Development coming fast to the Blue Line Extension – starting with NoDa

Michael Tubridy of Crescent Communities at the 36th Street light rail station location under construction in NoDa.
Michael Tubridy of Crescent Communities at the 36th Street light rail station location under construction in NoDa.

The spotlight this week was on Charlotte’s streetcar, which opened its first segment Tuesday to much fanfare and high hopes of a new development boom. But along the city’s other rail project, the Blue Line Extension, development plans are already materializing.

The 9.3-mile, $1.2 billion light-rail project by the Charlotte Area Transit System is about two years away from opening. It will connect UNC Charlotte and uptown, and, like the first segment of the Blue Line, the rail project is as much about sparking development as it is about moving people and easing traffic.

“Transportation infrastructure has this powerful effect of repurposing real estate,” said Michael Smith, CEO of Charlotte Center Partners, speaking about rail transit at the streetcar’s opening ceremony.

But redevelopment along the new light-rail line could face challenges. Much of the route goes through low-income areas that have long struggled along North Tryon Street, Eastway Drive and Sugar Creek Road. Those areas might be less attractive to developers looking to attract young millennial workers and Baby Boomers seeking to downsize and move to a more urban lifestyle – two of the main demographics developers are building for.

And the city’s record apartment-building boom – which is powering much of the growth – might not last, as new units come online and vacancy rates rise.

But this much is clear: Development is coming, and so far no portion of the Blue Line Extension is set to see a greater impact than NoDa – especially around the planned 36th Street Station. A first wave of apartments including Yards at NoDa and Mercury NoDa is already underway. Now, an even bigger wave is coming.

Charlotte-based Crescent Communities is planning to build up to 800 residential units in two developments near the station, which could include apartments and for-sale housing. The company’s plans have the potential to dramatically reshape a Charlotte neighborhood known for its mill-oriented past and artsy present.

Michael Tubridy, a senior development manager at Crescent, said the company has long been a believer in building near the Blue Line. The company’s Circle South End apartments at the Bland Street Station in South End opened in 2012.

“We were lucky enough to make the bet early, and saw it pay off,” Tubridy said. “When the economy opened back up and allowed for new development, we were immediately searching for the next best light-rail sites.”

The Charlotte City Council approved Crescent’s development at 36th Street earlier this year. That development would include up to 350 residential units, a hotel and retail. Tubridy said Crescent is still trying to sign a boutique grocer for the development.

Crescent’s second NoDa project is even bigger: Up to 450 residential units on 25 acres just down the street, at an industrial site along East Craighead Street near North Davidson. That site is up for a rezoning hearing in September.

The intersection of 36th and North Davidson streets is what Tubridy called the “heart of NoDa,” and it was already a popular place to live and hang out. But what makes the area so attractive for new development now, Tubridy said, is the pitch that tenants will have direct, car-free access to major employment and entertainment centers uptown and in University City.

Tubridy said one factor that’s encouraging mixed-use development is the cost of land near light-rail stations. Developers are willing to pay a premium because they can charge higher rents to tenants near a busy stop. To make back their investment, they need to put a mix of dense uses on those sites.

“That extra demand is driving up the cost,” Tubridy said. “As the cost rises, it leads to more density in the development. ... The majority of it is out of necessity to make the land valuations work.”

And Crescent is also betting big on another light-rail station, located uptown at Stonewall Street. There, Crescent is planning to build two hotels, a Whole Foods and 450 apartments. A block away, the company is planning an office tower, a hotel and tens of thousands of additional square feet of retail.

Tubridy said Crescent expects to start work on its Stonewall Street Station and 36th Street Station sites by the end of the year.

‘Watch this space’

The first leg of the Blue Line, which opened in 2007, is widely credited with kicking off the apartment boom that’s spread down South Boulevard. Now, those who planned the next phase say the $1.2 billion investment is paying off.

Mecklenburg County Economic Development Director Peter Zeiler used to work for CATS and was involved in planning for development around the Blue Line. He said the rail line extension’s promise of spurring more building is coming true.

“The development patterns we’re expecting to see are occurring,” Zeiler said. “It follows the pattern that was established with the original Blue Line.”

Tina Votaw, CATS transit-oriented development manager, said the combination of light rail, streetcar and the 26-mile Cross-Charlotte Trail greenway system is opening up new areas to redevelopment.

“Watch this space,” she said of areas near the new transit options. “It’s an enormous amount of land that’s available for redevelopment. ... Transit really repositions that inventory.”

So far, many of the projects along the Blue Line extension are infill projects repurposing parcels closer to uptown. That’s similar to the pattern that emerged with the first light-rail leg, as old industrial or vacant properties were torn down and replaced with apartments in South End.

As development moves outward to more suburban areas, both Zeiler and Votaw said they expect to see more suburban developments near those stations farther from uptown. That’s due to a combination of factors: It doesn’t make sense to tear down the newer buildings in those areas and start again, there’s vacant land available, and those areas are already geared to more suburban development patterns.

“That’s fine, because you need a variety of land uses,” Zeiler said. “And not everyone wants to live in South End.”

Blue Line Extension development gathering steam

Development is starting to take off along the 9.3-mile Blue Line Extension, which opens in 2017. Here are some of the projects planned at stops:

9th Street Station: Levine Properties is building the long-awaited First Ward Park, set to open earlier this year, between the 7th and 9th street stations. The company is also planning two hotels, as well as a 264-unit apartment complex at 10th Street.

Parkwood Station: Infill development specialist Beauxwright filed plans earlier this month to build 50 multifamily units at Parkwood Avenue and 17th Street.

25th Street Station: Southern Apartment Group is planning a 250-unit apartment complex with retail at the corner of North Davidson and 26th streets.

36th Street Station: Crescent is planning to build up to 350 residential units, some of which could be for-sale, along with a potential hotel and boutique grocer at the Blue Line station.

Sugar Creek Station: Halfway between the 36th Street and Sugar Creek stations, Crescent is also planning a major mixed-use development on West Craighead Street. The plan could include up to 450 residential units and would cover 25 acres.

Tom Hunter Station: Carolina States Regional Center is planning a 300-unit apartment complex on North Tryon Street across from the station and is seeking to rezone more nearby land for transit-oriented development.

Ely Portillo

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