When plans for Ballantyne were announced in 1991, it seemed a bit far-fetched.
The land where a massive new development was supposed to rise? Scrub pines, farmland, pastures and fields. It’s hard to imagine that was just 26 years ago.
Last week, Bissell Cos., the developer of Ballantyne Corporate Park, sold the office development to New York-based Northwood Investors for a record-setting $1.2 billion – by far the largest real estate transaction in Charlotte’s history.
Here’s a look back at the first time people in Charlotte learned about the new “Ballantyne” development planned past what was then the city’s southern fringe. It was Aug. 9, 1991, and the story was written by longtime Observer development reporter Doug Smith.
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“Developers envision a community of 10,000 on southern outerbelt”
Charlotte developer Johnny Harris unveiled a plan Thursday to transform 1,756 acres of mostly undeveloped land in south Mecklenburg County into offices, shops and residences in a community of 10,000 to 12,000 people.
Harris, who owns the land with his brother and sister, plans to file a zoning petition Monday seeking approval to develop the community over 25 years. The site, a frontrunner in 1989 for the relocation from Chicago of Sears’ corporate headquarters, is south of the proposed outerbelt road and about 1.5 miles north of the S.C. line.
Harris’ development, named Ballantyne, is one of the most ambitious ever envisioned for Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and its potential impact on road construction, land prices and development south of Charlotte is enormous.
The project will include 4,500 residential units in an undetermined mix of single-family homes, apartments and attached housing units, 4.1 million square feet of office space (about four times the size of SouthPark mall), 540,000 square feet of retail space and 1,150 hotel-conference rooms.
The total land area is roughly equivalent, Harris said, to the section of southeast Charlotte bordered on the north by Independence Boulevard, on the south by Fairview Road, on the west by Park Road and on the east by Randolph Road. Harris envisions the hub of the property, “Town Center, “ as a close-knit community of homes, shops, parks, schools and public services with people living in neighborhoods that duplicate the sense of community in a Fourth Ward or a Dilworth.
“If I had a dream . . . there would be a traffic jam every Saturday and Sunday, but it would be bicycles” instead of cars, he said. Harris, president of the Bissell Companies Inc., said the plan has been revised several times over five years. He estimates that, including changes recommended by Sears, his family has spent about $1 million on the plan. The family has developed much of the SouthPark area, which once was part of former Gov. Cameron Morrison’s rural estate.
The Harrises are his grandchildren. The Ballantyne concept “fits in pretty well with our plan (for the South Mecklenburg District), which recognizes that area for a concentration of employment and some higher density housing, “ said Walter Fields, land-use manager for the planning commission.
He said planners have been working over five years with the Harris family - Johnny, brother Cameron Harris and sister Sara Harris Bissell. Harris has shared the concept with members of the Southeast Coalition, which represents several neighborhoods in south Mecklenburg.
Peter Gerns, first vice president of the coalition, said, “I feel that whatever Johnny Harris does is a quality production. I have seen the plan, but I have not had enough time to digest it. This is a tremendous undertaking.” Fields said the Ballantyne development could be approved as early as November.
Even after approval, planners would review each phase. “It’s not like it’s a one-time shot, “ he said. In addition, Fields said, “We’ve had other big developments in that part of the world before. Raintree, a development of about 1,000 acres approved in the early 1970s is just now being built out, and Piper Glen (off N.C. 51) is really just getting started.”
Harris said he isn’t sure how much the undeveloped property is worth. Some tracts are more valuable than others, but he estimated the average price per acre probably would be in the $20,000-an-acre range. At that price, the total value would be about $35 million. What happens next depends, he said, on the market. One of the keys, Harris said, is the office/business park portion of the development, which he believes could accommodate one major corporate headquarters such as a Sears and two smaller ones.
“The first step is when the first elephant comes and wants to sit down,” Harris said. Two major Fortune 500 clients are looking at the site now, he said.
Assuming the development plan is approved by planners and no major corporate tenant is signed, Harris said, work likely would begin first on a proposed daily-fee golf course and public areas. If the economy improves, the first homes on possibly as many as 60 lots would be built in 1993 or 1994.
Homes would range from a starter price of $90,000 to $110,000 up to upper middle income prices, Harris said. The Harris family will donate 110 acres for relocating U.S. 521 through the development and for building an interchange for the outerbelt leg, scheduled for construction in 1994.
The outerbelt is a 63-mile highway planned to encircle Charlotte. It will not be finished for at least 20 years. The relocation would alleviate traffic congestion on U.S. 521, he said, by diverting traffic from Pineville directly to an interchange with the outerbelt (I-485). Also, the Harrises would donate the right-of-way for two other roads they plan to construct through the site.
A four-lane east-west connector would run from the existing U.S. 521 through the relocated segment of the highway eastward to Elm Lane. They also would extend Community House Road north over I-485 to Johnston Road Extension. Harris said he started with more than 100 names for the development, and at one point, decided to draw from his family’s and the region’s Scotch-Irish ancestry and name it Edinborough.
Later that name was scrapped, he said, in favor of Ballantyne. Ballantyne, also of Scots-Irish origin, is the middle name of his niece, Barbara Ballantyne Bissell. She’s the daughter of his sister Sara and H.C. “Smoky” Bissell, chairman of the Bissell Companies.