What’s rising at the old Observer site
The development taking shape at the former Charlotte Observer site uptown has a 33-story office tower poking its way into the skyline, plans for a pedestrian plaza and a bridge over Church Street – and now, a name: Legacy Union.
The tower is the first building in Charlotte’s biggest new uptown development in decades. In an interview, developer Johno Harris said future phases of the plan could include a major hotel, apartments, condominiums, another office tower, restaurants and the kind of shops uptown has largely been missing since big retailers like Ivey’s and Belk pulled up stakes on their downtown department stores.
“There’s going to be retail, there’s going to be residential, there’s going to be hospitality,” said Harris in his SouthPark office, where you can almost make out the rising tower next to Bank of America Stadium in the distance. “Where in the Southeast, and probably the country, do you have 10 acres, in an urban setting, by a stadium, to do this?”
Harris, president of Charlotte developer Lincoln Harris, said the Legacy Union name evokes both the site’s history and the goals for the development. The Observer was headquartered at 600 South Tryon St. from 1927 until 2016, when the offices moved to the NASCAR Plaza building on Caldwell Street.
“We wanted to honor the past and celebrate the future,” said Harris, son of Lincoln Harris CEO Johnny Harris. “Union means a gathering place and bringing people together.”
Lincoln Harris and Goldman Sachs, which bought the site last year for about $37.5 million, have been tight-lipped about the project. Planning documents filed with the city show it could ultimately total 5 million square feet of residences, shops, hotels, office space and restaurants.
Bank of America has leased about 500,000 square feet in the first tower, under construction now. That building will total about 845,000 square feet, and it’s expected to open in early 2019, with Bank of America signage at the top.
At 640 feet tall, the building will be the fourth-tallest in Charlotte, ahead of One Wells Fargo Center and behind Bank of America’s headquarters, the Duke Energy Center and the Hearst Tower.
Harris said he hopes the 100-foot-tall, lighted glass pyramid atop the new building will become an iconic marker for Charlotte. “We wanted this building to be a building just like Transamerica building in San Francisco,” said Harris.
The office tower could add square footage by expanding sideways atop the parking garage, Harris said, if demand calls for that. The company is still marketing about 300,000 square feet to prospective tenants.
A pedestrian plaza flanked with trees and seating areas will lead from Tryon Street to a set of “grand stairs” at the building’s entrance. His goal, Harris said, is to create a plaza reminiscent of the famed Spanish Steps in Rome or parks in New York City.
People will be able to walk through the building’s lobby to get to Church Street, which will also be spanned by a pedestrian bridge to a parking garage. Harris said he expects it to become a gathering place for people heading to and from work, giving the workers who walk or bike from South End a place to grab a cup of coffee, a bite or a beer.
Harris wouldn’t reveal any other prospective tenants or provide details on how many total apartments, hotel rooms or shops there might be. But he said a wide range of options are on the table, including partnering with other developers or even selling portions of the site.
“We’re talking to a lot of different people,” said Harris. “We’re going to get the right mix here to make this a transformative project...We don’t talk about it. We’re going to do our work and get it done.”
“It’s all going to depend on what the mix is, what jumps and jives,” said Harris. “We’re close, and we’re getting there.”
Construction on the next phase could start as soon as the end of 2017, if Lincoln Harris can ink more deals.
Here’s what Harris had to say about the prospects for various types of development at Legacy Union:
Another office tower: With one office tower rising, Harris said the company could build more, if there’s enough demand.
“Would I like to sit here and say we’re gonna build a million square-foot tower over here? Yes,” said Harris, pointing at an empty spot on the site plan. “That may come, and we’ll see what happens.”
A 1,000-room, convention-sized hotel: “I think that Charlotte is at a stage in its career,” said Harris, “that the demand for a large convention hotel is there.”
Charlotte’s biggest hotel right now is the Westin, with 700 rooms. But the city’s boosters have long wanted a 1,000-room hotel, considered the gold standard for luring conventions and a key to hosting major events like the Super Bowl. In recent years, Austin opened a 1,066-room Fairmont hotel, Houston added a 1,000-room Marriott Marquis and Boston announced a 1,000-room Omni Hotel.
“Is there the opportunity to do (a convention-sized hotel) on this site? Absolutely. We’ve got the land. I think there’s a lot of opportunity to do that,” said Harris.
Major retailers: Although uptown is full of bars, coffee shops and restaurants, the area’s growing population largely lacks the kind of retailers who sell clothes, books and other “soft goods,” as they’re known. Those stores haven’t come back since uptown became largely a nine-to-five, office worker-dominated enclave, a reputation the area is trying to shed.
“With the site, the location, the size of it lends well to the opportunity to do things like that,” Harris said of adding large retailers. But he said retailers are hesitant about being the first to jump into an area that hasn’t been proven yet. Whole Foods opening in 2018 down the street at Crescent Stonewall Station could be a bellwether for uptown retail.
“That conversation is going on. Where does that lead? I don’t know right now,” Harris said.
For-sale condominiums, in addition to apartments: The strength of the rental market in recent years has fueled the record-breaking boom in luxury apartments. Harris said he’s not sure the condo market is there yet – the first and only attempt to start a new condo tower uptown since the recession, 1Brevard, flamed out when presales didn’t materialize – but Lincoln Harris is looking at the possibility.
“Has there been a conversation about that? Yeah, there’s absolutely been a conversation,” said Harris.
How long it will take to fully build Legacy Union: “I wish I could say it’s all going to be done in three years,” said Harris. “If it is, I’m going to be a happy man. We’re not going to push because we have to push. We’re going to do what’s right for the project.”