Charlotte’s streetcar line is a small stretch of rails, just 1.5 miles, but big hopes are riding on it.
Tuesday’s opening of the Gold Line has redevelopment plans moving again on Elizabeth Avenue. Grubb Properties, which has been assembling land along the streetcar line for more than a decade, told me this week the company plans to build up to 550 new apartments at the corner of Elizabeth Avenue and Torrence Street.
The development, part of a long-awaited plan to transform one of Charlotte’s historic main streets, will also include space for new shops and restaurants.
Gold Line supporters hope that’s just the beginning. The streetcar line is meant to eventually run from Johnson C. Smith University through uptown towards Central Avenue, creating an east-west linkage to complement the north-south Blue Line light rail.
Backers envision Charlotte’s West End becoming a district as bustling and vibrant as South End, which has attracted thousands of new residents, an apartment boom and millennial-friendly businesses such as breweries.
The Blue Line, which opened its first leg in 2007, is widely credited with sparking South End’s apartment boom. Now, the Blue Line extension to UNC Charlotte – a nearly $1.2 billion project set to open in 2017 – appears to be priming the same type of growth. New housing and retail plans are underway near the Ninth Street, Parkwood, 36th Street, Sugar Creek and Tom Hunter stations.
The streetcar has its share of critics. It’s been the subject of fierce political fights for years. Opponents point to its cost, its limited speed and the piecemeal way the project has been financed, a little bit at a time.
But supporters see long-term opportunities for growth and development to the west.
The Knight Foundation last month gave a $1.5 million grant to help kick-start the effort to revitalize the Beatties Ford Road/West Trade Street corridor. Charlotte Center City Partners will lead the effort, hiring a director for the Historic West End district.
In a statement, the Knight Foundation said: “The largest driver of new opportunities for the district will be the CityLynx Gold Line streetcar.”
Elizabeth plans moving again
On Elizabeth Avenue, Clay Grubb, president of Grubb Properties, and Novant Health had previously partnered on an ambitious plan that was supposed to bring hundreds of apartments, condominiums, a movie theater, a Whole Foods and more to redevelop about 12 acres. The total cost was projected at $240 million.
But the recession stalled those plans, and though a thriving stretch of Elizabeth Avenue is home to the Visulite Theater and eateries such as Earl’s Grocery and Viva Chicken, much of the vision remains unrealized. Now, plans are moving again.
“Coupled with the streetcar line, Link Apartments Elizabeth will truly be a link to the community that will boost Elizabeth Avenue’s transformation into one of Charlotte’s best neighborhoods for residents and visitors,” said Rachel Russell, vice president of real estate development for Grubb Properties, in a statement. The company credited Novant with infrastructure improvements in the area that have helped make the apartments viable.
Grubb, whose other projects include the SkyHouse Uptown apartment tower and the Latta Pavilion mixed-use development in Dilworth, is evaluating development opportunities on Elizabeth Avenue beyond the apartment complex, though a spokeswoman declined to give details Friday. Grubb’s 12 acres constitute one of the largest holdings owned by any single developer active along the line.
Novant is also moving forward with plans to build a cardiac and cancer care outpatient center at Fifth Street and Hawthorne Lane, at a cost of $90 million to $100 million. A spokeswoman said the hospital doesn’t have a groundbreaking date set, and is still raising funds through a capital campaign.
2nd phase would open in 2019
The first phase of the streetcar cost $37 million, with a federal grant paying $25 million and the city kicking in $12 million. The city is expected to pay $75 million of the $150 million cost of the second phase of the project, which could open in 2019. The other half could be paid with a federal grant. A divided City Council last month approved spending $7.7 million for the next phase of design work.
Supporters say the gains will be worth that cost.
“I think the streetcar’s going to be transformative for that area,” said Michael Gallis, an urban planner with Michael Gallis and Associates in Charlotte. He was one of the main driving forces behind the early push to assemble land and revitalize Elizabeth Avenue, and drew up plans for the redevelopment. He cites the schools, parks, restaurants, shops and medical facilities within walking distance, and the connection to uptown, as major draws for young professionals, parents and retirees.
The streetcar won’t cause a boom along its entire 1.5-mile route. Much of the land along the first phase of the streetcar inside the I-277 loop won’t be redeveloped: It’s owned by local or federal government agencies. The Federal Reserve, city offices and the Mecklenburg County jail all sit along the route on Trade Street. To the east, the route continues through Central Piedmont Community College’s campus – another stretch not likely to see big changes.
“The section of Elizabeth that runs through campus is pretty much all built out for us,” said CPCC spokesman Jeff Lowrance. “We don’t know what to expect as to what will occur beyond campus.”
But he said the transit line will still benefit CPCC.
“If the streetcar does what it’s intended to do, get more people from other parts of the city moving up and down Elizabeth Avenue, we would applaud that,” said Lowrance. “We’re all for people seeing our central campus.”
The redevelopment plan, and the streetcar, have been a long time coming. But it’s clear that Grubb is still bullish on the area, as he was when he spoke with the Observer about it back in 2003:
“We feel strongly that Elizabeth Avenue has the potential to become one of Charlotte’s most unique retail streets.”
Grubb Properties’ plans along the Gold Line
Here are the details on Grubb Properties’ planned apartment and retail development along the Gold Line:
▪ The apartment complex, up to 550 units, will be under Grubb’s trademarked Link Apartments brand. Grubb has Link complexes in Greenville, S.C., Richmond, Winston-Salem and Raleigh. The upscale brand caters to millennials, and will include amenities such as a rooftop plaza with a gourmet kitchen, fire pits and grills, a fitness center, secured parking for cars and bikes and a club room.
▪ The development will include up to 20,000 square feet of ground-level retail and restaurant space.
▪ Grubb is planning to start construction by the second quarter of 2016.