From a new vantage point, Charlotte’s building boom unfolds below

The most arresting thing you notice when you walk into the Observer’s new newsroom in the NASCAR Plaza office tower is the view: Charlotte’s building boom playing out on all sides through floor-to-ceiling windows, cranes swinging, excavators moving dirt and workers maneuvering steel beams into place to form the skeletons of new skyscrapers.

It’s a development reporter’s dream, this construction panorama. From our new offices, I can look straight down onto the Crescent Stonewall Station site, where workers are building a Whole Foods, 450 apartments and two hotel towers. Behind that, the 19-story office building underway at 615 South College Street; just to the north, the Mint Museum apartment tower stretches up 43 stories, jostling for a spot in the skyline with the Duke Energy Center.

I count a dozen cranes out of a single window, facing towards Bank of America Stadium.

The construction vistas stretch beyond uptown. In Dilworth, we’re looking at workers and cranes building apartments and office buildings. To the southeast, the second of Lincoln Harris’ Capitol Towers office buildings is rising next to the domed roof of the first. To the west, planes take off and land every minute at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, itself undergoing a $2.5 billion expansion. To the north, workers are erecting two new hotels, an Embassy Suites and Springhill Suites, and behind them, the second SkyHouse apartment tower is going up.

I can even see cranes building the 300 South Tryon office building and Ascent apartment tower in the reflection on my glass desk partition. Several of my co-workers have brought binoculars, and there’s talk of a telescope. It’s pretty clear: We’re big fans of watching dump trucks, backhoes and concrete-pouring machines do their thing.

It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of it all. Entire portions of Charlotte will be unrecognizable in a few years when the building boom is complete. But just marveling at the sheer scope and size of growth isn’t enough – there are critical issues behind the shiny edifices.

Here are some of the topics I’m going to pay attention to as this city’s building boom keeps unfolding outside my new window. Call me or email me and let me know what issues you’re thinking about as you watch the growth rising up around us.

How long will it last?

That’s the question no one has an answer to yet, but people are asking. Memories of the 2008 real estate crash and the deep recession that followed are still fresh in Charlotte’s real estate community, and some of the projects underway now are revivals of ambitious plans that fell through. The new, 22-story hotel tower rising atop the EpiCentre was originally planned to be a 50-story condo building, for example, and the unfinished steel rebar poking up above Trade Street served as a reminder of the downturn for years. The Mint Museum apartments were also supposed to be a condo tower; once those plans collapsed, the site sat idle, with a closed, empty shell of a lobby on the back of the museum facing Church Street.

The topic of a keynote address Tuesday at a forum hosted by the Urban Land Institute’s Charlotte Chapter: “How long can this last?” The speaker, Jim Clayton of Cornerstone Real Estate Advisers, was more optimistic than many. Even if growth slows down, he expects the real estate market to “keep chugging along.”

Others are more pessimistic. At another real estate forum I went to last month, panelists asked the same question agreed that if the current real estate boom were a baseball game, we’d be somewhere near the ninth inning.

Affordability and gentrification

One fact that’s hard to miss gazing out over the landscape of apartment construction: Out of the 12,700 new units apartments underway, almost all of them are in high-end, high-rent buildings. Charlotte-based apartment-tracking firm Real Data said in March that the average rent in Charlotte is now $1,011 a month, up from $938 a year ago. And with vacancy rates still low – almost 94 percent of all apartments in Charlotte are occupied – landlords can raise rents further.

That’s putting a strain on lower-income renters, who in some cases are also facing the loss of older, inherently more affordable apartments being torn down to make room for redevelopment. Affordability has been raised as an issue more frequently at Charlotte City Council meetings in recent months, and it’s clear that people are thinking about the issue.

What’s not clear is what the city might do about affordability. City Council doesn’t have the power to mandate that developers include some affordable units in new projects, and the city’s “density bonus,” designed to encourage such development by allowing more units in a project, hasn’t enticed developers as intended. Expect council members and community advocates to keep looking for some kind of solution that doesn’t alienate the development community, who generally favor looser regulations.

Traffic, traffic everywhere: How will we get around?

From the Observer’s new perch, Interstate 277 unspools like a ribbon in either direction. And at rush hour, the backups as cars approach Interstate 77 or, heading east, Independence Boulevard stretch out as traffic slows to the speed of a molasses spill.

The surge of development that’s making suburban areas such as SouthPark and Plaza Midwood ever-more-dense will bring with it more people packed into smaller spaces. That’s the premise of denser, urban development, after all. But with that comes the possibility for even more traffic on main arteries such as Fairview Road and Central Avenue, especially in areas that don’t have great public transportation.

The fights over how we move from Point A to Point B are likely to grow along with the redevelopment boom. Just look at the battles over streetcar funding and the I-77 toll lanes. And though the Charlotte Area Transit System is building a light rail extension from uptown to the University of Charlotte, the agency doesn’t have funding for its other plans, such as a commuter line to Lake Norman or a second light rail line down Independence Boulevard.

Despite the headaches, traffic might ultimately be something of a good problem to have. It means people are moving here and our economy is growing. As more than one developer and urban planner have said to me: If you want a city without traffic, look at a place like Detroit.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo