Charlotte envisions development boom around airport

elyportillo@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 26, 2014 

Charlotte officials are drawing up plans and talking with developers about what they hope will be the city’s next boom, one they envision transforming thousands of acres near the airport into offices, warehouses, factories and homes.

The plan is still in the early stages, but it could be the biggest growth spurt on the city’s perimeter since developers built Ballantyne from 2,000 acres of fields in southern Mecklenburg County more than a decade ago.

Jack Christine, interim deputy aviation director, is chairman of a new working group of city staffers crafting plans meant to guide the development. They’re focusing on areas directly south of Charlotte Douglas International – where the airport owns hundreds of acres and is buying more – and land to the west, between Interstate 485 and the Catawba River, known as Dixie Berryhill.

“There’s about 5,000 acres between 485 and the river. There’s another 1,500 south of the airport,” Christine said. “All of that acreage is in play.”

The city hopes building water lines, sewers and roads in the area will spur development. Combined with growth at the airport, especially the new Norfolk Southern rail freight yard, officials believe they have the nucleus of a new “edge city,” a major development on Charlotte’s fringes.

This year, the city plans to begin the process of widening Dixie River Road and lengthening Garrison Road – both in Dixie Berryhill – for almost $45 million. Those are part of the city’s $816 million capital improvement plan, paid for with a 7.25 percent property tax increase.

But the area still needs water and sewer systems, as well as more roads, electrical lines and other utilities, Christine said. The development plan won’t be finished for nine months to a year, and after that, it will take years more for growth to materialize.

“This is a long-term deal,” Christine said.

Developing the land is a continuation of the city’s 1997 area plan for the airport, which called for a third parallel runway, completing the western leg of I-485 and building a rail yard – all of which have come to pass.

“We’ve had preliminary conversations with a lot of developers,” Christine said. “I don’t think there’s been a whole lot of commitment yet from the developer side, but everyone’s looking.”

The airport plans to hire a development manager to oversee its designs for the surrounding areas and connect with private developers in coming months.

Call from a developer

Wayne Cooper, who owns 80 acres west of I-485, said developer Johnny Harris called him about six months ago to sound him out about a possible future project.

Cooper is one of many individual landholders who own much of the acreage west of the airport. The largest single landowner is Crescent Communities, which has developed mixed-use, residential and commercial properties throughout the Southeast. The Charlotte-based company owns almost 950 acres in Dixie Berryhill, most of it forested.

“Johnny told me that he had Crescent … on board for his development,” Cooper said. The development, Cooper said Harris told him, would stretch to the river. He hasn’t heard back from Harris since the preliminary call.

Harris told the Observer last year that he once considered developing a Charlotte-area complex similar to Crystal City, a collection of apartment buildings, hotels, offices and shops next to Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va. But he shelved those plans when the recession hit.

Jubal Early, a senior vice president at Harris’ development company, Lincoln Harris, said the firm has talked with landowners in the area, but no specific plans have been formed.

“Have we talked with landowners on that side of town? Sure, we have. However, we are not currently under contract on any land in the immediate airport vicinity, nor have we entered into partnership agreements with Crescent or any other large landowner in that area,” Early said. “It is, however, an intriguing area.”

Crescent Communities said it also doesn’t have specific plans, but is looking.

“Crescent Communities doesn’t have any definitive plans to share but is continually exploring opportunities for land it owns,” Crescent officials said in a written statement. “Crescent’s land near the Charlotte Douglas International Airport is a significant piece of property, and we continue to talk with other businesses and community partners to build out a vision and strategy for this area.”

Ron Carlee, who became Charlotte city manager in April, said he was at first skeptical when he read in the Observer about development possibilities west of the airport – until he spoke with developers.

“I met with the Lincoln Harris people,” he said. “I said, ‘I’m hearing these rumors. Johnny, what are you doing?’ 

He learned the buzz was real. “They have a lot of interest there in the Crystal City-type thing.”

Crystal City, and the idea of development near a major airport, is something Carlee knows well: He worked in Arlington County government for decades and was the county’s manager. He helped draw up long-range plans for developing Crystal City.

How fast the land around Charlotte’s airport gets developed will depend in large part on the market and what private developers want to do, Carlee said. He sees the possibility for industrial-centered development closer to the airport, and more residential development closer to the river. Most airplanes’ flight paths take them north or south of Charlotte Douglas, not west over Dixie Berryhill.

Part of the reason Carlee thinks the area is ready for development now is growth at Charlotte Douglas. City officials point to the area’s location, at the nexus of an airport, major highways and a rail cargo yard. They hope to entice manufacturers who will build and ship goods from the area, as well as warehouses, distributors and shippers. Along with that, they envision offices tied to the industrial buildings and homes nearby.

“I think we could see a lot of activity in the next three years. The key is you’ve got to be ready,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to get teed up at the airport.”

Final frontier

The land around Charlotte Douglas is, in many ways, the county’s last open frontier. Less than 10 miles from uptown, it is still largely undeveloped, with forested hills, lakes and widely spaced homes on multiacre tracts.

“As close as it is to the city, it definitely has a much more rural, vacant feel to it,” Christine said.

That, he said, is an advantage when it comes to development – a company could pull together tracts totaling thousands of acres.

“Land in Mecklenburg County isn’t exactly plentiful,” Christine said. “This really is the last area in Mecklenburg County that hasn’t been fully developed.”

Charlotte Douglas is having an even more direct impact on land directly south. The airport is about halfway finished buying a 370-acre neighborhood from West Boulevard to Steele Creek Road. Christine said the plan is to clear the land and build warehouses and other shipping-centered buildings there. The airport will lease those to private companies, he said.

The scope of the city’s ambition can be seen in its pitch for Boeing’s 777X plant, a massive economic-development project that Charlotte sought last year. Although the city didn’t win the project, it proposed using 400 acres southeast of the airport to build Boeing a factory. The airport owns much of the land – and was ready to buy the 100 acres it didn’t own.

The airport’s influence is also on display to the north. On Wilkinson Boulevard at Barry Drive, what used to be the Moore’s Park neighborhood is now a gravel parking lot, after Charlotte Douglas bought and demolished dozens of homes. The former neighborhood will soon become Charlotte Douglas’ new rental car maintenance facility.

‘It’s coming’

West of the airport, some community members worry about the impact of development.

Sue Friday lives on 30 acres off Dixie River Road. The city’s planned road projects will cut through some of her land, and she said her lake is being polluted by silt from other property owners upstream cutting down trees.

The city and county have made pronouncements about developing her area before, Friday said. In 2003, she took part in developing an area plan that called for more infrastructure and mixed-use developments west of the airport.

“It has gone nowhere,” Friday said. “It didn’t bring anything.”

In the long run, though, she said she is sure the land will be built on – because so little undeveloped land is left in Mecklenburg.

“I know this area will develop. I hope it develops in a way that protects people who choose to stay,” she said.

Christine is telling people to be prepared for the growth.

“It’s coming,” he said. “It’s definitely coming.”

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo

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