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West of the airport, Charlotte’s final frontier ripe for development

To understand why the fight over control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport is about more than politics, look to the west.

Across Interstate 485 from the airport sits about 5,000 acres of largely undeveloped land dotted with forests and creeks. Developers and the city call it one of Charlotte’s last frontiers.

Some of the city’s most familiar real estate names have an interest in the area, known as Dixie Berryhill. The largest single landowner is Crescent Communities, with almost 900 undeveloped acres. And developer Johnny Harris, who envisioned a huge mixed-use project in the area before the recession, says the area could be “the next great play in real estate.”

Adding to the interest in the land: Norfolk Southern plans to open a $92-million intermodal rail yard at the airport next year. It will transfer cargo between trucks and trains, and is expected to generate demand for warehouses, distribution centers, manufacturing and office space.

The prospect of massive development has led some to charge that money – not policy – is behind the push to take Charlotte Douglas from city control and give it to a regional, unelected authority.

Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx told the Observer in March he suspects local business people may be looking to profit from the authority, as it influences how the area west of the airport is developed.

“No one has made the case that this is about good governance,” Foxx said. “Which leads me to believe there are economic interests involved.”

Before the recession hit in 2008, Harris – now an authority supporter – was planning a huge mixed-use project west of the airport. Harris was going to build a complex similar to the offices, warehouses and retail at Crystal City, a mini-city that’s sprouted near Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va.

Though Harris said he is still interested in building west of the airport, he denied that it has anything to do with his support for the proposed airport authority.

“That’s awfully far-fetched,” said Harris of the notion that he supports an authority because it would help his future development. “As I’ve said all along, my only interest is depoliticizing the airport.”

Crescent Communities chief executive Todd Mansfield said he believes the area could support residential as well as industrial communities. He said executives at Crescent have discussed the potential for the intermodal yard to create more demand for development in the area. Charlotte-based Crescent is a major landholder in the Carolinas, owning or managing about 60,000 acres in the two states.

But Mansfield said developing the company’s holdings near the airport isn’t “on the front burner” right now because the economy is still sluggish. He also said his company is “not in any way, shape or form involved” in the effort to establish an authority, and doesn’t see how an authority would benefit Crescent.

Developer Peter Pappas – whose company owns land near the southern end of Dixie Berryhill, where it is building the Berewick planned community – also said he’s not involved with the authority push.

Stan Campbell is a former City Council member who is pushing the current legislative effort to transfer control of Charlotte Douglas from the city to an independent authority. He said the land has great potential for development.

“People have just not grasped it yet,” Campbell said. “When it starts showing itself, people will say, ‘Damn, how’d I miss this?’”

Primed for boom

Whoever runs the airport – Charlotte or a new, independent authority – will have a deep interest in how the surrounding land develops.

Charlotte City Council has overseen the airport since 1935. City leaders say Charlotte must grow its tax base as annexation opportunities dry up.

Charlotte has already been trying to prime the area for development. The city’s capital improvement plan calls for spending $43 million building new roads through Dixie Berryhill, as well as widening, connecting, and straightening routes through the area.

But the capital improvement plan was held up last year when Foxx and the Charlotte City Council couldn’t agree whether to pass it with a $119-million streetcar project included. Although the plan appears to be back on track this year – minus the streetcar – City Council has yet to pass the plan.

An airport authority could build those roads if the city doesn’t.

“That depends on a number of things but there would be nothing that would preclude an authority from making investments that would have a return,” said aviation director Jerry Orr.

The airport has bought entire neighborhoods and is buying still more land as it continues $1 billion worth of expansion projects.

Charlotte Douglas owns more than 6,000 acres, mostly on the east side of I-485. The airport also owns almost 100 acres west of I-485, and plans call for Charlotte Douglas to acquire several hundred more acres in Dixie Berryhill to use for stormwater drainage.

Ownership of all the airport’s property, along with anything on it, would transfer from the city to the new airport authority if the authority proposal passes. The city is trying to stop the bill, but it has already passed the N.C. Senate and awaits only a vote in the state House before becoming law.

A major toll road project, the Garden Parkway, would connect I-85 in Gaston County to I-485 at the southern end of the airport, building what developers say is another crucial link through Dixie Berryhill. That project gained an unexpected legislative boost last week, when a House committee added it to the governor’s transportation bill.

Whether Charlotte, the state, or an airport authority builds roads, interest in developing the area appears to be growing. In addition to Norfolk Southern’s 200-acre intermodal rail yard just off West Boulevard, Simon Property Group and Tanger Factory Outlet Centers are planning a major outlet mall at Steele Creek Road and I-485.

Harris said developers are waiting for the economy to recover fully before growth west of the airport accelerates.

“It’s not like ‘Field of Dreams,’” said Harris. “You can’t build it and see if they come.”

But he said building more infrastructure, like the roads in the city’s proposed capital improvement plan, would also help stimulate demand. He said he was troubled that the city didn’t pass the plan because of the streetcar.

“I don’t understand why that’s held up the capital improvement plan,” Harris said of the streetcar.

Uncertainty lingers

Not all the land in Dixie Berryhill is owned by developers. Some is held by individual landowners whose families have been there for decades.

Many of those landowners are waiting to sell to developers. But uncertainty about whether the city roads and Garden Parkway will be built is holding up sales, owners said.

“What’s in store is a great, big question mark,” said Bill Shaw. He owns about 75 acres at the end of Garrison Road. A spur of West Boulevard, Garrison runs for about a mile through the land and ends in the woods at a big red stop sign with a “Keep Out” poster tacked on.

Much of Dixie Berryhill was prime farmland in the 18th century, and it grew cotton, corn and wheat. Now, much of the area is forested.

“No one wants to buy because there’s no guarantee what and when is going to happen,” said Shaw. His father bought the land in the 1950s, Shaw said. “We used to farm it, raise cattle on it, but that went out a good while back.”

Wayne Cooper owns land off Dixie River Road. The land has been his since 1976, when he moved back from a stint working in Mexico.

He’s had developers interested, but no luck selling, Cooper said. Like most of the area, Cooper’s land lacks municipal water or sewer service.

“There’s been a lot of tire kickers, but no closers,” he said. Harris almost bought his land for his proposed Crystal City-type development, Cooper said, but the deal fell through with the economy.

But Cooper is still convinced the developers are coming, and soon. The intermodal rail yard, which is expected to handle 200,000 cargo container transfers a year, will spark the boom, he said.

“People do not realize what (the intermodal yard) is going to do to this whole section,” he said.

Animal tracks cross Sue Friday’s hilly land and meander around the lake behind her house. “It’s a bit like a private nature preserve,” said Friday, who’s lived on a 30-acre plot off Dixie Drive since 1979.

Friday is certain more development is coming – the city’s capital improvement plan calls for a new road to slice between her and her neighbor’s houses.

“There’s just not that much land left in the county,” she said. “It will happen. Will it be good or not? I don’t know.” Staff Writers Steve Harrison and Rick Rothacker contributed

Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo
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