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Leaders hope First Ward Park will draw development, people

After decades of promising to build a new urban village in uptown’s First Ward, developer Daniel Levine and local government leaders broke ground Thursday for the first phase – a park designed as the community’s centerpiece.

The long-delayed park will be built on 4 acres of former surface parking lots between Seventh Street at the ImaginOn children’s library and Ninth Street at UNC Charlotte’s Center City Building. It marks the first step of an ambitious redevelopment plan that aims to turn a nine-block area dominated by parking lots into as much as $1 billion in new offices, shops, residences and hotels.

Levine, who owns the property and will build the public park, said he expects the full development to take 12 to 15 years. He first began assembling the land in the 1980s, but the recession and other delays repeatedly slowed his efforts to create what he once called Charlotte’s version of New York’s Greenwich Village.

“This will be a transformative project for the city of Charlotte,” he said Thursday. “Has it taken a little bit of time to get here today? Yes. Will it be worth it? Yes.”

Ultimately Mecklenburg County will own the park and pay Levine $8 million for its construction once it is complete, County Attorney Marvin Bethune said. The county will swap a parcel it owns across North Brevard Street for the land the park will occupy.

The new park is part of the county-city 2020 vision plan that places a major urban park in each of uptown’s four wards. It is scheduled to open no later than Dec. 31, 2015, based on a recent extension granted Levine by the Charlotte City Council and Mecklenburg County commissioners.

Government and civic leaders hope the park will do for First Ward what Romare Bearden Park and BB&T BallPark have done for Third Ward – lure millions of dollars of new development and fatten the county’s tax base.

With Bearden Park and the 10,000-seat ballpark operating, more than $692 million in new development has sprouted or is set to break ground in Third Ward in a once-desolate uptown section of mostly parking lots and decaying industrial buildings and warehouses.

“We think the park will be a huge catalyst for First Ward,” said Michael Smith, president and CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners. “There are a lot of lessons seen in Third Ward that should hold great promise of what’s possible in First Ward with the building of this park.”

Levine said he feels confident the rebounding economy and two light-rail stations in the neighborhood will make the First Ward project a magnet for development.

Working with other developers, he hopes to put in hotels, 1,500 residential units, 1.5 million square feet of office space, up to 400,000 square feet of retail and up to 400,000 square feet of space for educational, civic or cultural institutions.

Levine said his firm owns about 24 acres, much of it surface parking lots stretching around the UNCC building.

“All these parking lots represent opportunity,” he said. “We didn’t know exactly what this was going to become when we got started back in 1981.

“But I will say our future is coming more into focus every day because the marketplace is voting with their feet. More people want to live uptown, work uptown, shop uptown. That’s why you see so many cranes out and the activity level bustling uptown.”

$1 billion of investment

Historically, First Ward was more industrial than uptown’s other three wards, but it had fine homes lining North Tryon, College and Brevard streets, said historian Dan Morrill.

The areas close to railroad tracks west of the park contained a cotton press, where cotton was pressed into bales, and warehouses. The now-closed Dixie’s Tavern building near the park property on Seventh Street, Morrill said, is a former cotton warehouse.

Soon uptown residents and passing motorists will feel the effect of the construction projects to come. Levine said his company, in partnership with the city, will rebuild parts of Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Brevard streets, and will build a new leg of 10th Street from Brevard to the light-rail line.

His firm is seeking permits for the next stage of construction, a 1,382-space parking deck at 10th and Brevard streets accompanied by a 264-unit apartment building. Under his agreement with the city, 50 of those units will be affordable housing. He said his company hopes to pull permits in November or December and start construction immediately afterward.

An additional 400 parking spaces must be built next to the new park, according to city documents. Levine said that along Seventh Street, the Dixie’s Tavern building will be restored into an eatery, and the William Treloar house – which has in recent years been home to a bail bonds office – will be renovated and turned into a business. Both buildings are local historic landmarks.

Once the massive redevelopment project is complete, Levine Properties would get tax relief of $23.7 million for providing more than 1,300 public parking spaces in the decks, $6.1 million for a portion of the park, and $5 million for roadway and utility improvements, according to city documents.

Public officials have in recent months expressed exasperation that the long-promised redevelopment isn’t further along, five years after the city entered into its public-private partnership with Levine Properties. The City Council in July agreed to a revised proposal that adds up to $2.6 million in penalties if Levine doesn’t finish the decks on time.

Levine stressed that he won’t get that tax relief unless he puts about $700 million in new development on the property tax rolls.

“The risk is on us,” he said.

Citing Charlotte’s growing population and workforce, he said he expects as much as $1 billion in total investment.

A park in every ward

First Ward Park won’t be thematic like Romare Bearden, but it will contain many of the same elements, including: a large lawn for recreation and concerts or drama productions, an interactive water fountain, flower beds and a rain garden. It will be book-ended by ImaginOn and the Levine Museum of the New South roughly to the south, the Dixie’s Tavern building to the west, a planned Levine development and the UNCC building to the north.

UNCC Chancellor Phil Dubois said the university years ago had looked at a piece of Levine-owned property across Ninth Street to enlarge the university presence uptown, but “right now that’s more speculative.” Dubois said state money for construction has dried up in recent years, and he wants to get a science building constructed on the main campus before UNCC pushes for another building uptown.

Yet after light rail is extended to the UNCC campus by summer 2017, Dubois said he intends to send more undergraduates to the Center City Building, dubbed “the stack of books.” The building, he said, has been used primarily for graduate-level programs.

“We’d like to expand our footprint uptown, but it’s a ways off,” Dubois said. “We would like to continue conversations with the Levines over time and hopefully (he) will keep that property open so we could exercise an option.”

The chancellor said he’s pleased that the park will preserve the UNCC building’s unobstructed view of uptown’s skyline. “There won’t be any tall buildings built in between,” he said.

Jim Garges, director of Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation, said the county’s park building won’t stop with First Ward. Fourth Ward Park will likely “be tweaked,” he said.

And Second Ward has Marshall Park, but it is outdated and little-used. A major chunk of that ward is owned by the county, and officials for years have wanted to redevelop it into a mixed-use project that would be called Brooklyn Village, a tribute to the mostly African-American community that was torn down during urban renewal in the late 1960s.

That section now includes government buildings, the county’s 20-year-old aquatic center, the shuttered former Education Center and Marshall Park.

The Brooklyn Village project, placed on hold last year after Charlotte-based Spectrum Properties dropped out, was to include a hotel, affordable housing units and market-rate condos, offices and restaurants. County staffers are conducting a national search for a new developer.

“Parks and public spaces transform neighborhoods,” Garges said. “When you have them, along with all the other development, people say, ‘Wow, I want to live there.’ ”

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