Council QuickiesNews & Opinion

Council Quickies: Updates on River District and Vision Zero

Notes from Monday's meeting: Oct. 4, 2021

Charlotte Comprehensive Plan
City council met on Monday night and discussed Vision Zero and the River District. (Photo courtesy of City of Charlotte)

Charlotte City Council convened for a strategy session on Monday, hearing presentations on two big projects the city is working on — the Vision Zero plan and the River District development — and discussing those projects.  

We will hear more about the Vision Zero plan sooner than later, as real-time data from the preliminary implementation of technology to create safer streets is currently being compiled. As for the River District, well, it’s slow going on that front, as there is still plenty of rezonings, annexations and infrastructure development to go before anything can really get built.

As for city council, the Unified Development Ordinance will be on next week’s agenda (Oct. 11), so that should make for some interesting back-and-forth. In the meantime, here are our notes from Monday’s meeting. 

Vision Zero Update

Vision Zero: Safer Streets for Charlotte was named such because of the aspirational goal to see zero traffic deaths in the city over the course of a year. Planners take the approach that traffic deaths are preventable rather than inevitable, and want to prove that preventing those deaths is not expensive.

Many pedestrian/car crashes are caused by cars not ceding the right-of-way to pedestrians, said Debbie Smith with Charlotte DOT. Leading Pedestrian Intervals give pedestrians a three-second head start before the light for the parallel street turns green. The system has been implemented at 248 locations across the city.

Pedestrian Rectangular Rapid Flashing Lights alert drivers to the presence of a pedestrian in a crosswalk using strobe lights. They have been installed in five locations. 

LED Smart Streetlights have been installed throughout the North End district. They self-report outages so as to make obsolete the tedious manual inventory process that staff carries out overnight and makes for quicker fixes when there is an outage. The “smart” technology can be installed onto existing streetlights. 

Maj. Dave Johnson with CMPD was on hand Monday night, stating that the department will focus on areas along the high-injury network where most wrecks happen in Charlotte. This includes ‘saturation patrols’ and checkpoints.

The city is also considering a return to automated traffic enforcement, using technology such as speed cameras and red light cameras. Charlotte operated the SafeSpeed program from 2003-06, which used cameras, though the legislation allowing them to do so required that a CMPD officer also be present to log speeds with a radar gun. 

The legislation also named 14 specific locations in Charlotte where CMPD could implement the program, not allowing for any other options, and based those locations on their proximity to schools, not crash data. The legislation expired in 2007 and the program was terminated. 

Red light cameras are used more widely in North Carolina and around the country. The cameras are deployed at intersections with stop lights, where they detect vehicles that pass the white stop bar after a light has turned red, triggering high-speed cameras that take photos of the violating car, then mail citations to the owner of the violating vehicle. 

Charlotte discontinued its previous red-light camera program in 2006 after the NC Supreme Court ruled that 90% of civil penalty proceeds must go to the local school board. The city paid CMS $4.7 million in 2009 then terminated the program.

Data taken from four locations where the red-light cameras were previously installed covered three years before the cameras, three years during their use and three years after. It showed that, while there was an uptick in rear-end collisions at the intersection while the cameras were there, all in all the intersections saw a decrease in collisions during and after the program was in operation. 

Vision Zero Discussion

Dimple Ajmera voiced her concerns with the city’s backlog of street lights, as some places have none in working order. She brought up the seeming proliferation of purple street lights, which Smith blamed on a manufacturing issue. While Duke Energy is aware of some locations, they ask that people report the purple lights when they see them.

In response to Ajmera’s concerns that speeding calls are hard to enforce because the speeder is gone when officers arrive, Maj. Johnson with CMPD agreed but said the department sometimes uses live footage from the Real Time Crime Center to track down reckless drivers.

Braxton Winston said if the city is going to research the impact of enforcement technology, it also needs to research technology in vehicles that help make streets safer so as not to make disjointed inferences. He brought the conversation back to the high-injury network, stating it is the result of a city that was designed to cultivate the public’s dependence on cars and make walking and other non-car traveling less safe.

Greg Phipps asked to confirm that there was an increase in incidents in which drivers came to an intersection and saw a camera and slammed on the brakes, leading to wrecks. Johnson appeared to confirm by pointing to an increase in rear-end crashes during implementation of red-light cameras.

Johnson said he believes “results were mixed” with the red-light cameras, and more research/investment from the city might be needed, but he spoke for CMPD in saying the department would get behind anything that makes streets safer.

“What I’m not getting yet from this presentation is a measure of what success we’ve had [with Vision Zero] and when we will know what has been successful,” said Ed Driggs. Smith with CDOT replied that data from smart street lights and other technology is coming soon as it is being collected and compiled in real time.

Driggs said he believes distracted driving is a huge factor in street safety and is amazed by how often he sees people staring at their phones while on the road. He and Johnson acknowledged that the issue of distracted driving is even harder to fix/enforce than speeding, as an officer needs to see it to do anything about it. 

According to City Manager Marcus Jones, the city paid $2 million toward Vision Zero in 2018, another $2 million in 2020, and is proposing $4 million in a bond referendum in 2022.

Larken emphasized that the city will open the Parkwood Avenue road diet program this Friday, which includes protected bike lanes on both sides of Parkwood and takes out two lanes of travel, a process that began when a cyclist was killed on that road in 2015

Vision Zero
A ‘ghost bike’ was placed on Parkwood Avenue in 2015 after cyclist Al Gorman was killed by a car. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Egleston said the Parkwood project is one example of the city working to make streets safer, but he says the blame also falls on “people driving like idiots.” He believes increased ticketing does lead to improvement. When people’s insurance rates begin to go up, their behavior changes.

Winston replied that he disagreed that this is not just about roads. “This is specifically about looking at roads, planning, and development through a public safety lens.”

Winston said he would like to bring the Charlotte Fire Department into the conversation, as they are first-responders to car crashes as well and will have plenty of data and insight related to creating safer streets.

River District Update

The River District development has been in development for six years. There is currently no infrastructure there, including water or sewer infrastructure. While an upcoming West Boulevard groundbreaking will begin the building process, the main corridor of Phase 1 development will be Dixie River Road.

The River District master plan includes 1,000 hotel rooms, 8 million square feet of office space, 500,000 square feet of retail, 2,500 multifamily residential units, and 2,500 single-family residences. These numbers are estimates, however, and will change over the many years it takes to develop the project.

The master plan includes 460 acres of preserved green space, 2.5 miles of protected bike lanes, 2.7 miles of protected riverfront, 30 parks, three water access points, 14.7 miles of mountain bike trails, a two-acre sustainable farm/orchard and more.

River District
The land that will soon be home to The River District is not home to much at the moment. (Photo courtesy of TRD)

The two first developments planned for the River District are an office building a town center, both along the West Boulevard corridor. 

Asked about specifics in terms of cost to the city, assistant city manager Tracy Dodson said she does not have an estimate of the full public investment that will go into the River District. Preliminary estimates are around $30 million, though that can change and can also be accomplished in different ways. 

Victoria Watlington responded that she would like to see more specific estimates so as to quantify the public benefits as compared to public investment.

River District
A map of the proposed River District. (Illustration courtesy of TRD)

There is a 10% affordable housing commitment in the first phase of residential development, and Watlington requested that developers look into affordable home-ownership opportunities and other ways to make the River District affordable and a cultivator for economic mobility.

Chase Kerley with Crescent Communities estimated the first homes/residential units will be ready for move-ins around spring 2023, with the first affordable-housing community ready by the end of 2023, though he emphasized that all development will include a spectrum of price points.

Larken Egleston suggested changing the name of Dixie River Road before development goes much further. “To me Dixie River Road sounds like the entrance to a Dukes of Hazzard theme park, not something like this.”

Arts and Culture Advisory Board

The city received well over 100 applications for the six spots on the new Arts & Culture Advisory Board, and council members were tasked with going through the list of applicants and nominating six people they approved of. 

On Monday, the only two applicants to receive six or more nominations from council members were voted in: Shefalee Patel and Nick Tosco. The four additional spots will be voted on from a list of 13 applicants who have received two or more nominations at a later date.

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