SouthPark is getting closer to forming the first group meant to speak for the area with a unified voice as development continues to flood in, bringing new businesses, office towers and thousands of new apartments.
But what will SouthPark’s voice – made up of developers interested in building, large property owners, local businesses and neighborhood groups worried about traffic – say?
Those groups, along with local politicians and city officials, have been meeting to form the basis of the new collective, tentatively named “SouthPark Partners.” The idea is that creating a single voice to advocate for the area will help get more improvements such as more parks and sidewalks, and identify solutions to problems, especially the traffic that’s a frequent cause for complaints.
This week, representatives from two dozen neighborhood groups and local homeowner associations held their first meeting to plan for local residents’ participation in the new group. Representatives of local neighborhoods are expected to have one or two seats on the SouthPark Partners board, which will likely have around a dozen members.
“There hasn’t been any neighborhood interaction on a bigger scale for the last 16 years,” said Hilary Larsen, of the Barclay Downs HOA, which organized Wednesday’s meeting. The last time the local neighborhoods came together in a unified effort was around 2000, when the city was drawing the latest version of a development plan for SouthPark and neighborhood groups tried unsuccessfully to block an expansion of the area’s namesake mall.
“There are things that are bigger than any one project we need to be working toward,” said Larsen.
Many local residents are concerned about traffic, the area’s increasing density, and a lack of parks, transit and sidewalks. Almost 2,700 apartments are planned or underway in the area immediately around SouthPark mall, including mega-projects such as building a mixed-use development with 990 apartments at the site of the Colony Apartments on Sharon Road. That’s in addition to new office towers, hotels, shops and restaurants on the drawing board.
And the developments aren’t stopping: Earlier this month, developer ZOM announced plans to build a 266-unit apartment building, along with shops, on Barclay Downs Drive.
Neighbors’ concerns highlight possibly the biggest challenge a SouthPark Partners group will face: Balancing the needs and concerns of developers, businesses and residents.
Developers and neighbors are often cast as opponents, with the former painted as greedy and unconcerned about congestion and the latter as knee-jerk NIMBYs (“Not-In-My-Backyard”). Fights over new developments can get nasty. And neighbors have lost some influence over the process: The N.C. General Assembly voted last year to ban protest petitions, which allowed neighbors to force a three-quarters vote by City Council to approve new projects instead of a simple majority, if they collected enough signatures.
The idea of creating a unified group speaking and lobbying for the area emerged from an Urban Land Institute study of ways to improve SouthPark that the city sponsored earlier this year. The area has mostly developed as a collection of subdivisions and businesses radiating out from the mall, which opened in 1970, when swaths of the surrounding area were still cow pastures.
“There is no visible face of SouthPark. It’s not clear who’s driving the bus,” said John Macomber, a Harvard professor who participated in the study.
University City and uptown are represented by organizations – University City Partners and Center City Partners – funded by a special property tax levied on everyone in the area. The plans in SouthPark don’t call for a formal “business improvement district” funded by a special property tax, but it’s an option that hasn’t been ruled out for the future.
Kenny Smith, a Charlotte City Council member who lives in SouthPark and represents the area, attended Wednesday’s meeting and said he’s encouraged about the groups’ prospects.
“The spirit of it was not ‘We want to stop development.’ It was more an acceptance that Charlotte is growing, it’s changing, we’re likely to become more dense,” said Smith. “It wasn’t ‘Development’s bad, stop ’em.’”
While neighbors are often upset about the prospects for more traffic that come with new developments, Smith said people often don’t realize that many developers and existing businesses share their concerns.
“If we overdevelop it to a point that it doesn’t work, it’s going to be bad for business and SouthPark,” said Smith. “If you’re Johnny Harris and you’re leasing (new office development) Capitol Towers, you don’t want traffic so awful that corporations don’t want to locate there.”
One benefit of involving all SouthPark neighborhood groups in the development process, Smith said, will be a more cohesive approach to new projects. As it stands now, developers are required to notify and hold a meeting with residents immediately surrounding a proposed project. But that means someone in Beverly Woods might not hear about a development in Foxcroft that could impact traffic on Sharon Road until the plans are up for a public hearing before Charlotte City Council – and at that point, getting significant changes can be tough.
“Historically, it has been a bunch of independent groups tackling isolated rezonings,” said Smith. “The recent wave of development....and the ULI study are reenergizing everybody.”
And in addition to seats on the main board of SouthPark Partners, Larsen and Smith said neighbors will also be able to serve on other advisory boards that will help shape plans for the area.
“The more active you are, the more likely you are to have a seat at the table,” said Smith.
Larsen said even though neighborhood groups will have a seat at the table in the new SouthPark Partners group, they won’t necessarily agree on everything. She’s leading the effort to build a comprehensive contact list, and the neighborhood leaders plan to meet again in September.
“We will not necessarily speak with one voice, but the goal is for everyone to have a voice,” said Larsen.