Little consensus emerged Thursday on what the redevelopment of publicly owned land in Second Ward should look like, as Mecklenburg County commissioners discussed three competing plans for rebuilding what was once an African-American neighborhood uptown.
The county has been searching for a developer to transform 17 publicly owned acres that were home to the Brooklyn neighborhood. The area – which includes the shuttered Board of Education building, Marshall Park and the Bob Walton Plaza – was demolished in the 1960s wave of “urban renewal” that swept across Charlotte and many other cities, displacing thousands of African-American residents.
Although the three developers under consideration differ in the details, each would change Second Ward into a mixed-use area with apartments, offices, shops, restaurants and parks. The goal: Turn what’s largely a 9-to-5 area for local government workers into a vibrant community, to be called Brooklyn Village, after the former neighborhood on the site.
But the commissioners differed Thursday in what they hope to see, and expressed skepticism that the developers can actually deliver on their promises. And some wondered about the best way to revive a part of uptown that was home to a community that ceased to exist 50 years ago.
“Are we trying to recapture what we cannot recapture?” Commissioner Vilma Leake asked. “We cannot regenerate all of that history ... We can’t regenerate Brooklyn as it was in the 1950s and ’60s.”
The commission didn’t make a selection Thursday, but decided to hold another meeting and discuss the proposals further.
Each of the development teams is led by a Charlotte-based development company:
Crescent Communities would develop most of the project itself, partnering with an affordable housing developer and a townhouse developer. The other two Charlotte firms would bring in national developers: Conformity Corp., headed by Monte Richey, is teaming with The Peebles Corp., and CitiSculpt, led by Lindsey McAlpine, is teaming with Akridge Invested. Both Peebles and Akridge have developed high-profile projects in larger cities, such as New York and Philadelphia.
County staff ranked the Conformity-led team’s proposal highest and most in line with county’s goals of creating a mixed-use, mixed-income community that would spark economic development.
The developers differ in their approaches. Crescent’s development is less dense and about 80 percent residential, with no hotel rooms and less office and retail, which appealed to some on the commission.
“I have a hard time thinking about a hotel and offices in a community,” said Commissioner Pat Cotham. She said she’s skeptical that developers will be able to fill office space in Second Ward, which is “not a real zippy” area. “I’m really concerned about the amount of office space.”
Dennis LaCaria, the county staff member leading the project, said “live-work-play” mixed-use developments have become more popular, and pointed to cities such as New York, with extremely dense areas packed with offices, shops and apartments.
Commissioner Ella Scarborough made clear that she didn’t think that was an appropriate comparison for Charlotte.
“We are never, ever going to be New York, and stop trying to make us New York,” she said.
Commissioner Jim Puckett said he favored the proposals that include less residential space.
“I tend to like the less residential and more hotel, retail and office,” said Puckett. He also said that the development which emerges will be very different from the old Brooklyn neighborhood, echoing Leake.
“Unless we want to build Disney World where we pretend like everything is the way we want it, we have to accept that the market realities sooner or later, will come to bear,” he said.
Market realities and the county’s parameters also came into conflict with some commissioners’ visions. Cotham said she thinks the proposals should have more park space. The plans would redevelop Marshall Park, and would leave 1.6 acres to 1.9 acres of open space, less than a third of the current park’s size.
“For it to be shrinking just gives me the creeps,” said Cotham.
But Commissioner Bill James countered that mandating more park space would mean less land to develop, which would make the ensuing development more expensive and reduce the amount of housing set aside as affordable.
“The more park you have, the more expensive, the less affordable the stuff around the park becomes,” said James.
Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour questioned who the target demographic for the redevelopment should be.
“I don’t think we should be building this or developing this for millennials,” said Ridenhour, skeptical about the large number of apartments. “I think it’s a little short-sighted to design something like this ... for a generation (millennials) when the project won’t be done for five to 10 years.”
Ridenhour said there are things he likes about each of the proposals: “If only we could meld some of these together, we’d have a great program.”
A mysterious email
Hours before the commissioners met, an anonymous email sent to several of them questioned the credentials of Peebles, which is teaming with Charlotte-based Conformity. The email – from GuerrillaMail.com – listed links to news stories about lawsuits the developer has been involved with.
Commissioners discussed the email at the meeting and said they want more information about Peebles’ business history.
“I think that throws some uncertainty into the mix,” said James.
Don Peebles, head of the company, said his firm is involved in litigation from time to time as most businesses are, but no more than normal.
“We are a multi-billion dollar business,” said Peebles. “It comes with the territory...We’re not in the business of trying to slander or play dirty politics.”
Some of the commissioners suggested asking the developers to revise their plans, but ultimately didn’t do so. Cotham said she is more generally skeptical that the teams’ plans represent what they will actually build.
“I think they’ve given us what they think we want, so we’ll pick (a winner) and then they’ll negotiate what really happens,” said Cotham.