Since founding a real estate firm with his father more than 30 years ago, Daniel Levine has amassed land in Charlotte. Several years ago, he thought the time was right to start developing several major projects – hotels, office towers, apartments – at once.
But since his father died in August, Levine said he’s reevaluated the Levine Properties business and changed the way he’s looking at developing the family-owned firm’s extensive holdings throughout Charlotte, and especially in uptown’s First Ward.
Rather than go it alone and forge ahead with multiple major developments, Levine said he plans to take a different approach: entering into more partnerships and selling more land to other developers.
“We will put more on the market. We will develop some, and sell some,” said Levine, sitting in his office off Monroe Road, in the first business park his company developed. He and his father Alvin, a co-founder of Pic ’n Pay Shoes and brother of Family Dollar Stores founder Leon Levine, started the real estate firm in 1985. Levine Properties soon started buying land in First Ward.
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In addition to selling off assets uptown and in Florida, Levine said he’s pared back the company’s scope locally. The first chief operating officer Levine hired, in 2015, is no longer with the firm because Levine said the slower flow of deals left them without need for the position.
“When I made the decision that we were not going to do all of that at one time, that we were going to scale down, do more joint ventures,” said Levine, “it was pretty devastating.”
Development has been slow in coming to the company’s First Ward holdings in uptown’s northeast corner, where Levine Properties has long owned dozens of acres. Seas of surface parking lots still stretch around the Spectrum Center arena, ImaginOn Library, First Ward Park and UNC Charlotte’s uptown building – a largely empty canvas waiting to be filled in.
Instead of building and operating two Hilton-branded hotels at East Seventh and North Brevard Streets, Levine said his firm will partner with an experienced hotel company on the project. That’s also the case for a site next to the Metropolitan development in midtown off Kings Drive where Levine plans to build a hotel tower. And his company will also look to partner with another firm for a planned 20-story office tower on property Levine owns next to UNC Charlotte’s uptown building.
“We are a smaller footprint now than we were before, and we’re not going to take on all of these different projects,” said Levine. “We talked about getting into the hotel business ourselves – I had never built a hotel before...We are now looking at partnering.”
But there are signs that the long-sought growth might finally be on its way. Levine Properties sold a prominent parcel to a developer who plans to get started on a high-rise with hundreds of new residences later this year. Just south of Interstate 277, at 10th Street, Levine is building a nearly 1,400-space parking deck, set to be wrapped by about 264 apartments. The parking deck should be open in September, Levine said. His company is redesigning the apartment part of the project, Levine said, which will include a Common Market-style shop on the ground floor facing the light rail.
The Blue Line light rail extension is set to open in August, adding another major development stimulus on top of First Ward Park, which Levine Properties developed and for which Mecklenburg County paid $8 million. The park opened in December 2015.
Levine still owns nearly 20 acres in First Ward, covering big swaths between Sixth and Ninth streets, and on three sides of First Ward Park. That’s down from about 32 acres a decade ago.
Levine has just received two big cash infusions. The company last month sold 3.5 acres between the Blue Line light rail extension and North College Street to developer Lennar Multifamily for $23 million. And this week, Levine sold a Florida distribution center for a reported price of $108 million.
“That was really the culmination of the strategy of saying we’re committed to Charlotte,” said Levine. “We’re bringing all that capital back to Charlotte.”
Lennar plans to move aggressively to build on the land it bought uptown, which is now mostly used for parking. The company has already filed preliminary plans for a 30-story residential tower and a five-story apartment building, totaling more than 500 units, with shops and restaurants on the ground floor facing First Ward Park.
“We just see between Levine Properties holdings and the (county-owned) Hal Marshall Center, there’s a lot of underdeveloped land,” said Jeff Harris, head of Lennar’s Carolinas division. With the Blue Line connecting uptown to UNC Charlotte, Harris expects First Ward to draw more people who work in that area but are looking to live uptown.
Lennar is still designing its project. The company plans to start demolition on its site in the fourth quarter this year and construction in early 2018, Harris said.
Levine hired Tim Newman, former head of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, in January to lead asset management for the company.
Although Levine Properties’ core Charlotte holdings are the company’s First Ward properties, Levine has been developing projects outside of uptown. The Julien, a 105-unit apartment building on Commonwealth Avenue, opened last year, and Levine has assembled land across the street for more apartments. The company is also finalizing plans for a new mixed-use development at Providence and Fairview roads, where Levine is partnering with another firm to build a retail center and about 200 apartments.
Demolition on that site should start in the next 30 to 45 days, Levine said.
Before his father passed away last year, at age 83, Levine said he discussed with him how he wasn’t enjoying the business as much as he used to.
“I wasn’t having a lot of fun,” said Levine. His dad gave him some simple advice: Change the way he was working. Levine said even when his father was living in Florida and not involved with the day-to-day of the business, he was a frequent confidant.
“Three, four times a week I’d call him up and say, ‘Here’s what happened today,’” said Levine. After his father died, he had a minor issue with a building they were leasing uptown.
“I went to pick up the phone to tell him,” said Levine. “I’m thinking to myself ‘Oh my God, I’m never going to be able to share with him the inside-baseball about our business...It’s a great loss.”