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Enormous Development Planned Between Airport and Catawba River

Two Charlotte development companies unveiled a plan Tuesday to transform a large swath of mostly wooded land between the city’s airport and the Catawba River into thousands of homes, a major office district, shops, hotels, parks and a waterfront – a plan comparable in scale to Ballantyne.

The plan by Crescent Communities and Lincoln Harris would usher sweeping changes into an area that has so far remained largely untouched by Charlotte’s development boom. Despite its proximity to uptown and rapidly growing Charlotte Douglas International Airport, the Dixie-Berryhill area, as it’s known, feels a world away and largely rural. Most flight paths don’t cross over the site, so even the nearby airport seems farther away.

In that way, the proposal is similar to other iconic Charlotte developments such as SouthPark and Ballantyne, which transformed thousands of rural acres into thriving office, shopping and residential districts within a generation or two, said Johno Harris, president of Lincoln Harris.

“This is sort of an inevitable place for it to occur,” Harris said. “There’s plenty of pictures of SouthPark with the cows still out there. There’s plenty of pictures with the farmland at Ballantyne too. This is the evolution of how Charlotte has grown and how it’s expanded.”

As proposed, the new development would be roughly comparable to the original Ballantyne plan put forth by Johnny Harris in 1991 to transform farms and fields in southwest Charlotte. The west Charlotte development is on a smaller acreage and would include twice as much office space as Ballantyne initially did.

The “River District,” as it is tentatively called, would be among the largest developments ever planned in Charlotte, with a vision that calls for a mix of uses. Here’s a breakdown of what it would include:

▪ 4,000 residences.

▪ 500,000 square feet of shops, restaurants and other retail.

▪ 8 million square feet of office space.

▪ Hotels and hundreds of acres of green space and parks. About 40 percent of the total 1,300 acres – 520 acres – will be preserved as open space, and there will be a public waterfront for people to enjoy the river.

Brian Leary, president of Crescent’s mixed-use division, emphasized that building the full development will take decades, and that it won’t be a single, monolithic project.

“We’ve started a process,” Leary said. “We understand it will take some time.”

Crescent and Lincoln Harris have filed a rezoning petition with the city of Charlotte, a necessary first step before plans are approved. Charlotte City Council will likely hold a hearing on the proposal this fall. The project could face concerns over water quality and how the development will impact the Catawba River. The developers will also be required to hold public hearings with neighbors and other community members, and will work with city planning staff to review the proposal before it’s presented to City Council for a vote.

Crescent, which began as an offshoot created to manage Duke Power’s tens of thousands of riverfront acres, owns the majority of the land, nearly 1,000 acres. The rest is under contract or controlled by the companies. Crescent initially rose to prominence as more than a land-management company by developing upscale subdivisions on its riverfront land, such as The Sanctuary on Lake Wylie.

Both Lincoln Harris and Crescent have already reshaped large expanses of Charlotte. Besides Ballantyne, Johnny Harris and his family developed much of the SouthPark area, which was originally part of Gov. Cameron Morrison’s rural estate. Morrison was grandfather to Johnny Harris and his brother Cameron Harris. The two companies teamed up to develop Piedmont Town Center, a mixed-use development with offices, residences and restaurants on Fairview Road.

Long in the making

The two firms have been eying the area sandwiched between the airport and the river for years.

“It actually started off in our land management group as timberland, not developable land,” Leary said. “Being around one of the largest- and fastest-growing regions in the country, it got a lot more attractive … We’ve had this land, we’re a business. This is an asset, we want to put it into production.”

Johno Harris said the growth of the airport, the completion of Interstate 485 and proximity to the river make the site attractive. Airplane noise isn’t expected to be a problem: Despite 700 flights a day at Charlotte Douglas, the runways’ north-south orientation means arriving and departing planes don’t pass over the land west of the airport.

“Lincoln Harris has been looking at this land for a long time,” Harris said.

Wayne Cooper owns about 80 acres west of the airport, land he first bought in 1976, and his property will be included in the new development. He said he’s been talking with Johnny Harris about the site’s potential for more than a decade.

“I always thought Charlotte would move in this direction,” Cooper said. “Charlotte can only go so far south and east.”

Elsewhere in Charlotte, Lincoln Harris and Crescent already have a full slate of major projects underway. Lincoln Harris is building a 193-acre mixed-use center on a former golf course near Providence Road and I-485, a 10-story office tower in SouthPark, a 360-acre mixed-use development in Fort Mill, S.C., and is under contract to buy The Charlotte Observer site.

Crescent is building a Whole Foods, apartments and a hotel uptown on Stonewall Streetand hundreds of apartments in NoDa, and it’s planning a mixed-use development near Providence Road and I-485. The company is planning to build a new office tower, hotel and retail complex at Stonewall and South Tryon streets as well.

Challenges remain

There are challenges to building on the land west of Charlotte Douglas. The area is rough, crisscrossed by many streams and uneven topography. Sewer and other utilities need to be extended. And without a strong existing base of residents, the companies will be looking to lure people to an area of Charlotte not associated with a thriving retail, residential and office district.

But Leary and Harris said they view those as obstacles they can overcome, and even benefit from. Leary said the plan to preserve 40 percent of the acreage as open space will allow the companies to meet environmental standards, protect sensitive streams and slopes from erosion and enhance the project’s appeal to residents.

“We have an opportunity to have a foundation of sustainability around the water concept,” Leary said. “The slope, and the topography and the creeks really gives us an opportunity to celebrate that, protect it and make it an asset, as much as previously over the last say 40 to 50 years it might have been seen as an obstacle. We see it as an asset.”

Tracy Dodson, Lincoln Harris vice president of brokerage and development, said bringing the whole development before City Council for a rezoning at one time allows a greater chance to develop the land with a comprehensive plan.

“Doing it piecemeal will not give us that unique opportunity we’re trying to create,” Dodson said.

Leary said he expects the project’s size and location will make it attractive to investors.

“I was talking to an investor. I said, ‘You’re in New York. This comes across your desk: Over 1,000 acres, next to the seventh-busiest airport, on the beltway of one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States and along a fantastic river. Do you turn the page?” Leary said. “He said, ‘Yeah.’”

Harris said that even though the area will take decades to develop, it’s important to the firms to get the process started as soon as possible.

“We want to make sure we can get there as soon as we can. If you don’t, you’re going to miss the next opportunity,” Harris said.