CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Eva Ellenburg/Charlotte Observer) - Mecklenburg County plans to invest $63 million over the next four years to build more than 30 miles of greenways, moving forward with an ambitious but so far unfulfilled vision of a countywide network.
The accelerated greenways plan will expand the existing 52-mile system by 2023. The money is part of the county budget, which the commissioners approved June 4. The county will add more than 50 positions to the Park and Recreation Department, including two greenway planners.
Lee Jones, director of the Park and Recreation Department, said the Mecklenburg County community surveys by the ETC Institute, a market research firm, over the past several years have consistently shown that residents want more greenways. According to the 2016 survey, 76% of residents listed greenways as the recreational amenity most needed by the county.
These new and accelerated projects, along with more than a dozen projects under construction or in design stages, should lead to 34.8 new miles by 2023, pushing Mecklenburg County closer toward its master plan goal of 308 miles of greenway.
Bert Lynn, the capital planning division director of the park department, said there is no timeline for the master plan, but the county’s goal is to construct at least 10 miles of greenways annually to eventually complete it.
The plan for 2023 includes five new greenways that will add 10 miles to the system and cost $37 million:
- Long Creek Greenway: 4.3 miles from Treyburn Drive to Oakdale Road.
- Caldwell Station Tributary Greenway: 0.8 miles from Old Statesville Road to Caldwell Station Creek Greenway.
- Paw Creek Greenway: 1.5 miles from Little Rock Road to Loy Court.
- Reedy Creek Greenway: 2 miles from Grier Road to Plaza Road Extension.
- Walker Branch/Hoover Creek Greenways: 1.5 miles from Sledge Road to S. Tryon Street/Steele Creek Road to Walker Branch Greenway.
As part of the plan, three extensions to the Briar Creek Greenway, Little Sugar Creek Greenway and Irwin Creek Greenway were moved forward to be funded in 2020:
- Briar Creek Greenway: 1.7 miles from Central Avenue to Monroe Road.
- Irwin Creek Greenway: 2.2 miles from Old Statesville Road to Allen Fields Drive.
- Sugar Creek Greenway: 3.3 miles from Billy Graham Parkway to McDowell Farms Drive.
The remaining 17.6 miles of greenways to be completed by 2023 are already in design or under construction.
Mary Bayes, a Huntersville resident who was walking along the Little Sugar Creek Greenway last Thursday, said she uses the greenways frequently in both Charlotte and Huntersville but thinks residents would use them more if there was a larger network.
“I wish they were longer, and I wish there was more linking between some of them,” Bayes said. “It’s a nice safe space to be able to bike or ride, especially with kids.”
For the past two decades, the county has promised to build a vast network of greenways to connect the community. In 1999, the Mecklenburg County commissioners approved a 10-year greenway master plan goal of 184.9 miles.
But within a decade, the county was already behind on that goal. In 2008, Mecklenburg County voters approved $250 million in bond money for parks and greenways, and the county promised 129 miles of greenway construction by 2018.
Rick Winiker, vice chair of the park and recreation commission and a former member of the Greenway Advisory Council, pointed to the recession and budget cuts as the reason the county didn’t meet the 129-mile goal.
County commissioner Elaine Powell, District 1 Democrat, said she hopes the new greenways plan will speed up a process that should have been completed a long time ago.
“We’ve been going in slow motion and hearing a lot of reasons and excuses of why it can’t be done,” Powell said.
The Trust for Public Land recently ranked Charlotte 97 out of 100 cities on how well they meet the need for parks. The group said local spending per capita on parks was a little more than half of the national median.
Winiker said the county’s failure to meet its promises on greenway construction has created frustration within the park and recreation commission.
“What’s happened to the greenways has been a microcosm of what’s happened to all of our park services,” Winiker said.
Recently completed greenway projects include the Briar Creek Greenway and the extension of Little Sugar Creek Greenway from Tyvola Road to Huntingtowne Farm Park. A new section of Little Sugar Creek extending from Huntingtowne Farm Park to Interstate 485 should be completed later in the month, Lynn said.
Greenways have benefits other than recreation, advocates say.
They provide a system of connected transportation routes and protection against urban flooding, Powell said.
A 2018 study by the N.C. Department of Public Transportation on shared-use paths in the state found that every $1 of trail construction has a $1.72 return annually from local business revenue, sales tax revenue, and benefits related to health and transportation.
Maureen Gilewksi, co-chair of Charlotte East, said more greenways could connect east Charlotte residents to jobs in the city center. She said she wished the county had asked for more public feedback before announcing the plan, since only one of the new greenway projects is located in east Charlotte.
Lynn said geographic equity was an important factor in considering where to construct the new projects.