Construction has begun on a student housing development on University City Boulevard at North Tryon Street and Rocky River Road West, and so have nearby residents’ worries.
Named Arcadia, the complex will become home to 760 students, according to the developer. Clearing the land began in August. Completion is expected by next August in time for the 2014-15 academic year.
Designer Miller Architecture of Charlotte bills Arcadia as an “off-campus student housing resort.” Developer Chad Howie, CEO of Atlanta-based Sanctuary Companies Inc., attended UNC Charlotte. He sees Arcadia not simply as student apartments, but as a “legacy project” tied into the new Blue Line Extension light rail corridor along Tryon Street, linking the UNC Charlotte campus to uptown Charlotte.
“We don’t build apartments.” Howie said. “We build residences for students. Our focus is on the community.”
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Arcadia will offer student housing with such unusual amenities as 9-foot ceilings, granite counter tops and a stand-up tanning studio.
On the Arcadia website, computer-generated photos show students lounging around the pool in front of a building that looks more like a hotel in the Swiss Alps than a college dorm.
Howie also has ambitious plans for creating retail, restaurants and additional parking. Since Sanctuary Companies owns both sides of Rocky River Road West at Tryon, Howie hopes to develop the entire intersection area as an integrated project.
While trees are still falling as the hilltop site is cleared, Arcadia staff has already started to spread the word, actively reaching out to students through Twitter, Facebook and a website. They even set up a tent to give out free T-shirts and can cozies at 49ers football games.
The situation is different, however, for Arcadia’s existing neighbors, some of whom say they have heard almost nothing about it.
John Snider and four generations of his family live on Whitener Road, off Caroline Lane, just behind the development. Snider said he had not been informed about the project, leaving him wondering what was going on.
“We found out something was happening when people drove back in there with tractors and trucks,” Snider said. “That’s how we find things out.”
In nearby communities along Rocky River Road West, residents share Snider’s bewilderment. Even Michael Barnes, a Charlotte City Council member representing District 4, which includes University City, said he had only recently heard about the project from staff.
Autumnwood President John Neilson, a longtime community leader along Rocky River Road West, said residents were confused by an unrelated major school construction project in the same area.
Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools plans to move Newell Elementary School from its location on Old Concord Road to property adjacent to the Arcadia site. The CMS project also connects to Rocky River Road West. It entails construction of new school buildings from the ground up and is slated for completion in 2015.
“When we saw the construction, we all assumed it was the school going in.” Neilson said. “It was confusing. Even staff at Newell Elementary thought that was the case.
“Now we are realizing that the college housing is something completely different, a second big construction project that will affect us.”
According to city rules, no public notice was required for the Arcadia project, since multi-family housing, including student housing, is a permitted use in the property’s existing zoning.
Now that residents are becoming aware of the project, some are raising concerns about congestion from the combination of school traffic with college student cars on Rocky River Road. Others are worried about destroying the road’s scenic views, and about noise and nuisance problems from a large student housing complex.
“We’re worried about how far up the development is going to come, and about theft, and people cutting through. And we’re worried about noise,” Snider said. “We’d like a privacy fence.”
Snider paused to smile at his 3-year-old grandson, gamboling in the meadow grass at his feet.
“When we first came out here, there wasn’t anything but Herlocker’s (diner) and the college,” he said. “We’ve liked it. It’s secluded, but it is close to everything. Now, things keep growing by leaps and bounds, and everybody is trying to get out of here.”
Former UNC Charlotte campus planner Martin Zimmerman’s criticisms of the project are more fundamental. Now head of the Green Mobility Planning Studio USA, based in University City, Zimmerman said he was stunned that the project did not come before the public for review, and he sees no meaningful tie-in with the Blue Line Extension and transit corridor.
“This is not a light rail-oriented development. It is a suburban project,” Zimmerman said. “It won’t help solve urban problems, and it could have a major impact on traffic.
“Really, it has nothing to do with light rail. It is more like a gigantic car storage unit. What the hell is the city doing?”
Arcadia has a parking area with 733 spaces for cars and 16 for bicycles.
The Blue Line University City Boulevard light rail stop will be about half a mile from Arcadia, in the opposite direction from campus. That may make commuting to class by light rail unlikely.
Zimmerman said the lack of pedestrian and bicycle paths along University City Boulevard would make travel to campus by foot or bike dangerous.
Since Arcadia is more than 2 miles from campus, Jackie Simpson of UNC Charlotte’s Housing Office is not concerned about the effects of competition from Arcadia.
“No student will walk that far,” Simpson said. “We can’t get them to walk across campus.”
Developer Howie said Arcadia will provide “Ritz-Carlton”-style accommodations for students. Acknowledging that undergrad housing “that looks like Club Med” is a rising phenomenon, Simpson was not concerned, adding, “We sure aren’t building anything like that on campus.”
Howie’s perspective is different. For him, Arcadia is a “win-win” that will benefit surrounding neighborhoods as well as students.
Howie said he is willing to work with special TOD (transit-oriented development) zoning, especially at Tryon Street and Rocky River Road, though he thinks working with the city has already slowed down the process of getting the development built.
“This type of development is the best Rocky River Road residents could have gotten,” Howie said. “It could have been a market-rate apartment development instead, with a higher impact. These will all be college students, so there will be no impact on the school.”
Howie also said Arcadia will be gated and fenced and will include natural buffer areas, reducing safety and nuisance concerns.
“The traffic flow will be going toward UNC Charlotte, so no traffic should be going down Rocky River Road,” he said.
Residents also will benefit from a new public road across the property, linking Rocky River Road with University City Boulevard, Howie said. Arcadia will provide shuttle bus service for students to campus and is working with Charlotte to expand bus service in the larger Newell area as well as to serve the new student housing complex.
Once inside Arcadia’s gates, students will have a choice of accommodations, from single studio apartments to flats with space for up to five students, each with a private bedroom.
The architectural style is vaguely reminiscent of Alpine chalets, with units ranging in size from small cottages to three story lodges. It will include a fitness center, pool, a coffee bar, study areas and a club house. The price will be close to “market rates,” Howie said:
“It will be like getting a Cadillac for the price of a Yugo.”
As construction by Atlanta-based Choate continues at Arcadia, an information and leasing office is slated to open at the site in about 60 days. And new posts appear daily on the development’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/livearcadia.
A recent Facebook entry shows a picture of the site after initial cutting and grading. The post has one “like” – from Chad Howie.