Development

River District: More questions about roads, schools, bridges

86-year-old Leonard Mauney's family has been farming his property for more than 100 years but change is just beyond the tree line as Crescent Communities and Lincoln Harris are planning a major new mixed-use development with thousands of homes, office space, shops and parks in the land between Charlotte douglas International Airport and the Catawba River.
86-year-old Leonard Mauney's family has been farming his property for more than 100 years but change is just beyond the tree line as Crescent Communities and Lincoln Harris are planning a major new mixed-use development with thousands of homes, office space, shops and parks in the land between Charlotte douglas International Airport and the Catawba River. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

With thousands of new residents, workers and shoppers potentially headed to a now-quiet swath of west Mecklenburg County sandwiched between the Catawba River and Charlotte’s airport, Charlotte City Council members asked Monday how all those people will get around.

Two Charlotte-based development companies, Lincoln Harris and Crescent Communities, are planning to develop the project, which will require major infrastructure upgrades. They’re seeking City Council’s approval to rezone the site, which is currently zoned mostly for single-family houses.

“This is one of the largest rezoning considerations you’ve ever had in the city of Charlotte,” interim city manager Ron Kimble told City Council. The scale of that development drove some skepticism among City Council members, who questioned whether there are adequate roads and sites for schools in the developers’ plans.

Charlotte City Council held their first meeting on the River District development earlier this month. The second, special hearing is unusual, and was prompted by council members who wanted to ask additional questions about the massive project. Some council members also said they were unsure they could vote on the project next month, as they had been scheduled to, without more time to answer questions, and the special meeting could keep the Nov. 21 vote on track.

The development will cover nearly 1,400 acres that, up until now, has been mostly vacant and forested. About 552 acres will be kept as open space, largely as buffers around sensitive streams that could be damaged by erosion. The rest will be transformed into millions of square feet of offices, apartments, single-family houses, shops, restaurants and hotels – the largest master-planned development in Charlotte since Ballantyne was carved from fields and pastures in south Mecklenburg County, starting 20 years ago.

The full development will take decades to build out, and city staff estimates it will require roads and infrastructure to handle 120,000 daily vehicle trips, 23 miles of water main, 19 miles of sewer main, treatment for 1.9 million gallons per day of wastewater, 30 new police officers and support staff to patrol the area and school facilities for just over 3,000 new students.

Interim Charlotte-Mecklenburg planning director Ed McKinney said the plans call for a multiphase development, with road improvements required at each phase before more can be built. Those improvements include projects such as extending West Boulevard, enlarging the Interstate 485 interchange and widening and extending Garrison and Dixie River roads.

The total estimated cost so far is $131 million, said Neighborhood & Business Services director Pat Mumford, though he emphasized that is a preliminary number likely to change. Preliminary plans show the developers would pay for $53 million, with the rest paid for by state and local governments, or financed through a tax increment grant subsidy. The city’s capital investment program currently calls for spending $44.7 million worth of bond money to improve roads in the area.

Some City Council members were skeptical of the plans, and wondered why they don’t include a new bridge over the Catawba to Gaston County. The N.C. Department of Transportation officially ended the Garden Parkway project earlier this year, which would have built such a bridge. Council member John Autry questioned whether the plans, which will include greenways, is too reliant on autos.

“Why do we keep designing our environment and infrastructure for cars?” asked Autry. Mayor Jennifer Roberts said she doesn’t think the plan – which calls for reserving two school sites for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, along with sites for a fire station and a police station – includes enough space for schools. “I am very skeptical that it’s only two schools” needed for the River District, said Roberts. “They’re going to need probably six schools.”

Kenny Smith urged his fellow council members to consider the benefits of developing the land according to a master plan rather than piecemeal. “This may be a unique opportunity,” said Smith.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

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