At the Charlotte City Council meeting April 25, the council will decide the fate of one of the last undeveloped properties in the SouthPark area.
The 7.6-acre site is owned by Charlotte-based development company Crescent Resources, formerly owned by Duke Energy, and is next to Crescent's Piedmont Town Center, a mixed-use retail development off Fairview Road that includes restaurants, shops, office space, residences and a parking deck.
For phase two of Piedmont Town Center, Crescent wants to build a single five- or six-story apartment building with 350 residential units, and possibly a bottom floor of offices to rent. Plans also include an access road running from the complex to another road connecting with Fairview Road, as well as a "water retention pond" between the apartment building and a forested area that backs up to the Picardy neighborhood's Wintercrest Lane.
The pond is designed to collect runoff and prevent flooding. Crescent's plans also call for a walking trail around the pond.
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Crescent is required to maintain a 75-foot buffer between its development and adjacent properties, but some residents say that's not enough.
The Rev. Trevor Smith, senior pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church, and his wife, Joany, have lived on Wintercrest Lane for eight years, and every time there's been a petition against developing the forested area, the Smiths have signed it.
"We were told apparently it's the last plot of forest like that in the SouthPark area," said Joany Smith, who spends much of her free time caring for their home gardens. "It sounds like a nature preserve back there in the morning. ... When you're in our backyard you don't even know you're in a city."
Plans for a second phase of Piedmont Town Center were pulled in 2008, when residents protested and city planning staff chose not to support it. Crescent Resources had wanted to put a 170-foot tall office building on Carnegie Boulevard west of Piedmont Row Drive. A plan approved several years before had the area zoned for residential use, but Crescent wanted to change the zoning to attract a large commercial tenant.
Once the 2008 plans were voted down by the City Council's zoning board, Piedmont Town Center moved forward with a residential plan.
This is the second time this year residents in the south Charlotte area have been upset about the loss of trees in their neighborhood. Several months ago, Covenant Day School began to clear about 18 acres in Matthews that backs up to homes in the Sardis Forest neighborhood to build athletic fields. Though the school maintained the required 50-foot buffer, residents disliked the newly exposed space and felt the buffer was insufficient.
In SouthPark, residents of Wintercrest Lane fear the new development will have a negative effect on home values and quality of living.
"It will absolutely hurt the property value ... no doubt about that," said Steve Tiedemann, who has lived on Wintercrest Lane for five years. "This is a big pull to have something so nice (as this forest) in your backyard."
Dr. Elliot Cauble, an internal medicine resident at Carolinas Medical Center, and his mother, Glenda Cauble, an art teacher at Ridge Road Middle School who has lived in her home backing up to the forest for 27 years, have been leading the opposition effort.
"The single greatest reason that my mother and many other residents chose to move to Picardy was because of the forest," said Elliot Cauble.
"The whole city is getting paved," said Glenda Cauble. "They're going to be killing the neighborhood. It could take 10 years to do it, but they're going to kill it."
The Caubles asked a botanist at UNC Charlotte to view the forested area. They say he confirmed that at least five species of trees on the site - swamp chestnut oak, tulip poplar, sweet gum, American beech and white oak - are more than 100 years old.
The city has no formal regulations that prohibit the cutting of these trees.
The forested area gently slopes to a natural creek, one the Caubles would like to see as a natural barrier to the new development.
District 6 council representative Andy Dulin said he's walked the controversial property multiple times with Crescent developers, Piedmont Town Center residents and residents of Wintercrest Lane, and believes the developer's plans are reasonable.
"At 75 feet, there's a lot of buffer," said Dulin. "And the fact is, that property cannot stay undeveloped for eternity. In this economy, we've now got a plan that I think works."
Crescent Regional Director Ben Collins said the company plans to bring an arborist to the site to see if there are any significant trees around the retention pond that could be saved. It's possible Crescent could reduce the size of the retention pond by several feet in some areas and install a retaining wall along the pond's edge.
"Reducing the pond size by adding retaining walls will add significant cost to the development, but we are willing to do so if it means we can save several large trees," said Collins in a statement.
Keith McVean, a consultant for King & Spalding law firm, which is working with Crescent on the latest expansion, has met with Picardy residents who disapprove of the new development several times to discuss concerns but wasn't able to broker an agreement. McVean, who worked with Charlotte's planning department for more than 20 years, said expanding the buffer would compromise the size and effectiveness of the retention pond and push the apartments closer to the road.
In his statement, Collins said that though there was opposition, they've also heard from residents who approve of the plans. In particular, many who live in Piedmont Town Center have responded positively because Crescent proposed to install an additional traffic circle there. The circle would act as a traffic-calming device and alleviate some of the additional traffic from the apartments.
Collins also said that although they will have to take down some trees, the closest building to the property line is about 220 feet; the farthest is 350 feet. He said the building height (about 100 feet) is much shorter than the 180 feet allowed.
"In reality, a much larger buffer will exist," he said.
On March 30, the city's zoning committee approved Crescent's petition for the apartments in a 7-0 vote. At the April 25 meeting, the Charlotte City Council will make the final decision, and because of the protest petition, Crescent's request would have to be approved by a three-quarters majority.