Steele Creek residents press for N.C. 160 widening

jmarks@lakewyliepilot.comMarch 5, 2013 

— In his quarter century in Steele Creek, including many as president of the Steele Creek Resident Association, Karl Froelich couldn’t recall having passed a single resolution on behalf of the group. Those who remained from about 200 members and guests late Thursday night made it easy on him.

The association unanimously voted at its annual meeting last week to send a resolution to local and state road officials calling for N.C. 160 widening to receive a higher priority listing.

“That’s why we’re all here,” Froelich told officials there Thursday. “When will it occur?”

Residents called N.C. 160 “accidents galore” and a place where they “can’t even get out in the morning.” They talked about problems with 18-wheelers and logjams in the evenings. They even asked what tax funding solutions there may be, and if anything could be done before major additions come on either end of their highway in RiverGate expansion and Charlotte Premium Outlets.

“There’s no bigger priority on my list,” said N.C. Rep. Charles Jeter, who serves Dist. 92. “It’s the biggest problem in my district.”

Jeter said the once-rural highway was not designed for its current traffic load.

“Money is always the problem,” said Bob Cook, secretary with the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Cook’s organization covers about 250 to 275 potential road improvement projects in four counties. The group develops seven-year and 20-year plans, the most recent long-range plan coming in 2010. That plan put N.C. 160 “kind of in the middle,” Cook said, despite “clearly” being one of the area’s biggest problem areas.

A new ranking process is being developed and could be ready for as early as next month, with presentation to the city by the summer. Those rankings would weight road use, safety, access to employment and other factors heavier, including a higher score for areas of high congestion.

“That might be one of the reasons Highway 160 didn’t rank as high last time,” Cook said.

Even if the highway shoots up the rankings, it’s unlikely anything will be done by the time RiverGate expands and the outlet project gets under way. Of the 250 or more potential projects, 80 or less move into the second tier of long-range planning and only 30 to 50 actually receive funding. Even 50 would be “very optimistic,” Cook said.

Projects making the final cut still won’t see immediate action. The next long-range plan will run through 2040.

“I don’t mean to disappoint anyone, but I do want to bring some reality to it,” Cook said. “We have a huge gap between the resources we have and the needs that are out there.”

County Commissioner Dumont Clarke doesn’t directly represent Steele Creek, but he does sit on the committee led by Cook. Clarke encouraged residents to contact his group, but said more may be done by contacting Raleigh legislators.

“It is a function of state money that’s ultimately going to make the difference,” he said.

Scott Cole with the state Department of Transportation said there have been small, “spot safety” improvements made locally like traffic light installations, but nothing on the scale of what residents asked for Thursday. He also said the majority of road improvements with the outlets near I-485 will be between the project and that interchange, rather than Highway 160 farther south.

Developing

Apart from the traffic, residents largely support the outlet coming and RiverGate expansion. Charlotte Premium Outlets will bring at least 900 jobs, high-end retailers, sit-down restaurants and a hotel at the more than 80 acres when it opens next year. The open air facility will include up to 400,000 square feet of space and will draw national retailers that RiverGate or other Steele Creek properties couldn’t.

“Those sites are not regional enough,” said Chris Thomas with developer Childress-Klein Properties.

Thomas is working with both the outlet plan and RiverGate expansion, and said architectural elements will be the same as what’s in RiverGate. He expects a job fair at the outlets.

Peter Pappas with Pappas Properties said the outlets will be “complementary” to and “very helpful” for 1,125 Berewick Homes beside it. Pappas is planning a retail phase of Berewick to include offices, banks, restaurants, apartments or similar uses along Dixie River Road. Groundbreaking should occur in nine months.

Pappas announced Thursday a Harris Teeter would anchor a 25-acre first phase opening in 2014 or the next year, with 30 more acres in phase two.

“We want those services available to those who live in this general area,” Pappas said.

The Matthews, N.C.-based grocer did, however, confirm last month it is exploring a sale of the company. According to The Charlotte Observer, analysts and industry watchers speculated that a private equity fund or rival grocer could buy some or all of the company.

RiverGate should break ground on its expansion this spring or early summer. There are 22 acres for retail and 11 more for office space or similar uses. Thomas said there will be more than $2 million in road improvements associated with the expansion, including a second turn lane into RiverGate at Chick-fil-A and McDonald’s.

Stores interested in joining the expansion include national stores in home fashions, arts and crafts and cosmetics, Thomas said.

“It always has been, and is today, one of the strongest communities in Mecklenburg County,” Thomas said of Steele Creek.

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