City hopes land-swap turns parking lot into vibrant development uptown

Will swapping two prime parcels of uptown land between the federal government and the city of Charlotte pave the way for a vibrant new development?

That’s what officials said they’re aiming for on Wednesday, discussing a deal to exchange two sites. As the Observer previously reported, the city of Charlotte and the General Services Administration are swapping a surface parking lot, currently owned by the federal government, in exchange for the Jonas Federal Courthouse at 401 W. Trade St., currently owned by the city.

The surface parking lot is at 501 E. Trade St., adjacent to Time Warner Cable Arena, along the streetcar line and a block from the Lynx Blue Line light rail – a prime location for redevelopment. The site also isn’t far from 17 acres of Mecklenburg County-owned land that the county plans to sell to a private developer, including Marshall Park, the shuttered Board of Education building and the Bob Walton Plaza building.

“This provides a very critical parcel,” said Michael Smith, CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners. “This has the capacity to really transform that flank of our city.”

The city will seek a private developer to build on the lot, which Smith said could attract a mixed-use development with retail, residential, offices and other uses. The swap will be finalized in February 2017. Charlotte has sold off other parcels of uptown land, most notably five sites along Stonewall Street where developers are building apartments and a Whole Foods.

The federal government will renovate and continue to use the Jonas courthouse, which opened in 1934 and originally served as the city’s main post office. GSA Administrator Denise Roth said the government is seeking funds to build an annex behind the building on what’s currently a parking lot, and the request is third in priority for federal courthouses nationwide.

The current courthouse isn’t big enough to meet the system’s demands, she said. The GSA currently pays the city almost $1 million a year to rent the building.

The land swap in Charlotte is part of a nationwide initiative launched by the GSA to use federal property to promote economic development, Roth said. In recent days the government has announced similar deals in Detroit and Massachusetts.

“If done poorly, a federal building can be an island, walled off from the public,” said Roth. “GSA needs to be far more consistent....We can help to transform communities.”

The courthouse property is appraised at $12.6 million, and the parking lot at $15.5 million. To make up the difference, the city will replace the courthouse’s aging roof, a project that should take about 18 months.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo