How Steve Smith – not the wide receiver – is helping shape First Ward

Construction going on at First Ward Park near the UNC Charlotte uptown campus.
Construction going on at First Ward Park near the UNC Charlotte uptown campus.

With high-profile projects planned from uptown to southeast Charlotte, Levine Properties has one priority now: Building them.

And building is the mandate for Steve Smith, the company’s new chief operating officer.

“I was brought here to oversee all the aspects of Levine Properties’ business operations,” said Smith, the first COO hired by Levine Properties. “They have a pipeline of work in front of them that is unique in the Southeast.”

The development company behind the ambitious First Ward redevelopment plan is a family-owned firm founded by Alvin Levine, brother of Family Dollar magnate Leon Levine.

Before starting Levine Properties, Alvin Levine founded and then sold Pic ’n’ Pay shoes. Daniel Levine, the company’s president, came to work as his father’s partner in the property business fresh out of college more than three decades ago, and has stayed since.

Smith, a licensed architect and no relation to the former Panthers wide receiver, said he’s used to working at such family firms. Most of his other stints have also been at companies named for their founder.

He was most recently a development executive at Pappas Properties (Peter Pappas), a major mixed-use developer, and he previously worked for Faison (Henry Faison) on mixed-use, retail and multifamily projects. Before that, he worked at Disney Development Co. (obviously, Walt Disney) on retail, dining, entertainment and hotel projects.

Over the past year, Levine Properties has kicked off a slew of high-profile projects, including the largest single redevelopment underway uptown right now, in First Ward. There, the company is building a 4-acre park that’s intended to be the centerpiece of 1.5 million square feet of office space, 1,500 apartments, 450 hotel rooms and retail built along the light rail.

But Levine Properties has also faced criticism for building slowly. The company has been buying land in First Ward since the 1980s, amassing about 24 acres – nine city blocks. Even as other parts of uptown boomed, Levine Properties’ surface parking lots remained. North of Seventh Street, asphalt dominated and cranes were mostly absent.

Daniel Levine acknowledged the criticism last week.

“We designed projects, we permitted projects and we canceled projects,” said Levine, who said the city’s growth in the 1980s and 1990s kept rendering his company’s plans invalid. “Every time we were ready, my dad and I came to conclude we were under-building. I’d rather do nothing than not do it well.”

Smith, 54, said the timing is right now to complete the ambitious development plan in First Ward. The CATS Blue Line light rail extension is set to open in 2017, with two stops in First Ward, amid expectations the rail line will ignite a South End-style building boom.

“With the economy growing like it is, with the opportunities that present themselves now in First Ward, this is the right time for us,” said Smith.

Levine Properties broke ground on First Ward Park last year, and expects the park to be open by December. A public-private partnership with the city and county is helping fund the growth. Once the massive redevelopment project is complete, Levine Properties would get tax relief of $23.7 million for providing more than 1,300 public parking spaces in the decks, $11.3 million for the park, and $5 million for roadway and utility improvements.

In addition to the park, Levine Properties is currently building a nearly 1,400-space public parking deck that will serve the park, local businesses and UNC Charlotte’s uptown building. A planned apartment complex with 260 units, 50 of them earmarked as affordable housing, will wrap the parking deck.

Two Hilton-brand hotels are planned for a parcel just east of the park, and the company is seeking an anchor tenant for a planned 20-story office building next to UNC Charlotte.

Outside of uptown, Levine Properties is planning a 285-foot tall, 330-unit hotel and apartment tower next to the Little Sugar Creek Greenway, on the southeast corner of Metropolitan Avenue, South Kings Drive and Baxter Street. The company is also building a 105-unit apartment building in Plaza Midwood, on the southwest corner of St. Julien Street and Commonwealth Avenue.

And the company plans to tear down and redevelop the Carmel on Providence apartments at Fairview and Providence roads as a new, mixed-use complex with apartments and 95,000 square feet of retail.

Smith said he’s not worried there are too many apartments under construction in Charlotte, despite the record-breaking building boom that’s underway.

“Charlotte has built a lot of apartments. That’s not anything to be concerned about, because our job growth is stellar. People want to move to Charlotte,” said Smith. And the millennials are both the largest generation in the U.S. and have shown a preference to rent longer and buy later than previous generations.

“I see, from a demographic standpoint, at least 10 years of sustained growth,” said Smith.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo