Mecklenburg's goal was to build 129 miles of greenways by 2018. It hasn't come close.

Mecklenburg's goal was to build 129 miles of greenways by 2018. It hasn't come close.
Skateboarders navigate Little Sugar Creek Greenway, the gem of Mecklenburg County's trail network. (Credit: Observer file photo)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Bruce Henderson/The Charlotte Observer) - A decade ago, Mecklenburg County parks officials set an ambitious goal meant to satisfy the county's legions of walkers and bikers: 129 miles of greenway trails to be built by 2018.

Nearly halfway into the target year, the county has completed just 49 miles. What happened?

The short answer: slow recovery from the deep recession that began in late 2007. County staff was cut and most of the $250 million in parks bonds that voters approved in 2008 were never sold.

The county is playing catch-up now, adding a dozen greenway projects to its 2019-23 capital budget after outrage last year over a proposal to invest more than $100 million in a new stadium for a hoped-for Major League Soccer franchise. The plan later collapsed.

Eighteen miles of trails are in design or construction, and another 27 miles are budgeted in the county's capital plan, starting in July, or from other sources. An updated master plancalls for adding 268 miles of trails over 30 years.

But an annual ranking of urban park systems again placed Charlotte at the bottom, scoring it low for per-capita spending and for the relatively few residents who live within walking distance of a park.

Greenway advocates, meanwhile, insist that the county step up construction. A 200-mile network could be completed by 2035, Greenways for Mecklenburg says, connecting neighborhoods, offering healthy new ways to get around and stimulating economic benefits.

What's missing, president Ed Barnhart said, "is commitment, and commitment is dollars."

Barnhart, a former parks commissioner, says public sentiment in support of greenways is running ahead of county leaders who haven't made them a priority. Opportunities to buy land for new trails, the group says, won't get any easier as Charlotte's population grows by 60 people a day.

"Now you can ask anybody who is involved in this, the public attitude is here — where have (leaders) been and when will this be completed?" he said.

Mecklenburg residents, queried in community surveys, rank paved walking and biking paths as their top recreational priority.

At-large county commissioner Pat Cotham, however, said she more often hears pleas for local amenities — skate parks, basketball courts or air conditioning for a gym. Community surveys, she said, might not accurately reflect the views of low-income, elderly or young people with different priorities.

"Not all parts of Mecklenburg County seem to have great interest in this," she said. "I hear (support for greenways), but I don't hear that repeated when I go other places. They're more interested in recreation centers."

Mecklenburg has a history of making bold plans for greenways, only to fall short. The county built its first trail, McAlpine Greenway, in 1978. A 1980 master plan called for a 73-mile "green necklace" around the city, but by 2000 only 5.5 miles of trails had been built.

The current plan calls for the county to develop 33 miles of greenways over the next five years and to acquire land for another 54 miles of trails within a decade, although those wouldn't be built for up to 25 years.

The Trust for Public Land, an advocate for urban parks, recently ranked the city's parks near the bottom nationally as it has for several years.

The group said local spending per capita on parks was little more than half the national median. The trust found that only 28 percent of Charlotte residents live within a half-mile of a park, compared to 65 percent in other cities.

"The biggest thing that slowed us down was the economic downturn," said Jay Higginbotham, a senior planner in the county's Asset and Facility Management office, which manages greenway construction. "We were in kind of recovery for four solid years, until 2012, before capital started flowing and even then we were limited to projects that had outside funding" such as transportation grants.

County staff for greenway planning and project management were slashed. Only $10 million of the $250 million in park bonds voters approved in 2008 were issued (another $25 million will be issued this fall) as the county shifted to pay-as-you-go financing.

Once conditions improved, staffs had to be rebuilt and the pool of greenways consultants and contractors rebuilt. Land prices had risen.

"We were slower to recover from that (downturn) than a private business," said county greenway planner Gwen Cook. "I'm thrilled that we have so much going on now."

The Campbell Creek and West Branch Rocky River greenways were recently completed, and the Briar Creek Greenway will be finished this summer. On June 23 the county will open a new section of its crown jewel, the Little Sugar Creek Greenway, that will run 19 miles from uptown Charlotte to the South Carolina line.

Construction began in 2015 on a city-county partnership, the 26-mile Cross Charlotte Trail, that will knit together new and existing links.

Urgency to do more

At public meetings, "what comes up over and over again are good schools and good parks, including greenways, close to home," said Elaine Powell, who served on the county parks board for eight years, the past three as chair until resigning May 9.

Greenways uniquely promote good health, social equity and conservation of natural resources, Powell said. She's running for county commissioner for District 1, northern Mecklenburg, in part to advocate for more spending on them.

"There's an urgency to do more, and we need staff to be on board with this, to find the money," she said.

The county's 2019-23 capital improvement plan calls for $229 million to be spent on parks construction, including $57 million on 12 greenways. But some of those projects won't be funded for another five years, pushing their completion dates even further out.

"We're now talking about 2008 bond projects that won't be completed for almost 20 years," Barnhart said.

Greenways for Mecklenburg says the county can move faster with focused spending on greenways, completing nine to 10 miles a year compared to the current average of about six miles. An accelerated pace would put the county on track to complete a 200-mile network in 17 years, the group says, instead of a timeline it contends could stretch decades longer.

That would mean more county spending to buy land for trails. The group notes that Mecklenburg ended the 2017 fiscal year with a $329 million fund balance for future spending.

"We have not acquired a lot of that land and it's absolutely not getting any cheaper," Barnhart said. "It is not easy to acquire that land, but it's probably going to be easier now than it will be 20 years from now."

County officials, though, say money isn't the only obstacle in assembling land for linear parks that stretch for miles. Deals have to be struck with many different property owners, some with structures built close to creeks that greenways follow. Wetlands and floodplains have to be protected.

Building 200 miles of pathways by 2035 "would be a challenge," Higginbotham said.

"I won't say its completely infeasible, but it would take more staff to plan and manage and more money for design and construction. I think the limitations are that, regardless of funding, we still face the challenge of real estate. It can take years to combine parcels in an urban environment."