How do you add shops, office space and apartments in an already densely developed downtown without ruining its small-town feel?
A team from the UNC School of Government in Chapel Hill thinks it has the answer for Davidson.
A conceptual plan by the UNC experts would add nearly 280,000 square feet of retail, office and residential space on a 3.5-acre, town-owned tract now anchored by Town Hall and the attached Davidson fire and police stations.
The so-called Catalyst Project is a partnership between the town and the School of Government designed to meet pent-up demand for downtown building space and parking without threatening the village-like appeal of Mecklenburg County’s northernmost municipality.
“The idea is to create a (development) program that we think the market can support,” Rory Dowling, a project manager with the School of Government, said Wednesday after a public presentation of a conceptual plan at Town Hall.
Dowling and other School of Government staffers answered questions and listened to suggestions during a pair of two-hour sessions Wednesday. That kind of public input is crucial to the process, he added.
“We’ll go back to the site plan and tweak it based on what we heard,” Dowling said.
For now, that site plan includes four structures ranging from three to four stories in height (some with first-floor, under-building parking) that would include up to a total 166,000 square feet of multi-family residential, 70,500 square feet of office and 26,500 square feet of retail space. The conceptual plan also includes as many as 600 parking places.
Town officials sought the help of the School of Government because they see the Town Hall site and the land around it as an area of enormous untapped potential. It’s that same potential, and the likelihood of finding developers to fund and carry out the project, that drew the School of Government to Davidson.
But buildings and parking aren’t the project’s only goals. A key element is transforming the Catalyst site into a focal point of downtown and, in the process, pulling the “center” of downtown southward while also creating an effective link that would make South Main Street feel like a part of a downtown historically defined by North Main Street.
“They’ve always felt like the step-child,” Davidson Economic Development Manager Kim Fleming said of the businesses between Town Hall and the Cornelius line. “The Catalyst Project would create more critical mass that will help connect North and South Main.”
Citizens at one of the public sessions expressed concerns about the size and design of the buildings as they were depicted in table-top models and artist renderings, and whether the new construction would blend with the older, smaller structures that line the west side of North Main Street, facing the Davidson College campus on the west side.
“We haven’t begun the architectural design part of the process,” Dowling said, adding that the depictions were just one example of how the buildings could look.
Davidson Commissioner Brian Jenest also tried to reassure the audience. “We own the land,” he said. “That gives us a little more control.”
Whether Town Hall remains on that land is a key decision to be made in the process. Jenest asked the audience whether the quarter-century-old, 20,000-square-foot building should stay or go. About four times as many hands went up at the suggestion it be razed.
Fire Station No. 1, which currently is attached to Town Hall, is likely to stay on the Catalyst site in one form or another. Jenest noted that the station needs to be downtown to ensure a quick response in the most densely developed and populated area of Davidson.
“Finding land we control in this part of town is a challenge,” Jenest explained.
Dowling said he hoped to start approaching developers in August or September, with construction beginning on the Catalyst site sometime next year.
John Deem is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for John? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.