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Charlotte leaders unveil plans to overhaul North Tryon

Some of Charlotte’s most powerful political, business and civic institutions are lining up behind a revitalization effort that could reshape the north end of uptown Charlotte.

The initiative, announced Thursday by Charlotte Center City Partners and the Foundation for the Carolinas, calls for the crafting of a new master plan for North Tryon by late next year.

Officials were interviewing consultants and architects Thursday, with hopes of winnowing the list to a few finalists Friday. Work on the plan should begin in March; property owners, tenants and others will be consulted.

“North Tryon Street offers the next frontier for exciting redevelopment in center city Charlotte,” said Michael Smith, president of Center City Partners, in a statement.

The area includes First Ward and Fourth Ward neighborhoods, as well as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Library, McGlohon Theater, Discovery Place and the vacant Carolina Theatre.

In a recent interview with the Observer, Smith said the area is home to some 10,000 residents, several churches and the headquarters of Bank of America.

“Yet it suffers from vagrancy,” he said. “I think it’s ripe” for revitalization.

The plan’s emergence underscores how North Tryon, whose residential renaissance several decades ago helped spark uptown’s rebirth, has in some ways been eclipsed by once-forlorn South Tryon.

The $159 million Levine Cultural Campus has injected new energy into South Tryon since it came to life in 2010. Workers from the 48-story Duke Energy Center share the street with artists and museum patrons headed to the Bechtler, the Gantt, Knight Theater or the Mint.

Officials suggested the latest effort could similarly remake North Tryon. Smith said the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County are part of the process, as well as Bank of America and the major cultural institutions along North Tryon.

Asked if it will require taxpayer money, Smith replied: “There probably will be elements to be considered for municipal investment, but we’ll see – it depends on what the recommendations are.”

He added: “I think there will be opportunities for Bank of America to help us fulfill it ... It’s exciting to have everybody at the table.”

Charles Bowman, Bank of America’s North Carolina and Charlotte market president, said the bank has a long history of involvement with Charlotte’s civic projects and is open to helping.

“We’re excited to be a part of it,” he told the Observer. “It’s still pretty early, but we look forward to the discussion and the ideas that will come out of the process.”

Mayor Patrick Cannon also voiced support, calling the effort “a worthy cause that we all need to rally around.”

Asked whether the city would support it financially, he said: “At a minimum, the city should be open to listening for any ‘ask’ that may be placed on the table that’s reasonable. And from there we can determine if indeed we are able to meet the request.”

Center City Partners said in a news release that the effort hopes to “address the area’s urban design and infrastructure needs by examining underutilized land and structures.”

The city’s Main Library and Spirit Square could figure prominently. Officials representing both organizations say their current buildings could stand improvement.

The new North Tryon plan rekindles talk that Spirit Square could be demolished.

Tom Gabbard, president of Blumenthal Performing Arts, said McGlohon Theatre – once the sanctuary for First Baptist Church – has strong public support. But the rest of Spirit Square suffers from an aging air conditioning system and an awkward alignment of floors that converge at its atrium.

Gabbard said that during discussions in 2008 about possibly merging Spirit Square with the Main Library, “there was an acknowledgment that McGlohon Theatre was beloved and nobody’d better dare touch that. But the rest of the space maybe had some deficiencies from an arts standpoint.”

The Main Library was last renovated in 1989, and its programmatic vision doesn’t match today’s needs, said Lee Keesler, head of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg library system. He said merger discussions with Spirit Square were shelved because of the recession, but library officials have been talking more recently about the need to revamp or replace the Main Library.

Former library system CEO Vick Phillips said in 2012 that the library had at least 8,000 square feet of space (5 percent of the building) that was essentially vacant, with other sections too sparsely populated with staff or stacks.

Critics had suggested that its operations could be handled outside of uptown and the property sold. However, a study in 2012 determined that the library should stay put because of the then-weak real estate market.

The new North Tryon plan will help library and Blumenthal officials better plot their future, Keesler said. It gives them a broader community backdrop to work within.

As for other specific projects the North Tryon effort might include, officials said the Foundation for the Carolinas’ plan to restore the vacant Carolina Theatre will be part of it. The foundation plans to build an office tower in front of the theater, in addition to restoring the building, which has been closed since 1978.

The foundation sees the project “as a catalyst for the re-envisioning of the North Tryon area,” said Laura Smith, a senior vice president at the foundation.

In discussing the remaking of North Tryon, Michael Smith of Center City Partners also mentioned developer Daniel Levine’s plan to transform at least eight city blocks northeast of The Square. Levine wants to create an urban village featuring a public park, three parking decks, apartments, office space, restaurants and stores.

Smith said construction on the infrastructure for that project should begin next year.

“They’re going to put in the park and the roads. It’ll be 12 to 18 months of just infrastructure work,” Smith said. “They’ve got to raise Brevard, they’ve got to raise Eighth Street.”

The project, which has been talked about since the late 1990s, involves extending 10th Street to connect Brevard and Tryon streets, Levine has previously said. The project has suffered delays in getting started; it could take 15 years and cost more than $700 million.

Reached via email this week, Levine said he would be out of the office until early January and unavailable for comment until then.

Firms vying to lead the overall North Tryon effort include: Gantt Huberman Architects, co-founded by former Mayor Harvey Gantt; the LiveWorkLearnPlay consulting firm from Montreal; the Gensler firm from San Francisco; Kennedy & Violich of Boston; and MIG, the Berkeley, Calif., firm that handled Center City Partners’ 2020 Vision Plan.

Frazier: 704-301-5027; @ericfraz on Twitter
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