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Is construction near uptown Charlotte’s answer to Greenwich Village?

By Eric Frazier
Eric Frazier
Eric Frazier covers economic development. He has been reporting and editing at the Observer for more than 15 years. If you have a story idea or news tip to share, contact him at:
SPOTLIGHT
2005 OBSERVER FILE PHOTO - dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com
Daniel Levine has long hoped to develop the eight blocks he owns near the light rail line in First Ward.

Construction could be imminent on the first phase of a long-awaited revitalization project that could bring $700 million worth of development and a new public park to uptown’s First Ward.

Then again, it also appeared imminent in 2010. And 2011. And 2012.

Developer Daniel Levine has been talking since the 1990s about creating a new “urban village” out of the eight-block area that stretches north from ImaginOn, past UNC Charlotte’s Center City building, and nearly to Interstate 277.

His Levine Properties, along with the city, county and UNC Charlotte, have long hoped to bring a 3.2-acre park, apartments, offices, restaurants, hotels and stores to about 20 acres now dominated by surface parking lots.

“In 30 years,” Levine told the Observer in 2010, “we hope to have Charlotte’s equivalent of (New York’s) Greenwich Village.”

Levine owns the land. The city and county support the concept, hoping to bring life to a sleepy section of First Ward.

The latest draft agreement requires Levine to build as many as two parking decks, street improvements and the park, which would go across from ImaginOn.

Once the project is complete, Levine Properties would get tax relief of $23.7 million for providing more than 1,300 public parking spaces in the decks, $6.1 million for a portion of the park, and $5 million for roadway and utility improvements, according to city documents.

But looking back through the Observer’s archives, I found multiple instances where Levine said he was nearly ready to launch the development, but things didn’t work out.

He said in March 2010 that he hoped construction would start that fall. Then he said spring 2011. Then winter 2012.

On Monday, the project came before the City Council again. This time city staff asked council members to amend the agreement to give Levine Properties a little more flexibility and time to complete the project. The revised proposal also added up to $2.6 million in penalties if Levine doesn’t finish the decks on time.

Pat Mumford, the city’s director of Neighborhood and Business Services, told council members Levine doesn’t get his tax grants until the properties get built and added to the tax rolls.

Michael Barnes, head of the council’s economic development committee, noted with exasperation that the city’s agreement with Levine Properties is 5 years old.

“It seems this issue and this project have come back to us a few times over the past five years,” he said.

Mumford said city staff have spent a year hashing out details of the parking deck plans with Levine, and some of the latest delays on the project – troubles relocating utility lines – were out of Levine’s control.

Afterward, the council agreed to amend the agreement.

Barnes, however, remains skeptical. Normally, in a five-year span, he told me later, you’d see at least a little visible progress on a development project. Given the lack of headway here, he added, it’s good that the city has structured the deal so that Levine’s tax grants kick in only after buildings come out of the ground.

Levine couldn’t be reached for comment. Brian Nicholson, director of development and construction for Levine Properties, declined Friday to comment on the situation, noting that the project will go before county commissioners Tuesday.

The company, he said, is focusing on Tuesday’s vote and looks forward to speaking about the project further after that.

In Levine’s defense, there was that matter of the Great Recession a few years ago. And the project is a monster of an undertaking.

It involves, among other things, extending 10th Street to near the light rail tracks. The intersection at Brevard and Eighth streets must be raised. A parking deck originally planned to go beneath the park will be above ground.

If all the plans for mixed-use development take off in the next decade as hoped, it would undoubtedly transform that part of uptown.

Think of the energy Romare Bearden Park and BB&T BallPark have brought to Third Ward. This could do that – and more – in First Ward.

“That’s one of the things I’m most hopeful about, that you’ll see actual development and growth taking place in that part of First Ward,” Barnes said. “There’s a lot of upside there.”

If the county gives its go-ahead Tuesday, I’d have to think construction will crank up in the next month or two.

Or maybe not. Let’s just wait and see.

Eric Frazier writes about economic development, real estate development, jobs and the economy. Got a story tip? Contact him at 704-358-5145, efrazier@charlotteobserver.com or @Ericfraz on Twitter.

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