Charlotte at six miles per hour. No, it’s not the morning or evening drive time in a city infrastructure suffering the pains of tremendous growth. Rather it’s one of the city’s newest attractions, the Charlotte Trolley, brought to you by a one-of-a-kind city, county and non-profit partnership that has other cities across the country wondering how they can replicate this success story.
As of last month, trolley car #85, a Charlottean in the truest sense having been built in Charlotte in 1927, began making the two-mile run from Atherton Mill toward uptown to Ninth Street. In the first few days, one thousand riders per day climbed aboard the double-truck arch-roofed electric car. With the exception of some weekend and special event riders, few have seen the sights or made a trip through Center City Charlotte by trolley since 1938 when service was discontinued. ‰
How the journey began…
In the late 19th century textile production was in its heyday, and in the New South city of Charlotte, the textile boom had created the need for housing, neighborhoods and transportation for workers. According to research compiled by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission (CMHLC), it was the well-known former Charlottean Edward Dilworth Latta’s foresight that created the Charlotte trolley. His Charlotte Consolidation Construction Company purchased the existing horse-drawn cars from the city of Charlotte in late 1890, and contracted with the Edison Electric Company in February 1891 to install new electric trolley lines.
Charlotte Railway Company was formed to manage the new streetcar system and on May 18, 1891, the first electric streetcar departed from Charlotte’s Square at the intersection of Trade and Tryon for the recently-created suburb of Dilworth.
In 1910, the Southern Power Company (predecessor of the Duke Power Company) purchased the Charlotte Railway Company. CMHLC cites a writer in the Southern Public Utilities Magazine who metaphorically hailed the electric streetcar as providing the essential “blood” of the expanding suburbs. The Southern Power Company and successor Duke Power Company successfully operated and managed Charlotte’s streetcar system until advances in technology brought about its eventual demise in 1937, as inefficient and obsolete.
On March 14, 1938 streetcar #85 traveled a symbolic last trip from Presbyterian Hospital through downtown, stopping at the Square for a special ceremony, and continuing to the South Boulevard car barn. The era of the electric streetcar in Charlotte had come to its end. Or so they thought.
Located in 1987, streetcar #85 is believed to be the only remaining original car of the Charlotte fleet which had numbered between forty and forty-five and most of which were simply scrapped. After stints as a diner/concession stand near Huntersville in the 1940s, housing for relatives down on their luck in the ’50s, and a rental property well into the ’80s when it was eventually condemned for lack of indoor plumbing, the streetcar came to the attention of Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Properties Commission. Charlotte Trolley, Inc., a private non-profit organization, was formed for the eventual goal of operating the streetcar on the abandoned Norfolk and Southern rail line between the ninety-three year old Seaboard station on 12th Street to Dilworth, a distance of about 1.3 miles.
A groundswell of enthusiasm formed to reclaim the historic streetcar, and twenty years and $40 million later, with thousands of hours of volunteer labor, Car #85 has finally been restored and put back on the tracks. What better testimonial to the vision of Charlotte’s early leaders than to re-use this once obsolete vehicle to revitalize a “modern” center city and promote the growth of the South End district.
Mass diffusion or infusion?
Despite the controversy surrounding the funding of it, the comeback of a trolley run in Charlotte is truly a grass roots success story, according to Lisa Gray, executive director of Charlotte Trolley, Inc. In 1998, when the city allocated $16.7 million in public funds to purchase the trolley corridor – tracks and easements – the projection was that the city would re-coup its investment in eight years thanks to an increase in property values along the corridor. But, according to Gray’s organization, even with the increased investment to more than $400 million, more than 800,000 square feet of space has been developed as a direct result of the trolley project, and payback is occurring in just four years as assessments on property values have grown a whopping 89.6 percent since the inception of South End as a separate tax district. (According to the City’s ‰ Budget Office, assessed property values were $232 million in 2001 and are estimated to be over $441 million in 2004.)
And the return-on-investment continues as the trolley moves into Uptown.
Charlotte Trolley is partnering with the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) to integrate the vintage trolley service with the rest of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s extensive transit network. Mecklenburg County and CATS have committed to purchase and restore the Historic Trolley Barn at Bland Street and South Boulevard, where Car #85 was built in 1927, to once again serve as the home to Charlotte’s vintage trolley service.
Despite its integration with the CATS light rail network, “It’s a stretch to call the trolley a transit line,” explains Gray. “It does take people places, but when you think about it in a light rail context, it’s not going to be about moving people in the same kind of way. However, it is going to connect people to businesses and the amenities in these districts.”
If it’s not just a tourist attraction, yet it’s not as sophisticated and fast as light rail, then what is Charlotte Trolley? To Gray, it’s taking a piece of the best of Charlotte’s past and making it a viable alternative to brighten its future.
“I feel better calling it a connector than a transit,” says Gray. “I think it gets to what was good about the trolleys in the early 20th century and the function they served here. When textiles burgeoned along this corridor, that’s when Dilworth grew up. Myers Park, Biddleville and Washington Heights – they were all streetcar neighborhoods. That transit component was critical.”
Hitchin’ a ride
Boarding Car #85 couldn’t be easier. Parking in the Atherton Mill area, so far, is available. One dollar buys a one way trip or $5 allows riders an all-day pass.
There are 40 seats covered in a tan rattan to replicate the original 1920s upholstery and standing room for an additional 30 passengers. Riders face toward uptown and with a clang, the trolley is off for its first stop, the Tremont Avenue station.
“Anyone for Tremont Avenue – Tremont Station?” is the call. Riders watch as a traffic control officer hops off the trolley to stop vehicular traffic and pedestrians who might be surprised at the quaint intrusion. Soon, “85” is running again at a gentle six miles per hour, just enough to blow a cooling breeze through the open windows cased in gleaming wood that line the car.
Old and new landmarks soon appear. Pike’s Soda Shop and the Design Center are to the left with Sullivan’s Steakhouse to the right. The next stop is East Boulevard Station. Price’s Chicken Coop is filled with customers and Eckerd’s is busy. “Park Avenue – anyone for Park Avenue?” the motorman, a CATS employee hollers. While CTI owns the trolley, CATS operates the system and maintains the car.
The routine is repeated and then the trolley is off for its pass along the Park Avenue Apartments, where front doors, walkways, and platforms all face toward the line. Across the street are watering hole Jillian’s and the Charlotte Arts League with its warehouse door open allowing for a glimpse inside.
“From a planning perspective, it’s interesting when you ride the trolley,” says Gray. “Some businesses share a view of their loading docks with us, but the more recent projects have come online with their orientation toward the corridor, and I think that is what the trolley is all about.
“South End is authentic and it’s interesting. You can find one-of-a-kind restaurants and shops. I think there are going to be lots of tourists whose impressions of Charlotte are going to be based on feeling like their trolley ride has shown them what it is really like.”
As the trolley rolls along under its clean and quiet electric power, lunchtime businessmen and women turn and smile; some even wave. They’re members of a group who know uptown well and view the trolley as a charming curiosity. But for others, it’s an entrée into uptown, and a means that makes Charlotte more approachable.
“Some people categorically do not come to uptown,” says Gray. “But the trolley gives everyone great access. You can park anywhere along the corridor, get on, and explore all day along.”
“Next stop…Bland St. Anyone for Bland Station?” the motorman announces. No passengers board or debark this time at Bland. The Bland Street barn is just to the right and will be the new home for Charlotte Trolley when its restoration is complete in 2006.
Various future routes for the streetcar line have been suggested: from Johnson C. Smith University across town to Eastland Mall, or looping to connect with Trade Street and head back toward Bank of America Stadium, or extending the corridor to North Davidson Street to connect to the NODA arts district.
“All of these are possibilities,” says Gray. “When you think about I-277, it moves cars but it also divides neighborhoods. A trolley can reconnect them.”
On pulling out of the Bland Street station, it’s hard to miss the Arlington, Charlotte’s “tall pink building.” The South End district abruptly ends with a pass over I-277 toward the Westin Hotel, into a tunnel-like structure through the Charlotte Convention Center.
“To my knowledge, this is the only city in the world that has mass transit running through its convention center,” notes Gray. “The promise there is that this is such a welcoming, non-intimidating way to explore uptown and South End.”
It is clear to Gray that the city’s investment in the South End trolley corridor was a signal to private developers that the area would once again flourish.
“South End as a district is something the city ought to be very proud of and it’s great that the start up of full trolley service comes at a time when the South End can be showcased,” says Gray. “It’s development was not exactly a sure bet, but the city’s support and investment reduced developers’ risk when coming into this district and purchasing and restoring historic buildings.”
When “85” pulls out from its Convention Center station toward Sixth and Ninth streets the evidence of development is in plain sight. La Vecchia’s Seafood Grille and Reid’s Fine Foods beckon diners and shoppers. And when the trolley pulls into the Ninth Street station, it seems like the end of the line, but the motorman explains that the car needs to be turned around for the trip home – well not quite.
Heading in a new direction
The only turning around is done by those passengers staying on board “85” for the return trip to Atherton Mill or points in between. Each pair of passengers sharing their cane double seat is politely asked to stand up, push the back of their seat in the opposite direction, and to be reseated facing the way they just came. The motorman walks the length of the car to a second set of controls, the trolley bell clangs, and the car gives the smallest of lurches signaling the start of its return journey.
“I think the city can be proud of undertaking transit planning hand-in-hand with land use,” says Gray. “It makes all the sense in the world. And from the perspective of the history of the city, that’s how it grew originally. That’s the story Charlotte Trolley has to tell.” It’s taken approximately 50 minutes to make the four-mile round trip, but passengers have probably seen more of Charlotte – a glimpse of its past, its present economic development, and the potential of its future – in far more detail than they ever would have otherwise.