Charlotte developers try new tactic for winning over wary neighbors

A rezoning sign with graffiti saying "No" to the rezoning on Luther Street in the Cherry neighborhood Wednesday May 14, 2014. Rezonings can be contentious when neighborhoods oppose a new project.
A rezoning sign with graffiti saying "No" to the rezoning on Luther Street in the Cherry neighborhood Wednesday May 14, 2014. Rezonings can be contentious when neighborhoods oppose a new project.

For developers and community members, the tensest part of a project can be the required public hearings for a new development.

Developers endure tongue-lashings from residents worried about traffic, changes to their neighborhood or whether another apartment building is really the best use for the site. Neighbors sometimes feel like their concerns are falling on deaf ears and they don’t have any say in what gets built in their community.

But some developers are going beyond the city-mandated minimum number of public meetings and holding more frequent, informal and relaxed community gatherings to get feedback about proposed plans. Sometimes, they hold such meetings before even filing a formal rezoning request to build a new project on a site, hoping to use a get-together to sound out neighbors and get a sense of potential problem areas with any proposal.

That dynamic was on display this week at the Oak Room, a club next to the Blue Line light rail in South End. Beacon Partners held a community meeting over beer and empanadas to introduce its plans for the HD Supply site on South Tryon Street, which they plan to redevelop into a dense, mixed-use project.

“The point of tonight is to introduce the project,” said Collin Brown, a land-use attorney representing Beacon. “The goal was let you meet Beacon. This is meant to start an ongoing dialogue.”

Beacon plans to file a formal rezoning request later this spring, and the company will then have to hold a mandatory public meeting about the project and public hearing before Charlotte City Council. Although Beacon doesn’t have specific plans yet, partner Mike Harrell said the meeting – the first of its kind the company has done – was a valuable way to find out what the community wants to see on the site.

For example, in response to a question about the nearby courtyard at the Common Market, hands flew up when an audience member asked how many people there use it. Harrell said Beacon would look at whether it could build something similar at its new project.

“When I see people raise their hands about who goes to the Common Market, that’s great,” said Harrell.

And just as importantly, Beacon got a clear sense of what South End residents there don’t want: Another block-long apartment building.

“We don’t need another apartment complex,” said one attendee.

At another nearby project earlier this year, the developers behind a planned hotel at South Tryon Street and Kingston Avenue held a community get-together at the Gallery in South End, before their required public hearings. One piece of feedback they heard clearly: Neighbors would like to see some ground floor retail or a cafe as part of the hotel.

“The neighbors said ‘Look, we really want to see as much retail activation as you can give us,’” said Brown, who also represented the developers in that petition. So the developers added 4,700 square feet of ground-floor retail space, which will be used for a cafe or other retail. There was no community opposition at the project’s public hearing at last week’s City Council meeting.

Of course, holding such meetings doesn’t guarantee a community’s support when a rezoning petition comes up. Earlier this month, American Asset Corp. held a meeting with neighbors about a possible new development on Park Road South before they filed their rezoning request. The plan would add 400 apartments, 300 hotel rooms, 125,000 square feet of office space and 75,000 square feet of shops and restaurants.

Rob Aulebach, a member of the Royal Crest HOA, a 29-unit development across the street, said he gives the developers credit for meeting with community members before they were required to. But he said neighbors have major concerns about additional traffic and congestion in the area that he’s not sure the developers can address if they pursue such a dense project.

“I appreciate them having early meetings,” said Aulebach. “Having meetings is good, but taking the constructive feedback and doing action with it is what counts.”

His comment points to one of the contradictions inherent as developers try to win community support: Getting more community feedback can lead to more problems later if that feedback isn’t accepted. At the meeting Tuesday at Oak Room, Brown, the attorney, tried to set clear expectations from the beginning.

“We don’t want to lock into exact details,” said Brown, specifying that the project wouldn’t be “design by committee.”

Sometimes feedback can be contradictory. At Tuesday’s meeting, Brown reviewed two comments from neighbors about what they wanted to see at the South End site. “Skyscrapers,” said one. “Not too high,” said another.

And no matter how much a developer and community engage with each other, there’s still the possibility that the developer’s plans still won’t go over well. Neighbors might simply not want to see change near their homes, or believe that a project is fundamentally misguided.

That’s been the case in Elizabeth, where, despite a year and a half of meetings and discussions with the Elizabeth Community Association, neighbors are still opposed to a plan by developer Faison to build a mixed-use apartment building with ground-floor retail at the corner of Seventh and Caswell streets. At a hearing last month before City Council, neighbors said they think the development is just too dense and doesn’t have enough parking.

At the hearing, Faison executive Chris Branch said the company had negotiated many points with neighbors but ultimately couldn’t reduce the density and increase the parking enough to satisfy them. City Council will vote on the plan at an upcoming meeting.

“We didn’t want to go to the point where we felt we were compromising the building to meet some of the requirements the neighbors would like,” said Branch.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo