Still waiting for a boom along Charlotte’s Gold Line streetcar route

When the first segment of the Gold Line streetcar opened in July 2015, supporters hailed the 1.5-mile track as the start of a major economic stimulus that would eventually revitalize swaths of uptown and land to the east and west of the Trade Street route.

Now, the second phase of the Gold Line – a 2.5-mile, $150 million extension running from Johnson C. Smith University along Beatties Ford Road, east through uptown and Elizabeth to Sunnyside Avenue – is funded and set to start construction soon. It’s projected to open in 2020.

So far, however, there’s been little new development activity along the first portion of the streetcar route. The biggest private project, a 550-unit apartment building with shops and restaurants by Grubb Properties, has yet to break ground.

Streetcar supporters say the first phase, a “starter line” with green and yellow, retro-style cars that passes mainly through city- and county-owned land uptown, doesn’t showcase the true development-stimulating power of the line.

“I don’t think it was ever anyone’s expectation it would be this breakout, transit-oriented development stimulus,” said Michael Smith, CEO of Center City Partners. “The value of this investment will be this next segment, when we’re running modern streetcars and we’ve got four miles of contiguous service across our central business district. It’s going to have a different impact.”

For that next segment, Smith’s group is focusing on the potential for development west of uptown. Center City Partners, with a $1.5 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, has hired a director and started marketing efforts for the “Historic West End,” largely around Beatties Ford Road and West Trade Street.

John Autry, a former Charlotte City Council member who represented part of east Charlotte, said the piecemeal approach to funding and building the Gold Line one section at a time could discourage developers. He said having longer portions funded and running will lead to more development.

The Gold Line is eventually supposed to make its way down Central Avenue – an area that’s already booming with a half-dozen major new apartment buildings – all the way to the former Eastland Mall site, a 72-acre property the city bought in 2012 for $13.2 million. Charlotte spent nearly $1 million demolishing the mall, which has sat vacant ever since.

“I’d say it’s a real determining factor about how soon we see external investment in the Eastland site,” said Autry, now a member of the N.C. House.

But it’s not clear where money for future phases of the Gold Line will come from, and prospects for transit lines getting federal money could be even less certain under the incoming Trump administration. Anthony Foxx, a former Charlotte mayor and champion of the streetcar, has been U.S. transportation secretary since 2013, but he’ll leave office after the inauguration next Friday.

Emily Ethridge, a spokeswoman for Grubb Properties, said there’s nothing definitive to report about when Grubb’s mixed-use project, at the corner of Elizabeth Avenue and Torrence Street, might break ground. The project had originally been expected to start construction in the second quarter of 2016.

“We are excited for the next phase of the Gold Line and think it will be a good asset for the city,” said Ethridge.

The second phase of the Gold Line is set to break ground Saturday afternoon. The federal government is expected to pay $75 million, with Charlotte paying the other $75 million with money from the general fund budget. The 1.5-mile starter line, a $37 million project, was largely funded with a $25 million federal grant.

In its first year, the streetcar handily beat its ridership projections. CATS had predicted 1,100 weekday riders on average. The Gold Line averaged 1,600 weekday riders.

Gold Line vs. Blue Line

The slow pace of development around the first phase of the streetcar stands in contrast with the Blue Line light rail extension, a 9.2-mile rail line connecting uptown and UNC Charlotte that’s set to open in August.

Already, more than 2,000 apartment units are planned or under construction along the Blue Line between uptown and 36th Street in NoDa. Planners believe that represents the early stage of a boom similar to what occurred in South End after the first leg of the Blue Line opened in 2007.

There are important distinctions between the Blue Line and the Gold Line. The Blue Line is faster, running in its own dedicated right-of-way and not stopping for traffic lights, and it runs more frequently than the streetcar. The Blue Line also links some of the biggest and most vital employment centers in Charlotte.

“Streetcar and light rail are not synonymous,” said Smith.

The plan is to eventually extend the Gold Line streetcar to almost 10 miles, running east and west of uptown. But it’s unclear where the project will get funding beyond the current second phase, and the streetcar has always been dogged with more controversy and opposition in City Council than the Blue Line light rail faced.

Another major proposed development near the streetcar line, a $150 million Major League Soccer stadium on the current site of Memorial Stadium, would require major public investment. The city and county would pay $50 million each, while the NASCAR track-owning Smith family would pay the other $50 million and control the stadium.

Autry and some City Council members have said the city should consider putting the stadium instead at the former Eastland Mall site, which the city bought in 2012 for $13.2 million. At the far end of the proposed streetcar system, that could give both the Gold Line and the surrounding area a boost.

For now, groups like Center City Partners are anticipating more development along the Gold Line’s second phase, especially west of uptown.

“There’s certainly great opportunity along West Trade when you get past Gateway Village,” said Smith. “This is a big public investment and we’re trying to be intentional.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo