A Civic By Design review of Charlotte's proposed new grand central station design

A proposal for Charlotte's new grand central station design has recently been unveiled by EQV Consortium, LLC. Some images displayed are linked here.  My initial impression is that it certainly has a wow factor!  The designers have focused considerable attention on designing an iconic station platform and this glass and steel canopy creation certainly catches your attention - especially the presentation images using the latest in hyper-real computer-generated renderings and fly-over video sequencing.  

The presentation shows some detail on more mundane but critical challenges of resolving space planning, transportation modes, and circulation.   The site plan establishes a large surface indoor/outdoor flowing plaza with a large oval hole in the center opening to the tracks below.

Not focusing on the iconic glass canopy and metal tree column supports, although hard to avoid, there are also proposed more traditional urbanism infill development projects lining the edge of I-77 for blocks running north and south.  These have the character of good fabric urbanism in contrast to the central iconic structure.

The scale of the plaza in terms of how it might create an inviting outdoor public room(s) is important to consider. Also because the station is not framed by its own walls there typically is limited control on what happens along the edges of the plaza on surrounding block frontages.  In the design documents this seems to have been left more vague but is very important to the success of any large plaza, park, or square.  Squares are only as good as their edges.

I have always loved the historic silver-plate photographic images of daylight filtering through the clerestory windows of New York's original Penn station based on classical Roman baths.  I wonder how the proposed long glass canopy, glass curtain, and plaza will feel in this setting? 

I also love the idea of factoring in what makes Charlotte, Charlotte and where this design succeeds and falls short.   Our grand tree canopy is certainly something we should celebrate.  Whether the metal tree column structures can pull it off without being a trendy cliché revived from the 1960s, will be a risk. Both Charlotte and New York as well as many other cities across America have long lost their iconic grand central station following the end of the golden era of rail transportation. The loss of these beautiful grand halls was also a major loss of civic life.  New Yorkers still desire to rebuild a version of the original as its replacement as most travelers have experienced is a miserable subterranean labyrinth.  As Vincent Scully, Professor Emeritus of Architecture, Yale University described about the original Penn Station "One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat."

Penn Station (demolished)

Recently visiting Denver I was impressed how their historic grand central station was saved is incorporated into the new transit center as the gateway to downtown and how a giant outdoor tent structure like their airport is set over the platforms opening out into the new urban redevelopment area at the back.  Best of both civic and contemporary. 


Causes me to wonder if the proposed design could be even more dynamic and complex by including more real space-defining trees and consider creating a complimentary grand hall gateway as well.  Along with proposing this iconic steel and glass canopy which may be trying to be too many things at once, it sure would be nice to also include a real grand central hall and a boulevard plaza with real trees for our gateway.  We will likely need to wait at least another 50 years if we don’t get it right this time around. 

Thomas E. Low 


Civic By Design

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