A rutted dirt road leads through scrubby woodlands between Charlotte’s airport and the Catawba River, zigzagging alongside ravines, past illegally dumped mattresses and down to a surprisingly quiet stretch of beach.
It’s a forgotten corner of Mecklenburg County where developers see opportunity. But potential pitfalls also loom: Traffic and congestion, runoff, and questions about who pays for infrastructure and public transportation.
Charlotte leaders last month paved the way for a major new project in that area, approving a plan by two Charlotte developers to transform 1,400 acres west of Charlotte Douglas International Airport into the River District – the city’s biggest new development since Ballantyne.
Brian Leary, president of commercial and mixed-use development for Crescent Communities, said the company is prepared to meet those challenges, and has planned extensively to address potential issues such as traffic and public transportation. Crescent is partnering with Lincoln Harris to develop the River District, a process that’s expected to take 20 to 30 years.
When it’s finished, the River District will have about twice as much office space as Ballantyne Corporate Park currently features, as well as thousands of houses and apartments, shops and restaurants and hotels. It’s just eight miles from uptown – only two miles farther than SouthPark.
Leary said an introductory phase of development could start next year, including mountain-biking trails he hopes are open by the summer. Here’s a look at three major questions facing the River District as Crescent and Lincoln Harris prepare to start work on the site.
▪ How will developers keep the River District from becoming traffic-choked?
Preliminary estimates predict as many as 120,000 vehicle trips a day could be generated by the River District when it’s fully built out. About 45,000 of those would be within the River District (say, from the apartments to the offices in the development), while 75,000 will enter or exit the River District.
That’s going to require a lot of road improvements to handle the extra cars – and with booming Berewick and Steele Creek just south of the River District, traffic and worsening congestion are already on people’s minds.
The development plans approved by the city require road improvements before each phase of the River District is built. For the first phase, West Boulevard will be extended to Dixie River Road, while Garrison and Dixie River roads would also be enlarged and improved. The city has allocated $16.2 million from the latest capital improvement bonds to extend West Boulevard for phase one.
For phase two, a new Interstate 485 interchange would be required, along with a new road between Wallace Neel Road and Garrison Road Extension and more improvements to the thoroughfares such as Dixie River Road and another extension of West Boulevard. Phase three would require more road extensions and widening.
The improvements must be in place before the next development phase proceeds. That way, the roads aren’t playing catch-up with the growth, or so the thinking goes. The developers would be responsible for building the internal street network within the development. Leary said creating a dense network of roadways with lots of ways to get around is key to avoiding congestion. And the plans call for a network of greenways, walking trails and seven miles of bicycle lanes to encourage people to get out of their cars rather than drive everywhere within the River District.
But even with all those new roadways in place, 120,000 new vehicle trips a day is still a lot of new trips to an area that’s basically empty right now. Ideally, Leary said public transportation will reach the River District, though there aren’t any hard plans for that yet. The Charlotte Area Transit System is spending up to $1.5 million studying how and where it should build a rail line to west Charlotte and the airport.
“One of the most expensive things with transit is right-of-way,” said Leary. The River District will preserve a 50-foot-wide right-of-way into the middle of the site for CATS to use for a future rail line. The developers have committed to work with CATS to design a transit center at the River District as well, which would accommodate buses and other modes of transit.
▪ Will developing the River District land hurt the environment?
The River District land is carved by streams and tributaries leading to the Catawba River, meaning erosion and run-off will be concerns as the developers clear land.
“We’re going to keep a big buffer around these,” said Creighton Call, Crescent’s vice president of commercial and mixed-use development. About 550 acres of the 1,380 acres included in the plan won’t be developed, meaning 40 percent of the site will be left uncleared – much of it to preserve the streams and wetlands. The developers have also committed to monitor water quality during and after construction, especially in the vulnerable coves on the river’s edge.
The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, the main environmental group that protects the river, has endorsed the River District’s plans and water quality controls. But the development will still result in cutting hundreds of acres of trees. The developers point out, however, that the land isn’t virgin forest: Most of it, almost 1,000 acres, has been owned by Crescent and its predecessor (a Duke Energy subsidiary) for decades. The land has been logged extensively in cycles.
“At one point, it was all clear-cut in the 60s,” said Leary. The land was last logged 30 years ago. Foresters have surveyed the land to identify older trees that are higher quality than the skinny pines that cover much of the land, such as a stand of beech trees as thick as a bundle of telephone poles soaring out of one ravine.
“The old-growth, high-quality trees have been mapped out and very well included into our open-space plan,” said Call.
“They’ve never been touched,” said Leary. “And they won’t be.”
▪ Who’s going to pay for the infrastructure?
The roads aren’t the only public infrastructure needed for a project the size of the River District. Schools for an estimated 3,000 new students, a new police and fire station and 23 miles of water main to handle up to 1.9 million gallons a day of wastewater will also be required. And those costs will be split between the developers and taxpayer dollars.
Some of the agreements for splitting costs have already been broadly outlined. For example, the developers have agreed to identify and reserve sites for new schools, a fire station and police station. They would then sell them to the school system or city for 80 percent of the appraised value, while the local governments would build and operate the facilities.
The total estimated cost so far of infrastructure is $131 million, city staff have said, though they have emphasized that’s a preliminary number likely to change. The city’s early projections 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 – essentially a payment to the developers based on expected future tax revenues.
The developers and city staff will spend the next few months hammering out a detailed memorandum of understanding for infrastructure payments. Call said they hope finalize terms with the city by summer 2017.
Leary said Crescent and Lincoln Harris are preparing a detailed economic analysis of the potential benefits and tax revenue for the state. Early projections show the development could create $3 billion in new commercial development subject to taxes. Leary said the city should view such infrastructure costs as an investment.
“This is a pretty good opportunity for return on investment with infrastructure,” said Leary. “Some form of public-private partnership will obviously be necessary.”