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A greener way: Charlotte developer plans 1,400-acre community around urban farm and parks

The 1,400-acre River District is coming to west Charlotte, developing the stretch of land between Charlotte Douglas airport and Catawba River.
Crescent Communities
The 1,400-acre River District is coming to west Charlotte, developing the stretch of land between Charlotte Douglas airport and Catawba River.

This story first appeared in WFAE's Climate News newsletter. You can sign up here.

Charlotte is growing rapidly, putting the city’s tree canopy at risk and adding more acres of impervious surface every year. To maintain the current canopy, the city would need to plant 31,000 trees per year just to offset tree loss.

I recently spoke to one of the city’s biggest developers. Crescent Communities has set lofty sustainability goals for its new mixed-use community, The River District — one of the biggest planned developments in the city since Ballantyne. With a community plan budgeting 40% of its land for open space and greenways, I wanted to know if this developer could walk the green walk.

Crescent Communities formerly managed lands owned by Duke Energy, including land purchased decades ago for the Catawba-Wateree Hydroelectric Project. The real estate developer split from Duke in 2006. Now, it’s building the 1,400-acre River District in west Charlotte on much of that same land.

Lisa Phocas, Crescent Communities’ director of stewardship, stressed the developer isn’t planning on clear-cutting and paving over much of the land, most of which is wooded and ribbed with ravines and creeks.

“It’s not 1,400 acres of developed land, 550 acres are going to be undisturbed,” Phocas said.

The current plan includes contiguous natural areas ranging in size from 50 to more than 100 acres, which benefits some native species that require large, unbroken tracts of land to live, such as salamanders.

‘Incredible place’ for whom?

Rainer Ficken, The River District’s senior managing director, said the developers are trying to work with the land where they can. The hills and streams, along with The River District’s position west of Charlotte Douglas airport, have kept the land surprisingly rural and undeveloped.

Ficken said Crescent Communities is aiming to make The River District walkable — lowering residents’ need to drive everywhere. The master-planned community is zoned as mixed-use residential, so, unlike a traditional subdivision, there will be commercial areas and other “conveniences” sprinkled in — such as parks, shopping centers and other amenities.

“We’re going to have a two-acre working farm,” Ficken said.

Not a community garden — though there may be some of that — but a farm staffed by a farmer who lives, works and sells produce in the community. But where do all these environmental features fit into the economics of real estate?

Crescent Communities plans to include a two-acre urban farm as one of the central features of The River District.
Crescent Communities
Crescent Communities plans to include a two-acre urban farm as one of the central features of The River District.

“It’s always a balancing act,” said Ficken. “You want to create what we always refer to as ‘incredible place’ for the residents and the people that visit The River District.” 

You might say all of Charlotte’s growth is a balancing act, balancing the need for more housing against the need for open space and tree canopy. Any individual development creates a suite of environmental impacts. Developers cut down trees. Roads slice up animals’ range. Stormwater runoff and sediment are some of the biggest sources of pollution.

Even though The River District is leaving 550 acres undisturbed, they’re still clearing and building on the other 850.

And building close to a river only magnifies these impacts.

Brandon Jones, the Catawba Riverkeeper, said the nonprofit conducted water sampling at the invitation of Catawba Land Conservancy, which has been working closely with Crescent Communities. That should help them paint a before-and-after picture of the development’s effects.

“That way they could say definitively, ‘Our development has impacted or hasn’t impacted these streams,’” said Jones. “And they look for opportunities to actually enhance the water quality in certain areas.”

The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation conducted water sampling along the stretch of the Catawba River where Crescent Communities is developing.
Crescent Communities
The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation conducted water sampling along the stretch of the Catawba River where Crescent Communities is developing.

Jones described two ways the foundation measured water quality. His team took water samples to measure temperature, conductivity and dissolved oxygen, like taking the pulse of the water.

They also looked for benthic macroinvertebrates, basically water bugs you can see without a microscope.

“Things like stoneflies, caddisflies, mayflies — those are the big three that are very sensitive,” Jones said.

The foundation suggested options to improve water quality, including increased riparian buffers and tree plantings, but ultimately, it’s up to the developer to follow through.

“We’re hoping this all goes really well, but at the end of the day, our job is to protect water quality,” said Jones. “Oftentimes, development is detrimental to that.”

Jones also listed some less altruistic reasons to be optimistic. Thanks to green space, the homes will sell for more; people will be drawn to the outdoor recreation areas, such as paddle accesses; and the resale value will be higher.

Crescent Communities will begin work on multifamily homes this summer. Single-family homes are expected to open next spring.

Zachary Turner is a climate reporter and author of the WFAE Climate News newsletter. He freelanced for radio and digital print, reporting on environmental issues in North Carolina.