Commissioners not wild about plan to add a park, sculpture to transform part of uptown

Should Charlotte build a park with an iconic sculpture, like the Millennium Park in Chicago?
Should Charlotte build a park with an iconic sculpture, like the Millennium Park in Chicago? Anthony Souffle

Charlotte could get a landmark sculpture and a new uptown park, under a tentative plan proposed Tuesday by county staff for redeveloping aging county-owned buildings and parking lots in partnership with private groups.

But Mecklenburg County commissioners gave the proposal for the Hal Marshall center on North College Street a chilly reception. They said they worried that funding another new park uptown would send the message that rich people get their needs met first, while poorer parts of the city have to wait in line.

“When we have people with lots of money, they get what they want, while people still in the community are still waiting for parks to be developed,” said commissioner George Dunlap. “That causes me great concern. This concept comes up today and the park is expected to open in about three years? That doesn’t sit well with me.”

The Hal Marshall center on North College Street. Google Street View

The park would be partially funded by private donors, county manager Dena Diorio said. Projected costs to develop the park aren’t available yet, Diorio said.

Former Belk CEO Tim Belk has agreed to help lead a fundraising effort that would pay for sculptures and create an endowment for their maintenance, while the county would donate 5 acres of land and fund development costs. The city would pay for associated infrastructure, Diorio said.

“Imagine an iconic public space accessible to all,” said Diorio. The redevelopment, which would cover about 17 acres, would be one of the biggest projects on the northern side of uptown. It’s still in the early stages, Diorio stressed.

“It’s more conceptual than it is full of a lot of details,” she said.

Lee Jones, head of the county’s Parks & Recreation Department, said the new park would spur private development, like the $1 billion-plus of new buildings that have sprung up around Romare Bearden Park and BB&T Ballpark.

“The economic impact of a new park at Hal Marshall would be similar to what we’ve seen in Third Ward,” said Jones.

There would be about 12 acres of county-owned land at the Hal Marshall site left to redevelop with apartments, hotels, shops, restaurants and offices if the county gives 5 acres for a park.

The commissioners were all careful to state that they’re not opposed to the idea of a park and iconic sculpture, and directed staff to keep working with Belk, Foundation for the Carolinas, Charlotte Center City Partners and other groups interested in the project. But county commissioners said they’re skeptical, both because of the proposed park’s proximity to other new parks, especially First Ward Park, and what they said was an imbalance of spending on less affluent areas.

“I’m gonna give you just enough so you won’t talk about it. Just enough to keep you quiet,” commissioner Vilma Leake described the county’s attitude to areas such as the Beatties Ford Road corridor. “Nobody is making any effort to bring anything viable, tangible to that community. ... It still looks the same.”

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Commissioner Jim Puckett said the proposed park is only blocks from First Ward Park.

“It’s really close to the one we just did,” he said. “It’s not an area that’s wanting for green space.”

Commissioner Pat Cotham encouraged the private donors to give more to affordable housing initiatives as well as sculptures, which she said aren’t as pressing a need.

“No one ever comes up to us and says ‘What we need is this,’ “ Cotham said, gesturing at a site plan. “I’m sure it would be glorious. ... This is wonderful that you’re willing to do this, but I’m going to ask you to do more.”

After the meeting, Belk said the group will continue discussions with the county.

“It’s part of the conversation in the community, trying to sort through all the different priorities,” Belk said. “We’re very early in the planning process, and I think there’s a lot more work to do.”

The Hal Marshall Annex sits across from the newly opened Ninth Street Station on the Blue Line extension.

More than half the site is taken up by surface parking, and the building has been used for county offices, a polling place during elections and a meal distribution and social services site for the homeless. The county also owns adjacent sites across College Street, adding more land that could be redeveloped.

Developers, along with the city and county governments, are hoping the area around North Tryon Street will be the next big area to boom, spurred in part by the new light rail and in part by uptown’s continued expansion.

A recently adopted “vision plan” for the area calls for mixed-use developments, such as apartments, shops, restaurants and hotels. Eventually, the plan is for a pedestrian-friendly zone full of shops, restaurants and other appealing features at street level, along with public art and streets that close for festivals and other events.

It would be a sweeping transformation for an area that still has more than its share of asphalt parking lots, government buildings and underused land.

Already, some projects are underway: The Main Library at Sixth and Tryon streets will be replaced, part of a plan to completely redevelop the two blocks between Sixth and Eighth streets along Tryon with hundreds of apartments, office buildings, hotels, shops and restaurants. A block away, Lennar Multifamily is building a high-rise apartment tower, while further south on Tryon Street, InterContinental is building a luxury hotel atop the Carolina Theatre building.

Portillo: 704-358-5041