Disappointment mounts over light rail delay, but development expected to barrel on

Light rail extension opening delayed

The Lynx Blue Line Extension to UNC Charlotte won’t open in August 2017 as planned and might not open until next March, the Charlotte Area Transit System said Monday night.
Up Next
The Lynx Blue Line Extension to UNC Charlotte won’t open in August 2017 as planned and might not open until next March, the Charlotte Area Transit System said Monday night.

The Blue Line extension’s opening could be pushed back up to seven months, but that’s not going to stop the flood of new apartments, offices, shops and restaurants planned along its course.

Still, the delay – which could push the $1.2 billion line’s opening back from August to March 2018 – is a headache for businesses and apartments along the route that have been counting on new customers and tenants. Commuters and UNC Charlotte students will have to wait longer for a new way to avoid traffic-clogged streets on the way to uptown, and the light rail extension will likely miss the Carolina Panthers season, a major potential draw for new riders from the north.

And many local residents are just longing for an end to disruptive construction.

“I’ve been cut off from my neighborhood for over three years,” said Hollis Nixon, president of the NoDa Neighborhood and Business Association. The closures of roads such as 36th Street – still blocked off by orange barricades – have left her stranded, taking long detours to get to local businesses. That’s hurting some of the locally owned shops – the foundation of NoDa’s identity – and Nixon worries they might not all be able to hang on until the line’s opening.

“They’re not corporate chains that have 20 other locations to help the one that’s limping along,” said Nixon. “For the most part, they’re on their own.”

3,866Apartments announced or under construction so far along the Blue Line extension

Some of the new apartment buildings under construction along the Blue Line have been trying to time their completion dates to line up with the start of train service. At Crescent NoDa, where Crescent Communities is building 344 apartments the 36th Street stop, crews are working to get the first units ready for tenants by September, which would have lined up with the celebrations around the start of rail service.

Now, Crescent will be trying to lease those apartments for months before the light rail starts running.

“Direct access to the light rail station was a critical component in the strategic planning of Crescent NoDa and the opening of the community was strategically aligned with the anticipated opening of the station,” said Michael Tubridy, managing director at Crescent Communities.

He said the delay is “certainly disappointing,” but that it won’t hurt Crescent’s long-term plans for the site or push back the opening of their apartments. Crescent is also working on a second, commercial phase of the development, with 23,000 square feet of new retail space, that’s expected to be finished in 2018.

Other developers and brokers echo Tubridy’s long-term optimism, despite the short-term inconveniences. The reason: With the tracks already in place and work nearing completion on many parts of the line, there isn’t much uncertainty or risk in investing. Even with the opening delayed by a few months, the thinking goes, the line will still be in place and running for decades.

The Blue Line light rail extension, running 9.2 miles from uptown to UNC Charlotte, is as much a tool to stimulate new development as it’s meant to move people from Point A to Point B. That’s what happened in South End, which went from a largely vacant former industrial area to one of the hottest markets in the nation, with thousands of new apartments, after the first leg of the Blue Line opened in 2007.

Already, about 3,900 new apartments are planned or underway along the Blue Line’s northern leg, with more sure to follow. Near the Parkwood Station, a development partnership called White Point Paces is turning a century-old mill into Tompkins Hall, a redevelopment that will include offices, a food market and restaurants.

Those businesses should be open by the first quarter of 2018. That means the light rail’s delayed opening would match their timelines. JLL is leasing the office portion of the site, and broker Charley Leavitt said he doesn’t think the delay will be a major deterrent for potential tenants or future development.

“It is a short-term blip for developers, who have been operating under a ‘when,’ not ‘if’ mode for the last couple years,” said Leavitt.

Richard Cuebas, principal at Integra Architecture, said the delay could actually help the Blue Line extension’s long-term future. If more developments are finished when it opens, with residents and tenants in place, the train will have a bigger pool of potential riders – making future developments along the Blue Line extension even more attractive.

“That’s going to make things move much easier, rather than just having a train with nobody there,” said Cuebas.

One of the areas most looking forward to the new Blue Line extension: University City, Charlotte’s second-largest employment center and home to UNC Charlotte and its nearly 29,000 students.

Darlene Heater, executive director of University City Partners, said long-term planning isn’t being affected by the delay. The goal is to make University City a walkable, more urban, less auto-centric area, and get away from its heritage of big, single-use office parks, shopping centers and single-family subdivisions.

And with most of the heavy construction on the Blue Line extension finished and roads getting back to normal, she’s optimistic.

“We’ve gotten through our big construction hurdles,” she said. Still, people in the area wish it were opening on time – and in time for UNC Charlotte’s academic year.

“Obviously, there are some folks that are disappointed,” said Heater. “People were looking forward to it.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo