Why one of Charlotte's biggest developers is counting on the suburbs to drive growth

Johnny Harris at the headquarters of Lincoln Harris, with uptown Charlotte in the background.
Johnny Harris at the headquarters of Lincoln Harris, with uptown Charlotte in the background.

When it comes to growth, one of Charlotte's biggest developers is betting big on the city's suburban markets.

But Johnny Harris, CEO of Lincoln Harris, isn't thinking about single-family subdivisions. He's counting on dense, mixed-use developments mixing houses, apartments, office buildings, shops and restaurants, sprinkled around Charlotte's periphery and outlying areas.

"I'm not sure any of us working on it really understood the strength of the market...The young people want to be able to live, work and play in the same place," said Harris, whose company is wrapping up development on the first phase of Rea Farms in southeast Charlotte.

The 190-acre former golf course on Providence Road, just south of Interstate 485, includes hundreds of houses by CalAtlantic, 455 apartments by Simpson Woodfield, a new Harris Teeter, K-8 magnet school, a 135-room Hyatt hotel, age-restricted housing for senior citizens, dozens of additional shops and about 500,000 square feet of office space.

"This market out at Rea Farms is being driven by people who are living downtown but are moving out because they want to own a house," Harris told the Observer in an interview last week.

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Rea Farms, just south of Interstate 485, as seen from the air. Courtesy Lincoln Harris

The company has one huge urban bet on in Charlotte right now, of course: The Legacy Union development in uptown. In partnership with Goldman Sachs, Lincoln Harris is developing a 5-million-square-foot mixed-use project next to Bank of America Stadium, anchored by a 33-story office tower leased mainly by Bank of America that's expected to open next year.

At Rea Farms, Harris said interest has been strong for the office space, but declined to discuss any potential tenants. Across the street, a second office building is under construction at the Waverly mixed-use development, which has a similar strategy, anchored by a Whole Foods.

In addition to the Harris Teeter (opening in late summer) the two dozen retail tenants signed at Rea Farms run the gamut from locally owned eateries like the Improper Pig, Tandur Indian Kitchen and Pizza Peel to chains such as Papa John's and Supercuts. A massive Life Time Athletic gym totaling 192,000 square feet opened last year.

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It's not the only suburban development Lincoln Harris is working on. RoundPoint Mortgage announced last month that it's relocating to Fort Mill, where Lincoln Harris is developing a massive project at the former Charlotte Knights stadium site. Like Rea Farms, that project will include offices, apartments, shops and restaurants, as well as a 150-room hotel.

"In the end, all the geographical boundaries of the greater Charlotte area are going to be blurred," said Harris.

The company is also partnering with Crescent Communities to build the River District, the largest new development planned in Charlotte in decades. It's ultimately expected to have about 5,000 residences and twice as much office space as there is in Ballantyne, west of Charlotte Douglas International Airport, on land that's currently vacant and wooded.

Harris said the developers are still working with the city to figure out how to extend West Boulevard past Interstate 485 to access the site, and major construction will start once that's in place.

One major concern around Charlotte's edges as suburban development spreads: Traffic. Interstate 485 is frequently backed up at rush hour, as are major thoroughfares such as Providence Road.

Harris said that the grid of streets through Rea Farms — and the expectation that people will be able to do what they need to without leaving the property and clogging up surrounding streets — will mitigate the traffic impact.

"The accessibility and the movability and the walking around is going to be second to none," said Harris. "We're looking to interconnect all of our properties...We've got a grid system and I think it works well."

He said they've also committed to widening and improvements on surrounding roads, such as adding traffic lights and extending Golf Links Drive. But Harris acknowledged that Providence Road is a concern around Rea Farms.

"As it relates to Providence Road...that is a problem, and I think there's concern about that," said Harris. He hopes that when Ardrey Kell Road is extended, that will take some pressure off Providence.

But Harris is confident that suburban development is going to continue strong: "Slowly but surely, there's going to be very little land left there to develop."

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