail line.”

He said the proposed auto mall won’t stop high-density development from going in directly adjacent to the line.

Critics, however, say the new location is too close – about a quarter-mile from the planned 9-mile, $1.16 billion Blue Line extension.

Construction of the light rail extension is expected to start early next year and trains are slated to start running in 2017.

Advocates of mass transit have long argued that light rail reduces dependency on cars and spurs high-density development that clusters residences more tightly, giving local governments more taxes per acre than far-flung suburbs.

They point to Charlotte’s South End area, which has seen an explosion of apartment building spurred by the Lynx line.

“If Charlotte is serious about funneling its future growth into higher density corridors, those corridors have no place for auto malls,” said Martin Zimmerman, an architect who directs a research and public policy firm called Green Mobility Planning Studio.

Ed McKinney, an assistant director in the city-county planning department, said the parcel is covered by the University City Area Plan the City Council adopted in 2007.

He said that plan acknowledged that, given the proximity of the parcel to Interstate 85, there might be some “auto-associated uses,” and the auto mall is consistent with that.

Unlike the southern line, he said, much of the land around the stations planned for the northern extension is are still zoned for suburban, car-oriented uses.

It will take time to change that, he said, and for now the staff is trying to lay the groundwork for future uses by improving the walkability and connectivity of streets, among other things.

“Not every station is going to have the kind of form and density you see in the South End,” he said.

The planning staff recommends against approving the auto mall in its current form, he said. The staff wants the developers to, among other things, provide more specifics on the proposed architectural style and make sure the project can mesh with any future transit-oriented development.

Zimmerman, in an article for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute’s PlanCharlotte Website, called those objections “little more than painting lipstick on the proverbial pig.”

Available land on U.S. 29

George Maloomian of Cambridge Properties, the Arden Group’s agent for the rezoning, expressed confidence that the group can address the staff’s concerns.

Maloomian contends the proposal is more sensitive to the rail corridor than other potential locations.

Dealerships could set up shop on several parcels available for sale along U.S. 29 totaling about 80 acres, he said.

That would put car lots directly across the street from a planned transit stop.

“That’s the last place University City wants to see car dealerships,” he said.

Williams, the Arden Group project manager, agreed.

“There is property available that would allow automobile uses directly on Tryon,” he said, “(but) we believe in the planning effort that has gone on along the Blue Line.”

That line of reasoning doesn’t go over well with auto mall critics.

“It’s like they’re threatening,” said Shannon Binns, head of Sustain Charlotte, a nonprofit advocacy group. “What’s best for the city is not to have an auto mall in either location.”

University City Partners, a nonprofit that promotes economic development in the University area, supports the proposal, said Janelle Goodrich, a project manager for the group.

Maloomian, who is listed on University City Partners Website as its 2012-13 board chairman, recused himself and left the room during all of the group’s discussions about the project, Goodrich said.

She added that the site’s position near Interstate 85 means it probably isn’t ideal for anything other than business uses.

The auto mall rezoning request is linked to a separate request that would change zoning for the 14 acres where Parks Chevrolet currently sits on North Tryon. It would be changed from general business zoning to a classification designed to support mixed-use transit-oriented development.

The application for the rezoning of the 14-acre site says the request will not be processed if the auto mall rezoning plan falls through.

The planning staff is listed as the sponsor of the request.

Cars in urban spaces

McKinney, of the planning staff, said the auto dealership approached the city and asked for that rezoning. He said the staff often helps with such requests when a landowner volunteers to have property rezoned for transit-oriented development.

Architect Terry Shook, who helped with the planning for the south rail corridor, said the auto mall’s location would give it enviable access to both a major interstate and a future light rail stop.

A sprawling set of car dealerships, he said, wastes too much space and development potential.

“They sell cars in urban spaces,” he said, adding that it isn’t unusual for dealerships to display cars in garages. “When you start to eat up all this land ... you take away from the potential of the transit line that we’ve all invested in.”

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