In December, contractors will begin planting 700 trees with names like Red Splendor and Flame Amur between the sidewalk and curb. Next fall will come 170,000 shrubs, ornamental grasses, spring bulbs, perennials and other ground cover.
“I’m excited! I’m at the finish line! It has been seven years in the making,” Kourtnie Vincent exclaimed last week as she went over the final details of the project with University City Partners Executive Director Darlene Heater, UCP Planning Director Tobe Holmes and UNC Charlotte campus landscape architect Peter Franz. Creating an urban highway
Urban thoroughfare in the making
The Blue Line Extension under construction between uptown and the UNC Charlotte campus includes nearly 4 miles of track and stations operating in the North Tryon Street median beginning at Old Concord Road, plus parking decks at the University City Boulevard and JW Clay Boulevard stations.
While building the transit line, Charlotte is transforming North Tryon Street into an urban highway. The state has lowered the speed limit to 35 mph throughout the transit-line stretch. Bike lanes and sidewalks will run the full 4-mile length, shaded by small- to medium-height trees where possible. The medians will have gardens between highway and tracks.
Vincent, a landscape architect and the landscape manager for the Blue Line Extension, began working on the project part-time in 2009 – four years before the official groundbreaking for light-rail construction. This became her full-time job two years ago, and it has been a big one both in terms of design and project management.
Tough choices for hardy, attractive plants
For starters, the trees, ground cover, grasses and bulbs all must do well in extremely harsh growing conditions including intense summer heat magnified by traffic and asphalt, and no irrigation, except watering of the trees during their first year after planting.
Second, the plants must meet very specific characteristics. You can’t plant tall-maturing trees under power lines or beside buildings such as the two transit-station parking decks. You don’t want median ground cover that needs mowing. But you do want median ground cover that looks good while discouraging people from trying to walk across the median and transit tracks between intersections.
Even the dirt has to be right. Work crews have begun laying down a special blend of clay, sand, silts and organic material in the future median beds. Vincent is taking core samples along the highway shoulders to make sure the dirt there will work for the future trees. If it doesn’t, the soil will be improved before planting starts in December.
Trees soon, medians later
And then there is the timing. “It’s all about sequencing,” Vincent explained. Trees do best if transplanted in winter months. Plus, most of the construction along the roadsides is now finished, Vincent said, so trees will go in this winter.
Meanwhile, construction crews will spend the next several months completing the tracks and stations and installing the utilities. So, the city will wait until next fall to plant the medians.
With so many plants involved, Vincent has had to line up several growers to produce the junipers, ornamental grasses and perennials/groundcover.
And finally, after all of those requirements are met, you really do want these many thousands of trees, shrubs, grasses and bulbs to look good together – even across an extra-wide highway with transit trains and thousands of vehicles passing by.
And the final winners …
Judging from the smiles and exclamations at last week’s meeting, Vincent has done well. Among her choices that got strong approval:
- Placing short but colorful Trident Maples in front of the Clay Boulevard Parking Deck, to provide shade for future patio seating.
- Matching those trees with equally colorful and much taller-growing Flashfire Caddo sugar maples across Tryon Street on the UNC Charlotte campus.
- Choosing short-growing multi-stemmed magnolias to decorate the main North Tryon Street entrance to UNC Charlotte.
- Finding Green Gable Black Gums – a medium-size native tree valued for its shade and red fall foliage – to line a key stretch of sidewalks and bike lanes between the Clay Boulevard Transit Station and Carolinas Medical Center-University hospital. Once the trains start running next August, hospital leaders expect many workers, visitors and people receiving outpatient treatment to arrive by light rail and then walk to the hospital.