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University City May Hit The Tax Hike Jackpot

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Executive director of University City Partners Mary Hopper outside her office building in University Research Park. Photo: Julie

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Executive director of University City Partners Mary Hopper outside her office building in University Research Park. Photo: Julie Rose Monday night, the Charlotte City Council will vote on a plan to raise the property tax rate by 3.6 to fund infrastructure improvements. Almost a quarter of the $926 million package would be spent in northeast Charlotte - specifically the area known as University City. To many people in Charlotte, University City is a suburban hinterland you pass on the way to Concord Mills or the Speedway and maybe only visit for the occasional pilgrimage to IKEA. "What people don't always recognize, is that University City is the second largest employment center in the city," says Mary Hopper, executive director of University City Partners - a tax-funded booster group for the area. "If we were incorporated we'd be the seventh largest city in North Carolina - between Fayetteville and Cary." Public perception about University City is important right now because if the city council approves this tax increase Monday night, voters will still have to approve each project the $926 million are spent on. Why should University City get the largest share of any neighborhood? Mary Hopper thinks it might help to come take a drive here - but watch out for what the spot where WT Harris Boulevard meets North Tryon Street. Traffic congestion at this intersection has been an ongoing problem as evidenced in this video from April 2007. Video: Jennifer Lang "(That's) what I affectionately refer to as the intersection from hell," jokes Hopper. It's one of the busiest in the city with three or four lanes in every direction. Drivers need a lot of patience to get through the intersection. Pedestrians need running shoes because there's no crosswalk, which is not great for businesses in the area. "I think when they built, it they didn't think about businesses," says Ahmed Onsi, owner of Bigger Bite Restaurant in University City. "They just thought about roads and passing the traffic and that's it." Bigger Bite is struggling. It's just two blocks from WFAE's studio. We are located at that intersection of Tryon and Harris. Onsi thought this would be a great spot for his restaurant with 80,000 cars coming through that intersection every day, UNC Charlotte is less than a mile away and CMC's big hospital just across the street. He didn't count on the long traffic lights and complicated u-turns customers would have to make in order to get to his door. "They feel (too) lazy, I think, to go around and come to me," says Onsi. Yep. I've passed on falafel at Bigger Bite many a time because I couldn't bring myself to jump through those traffic hurdles. There's a drug store, a library, dozens of restaurants and shops within a few blocks of WFAE's office, but getting to them means driving - or risking my life to walk along the side of the road. City Councilman Michael Barnes, who represents University City, says basic infrastructure has been neglected. "Over time we've annexed a lot of land up here and we haven't been able to put in the sidewalks, for example, or haven't been able to improve the farm-to-market roads," says Barnes. "We're trying to do a lot of that now." Some of University City's $200 million-share of the proposed infrastructure package would build two bridges over I-85 so people will have an alternative to the always-backed-up Harris Boulevard. The bridges would also give better access to the giant - but largely hidden - University Research Park where businesses including Wells Fargo, IBM, Electrolux and TIAA-CREF employ thousands. Another chunk of the money would spruce up the industrial stretches of North Tryon and North Graham Streets between Uptown and University City to attract higher-end businesses, says Barnes. "You've got a lot motels that date back to the 1950s and 60s," says Barnes of the North Tryon corridor. "You've got a lot of car dealerships that used to be restaurants . . . so there are a lot of uses along there that aren't necessarily pleasing." Extending light rail from Uptown to UNC Charlotte is central to the plan. More than $100 million from the proposed tax increase would be spent on sidewalks, cross walks and bike lanes so riders don't have to step off the train and then dodge three lanes of traffic to get where they're going. Hopper says the light rail will only attract economic development if companies know their workers will be able to easily get from the train station to their officers on foot. So that's the plan. University City - like areas to the east and west of Uptown Charlotte - is plagued with declining property values, lower incomes and struggling schools. City leaders think a firehose-like burst of tax dollars in those areas will turn things around. Their challenge will be convincing voters that what's good for one part of Charlotte is good for all.