CHARLOTTE (By Ely Portillo, The Charlotte Observer) Thousands of new homes, a pair of office towers, more restaurants: Can the SouthPark area handle the boom, or does one of Charlotte's most prominent neighborhoods risk bursting at the seams?
That's the question a lot of residents are asking, as a sometimes traffic-choked area prepares to absorb another big influx of residents and businesses.
Developers and leaders say the area can accommodate the growth, but they acknowledge managing congestion could be tricky.
"It's often stated that SouthPark is going to be the next Buckhead," said City Council member Kenny Smith, who represents the district, referring to Atlanta's tony district north of downtown. "I don't know if that's good, bad or indifferent. Eye of the beholder, I guess."
But this much is clear, Smith said: "Everyone expresses concerns about traffic."
Since its beginnings as part of a farm owned by Cameron Morrison – former North Carolina governor and grandfather of developers Johnny Harris and Cameron Harris – SouthPark has been radically transformed into an urban district centered on the largest shopping mall in Charlotte.
"We're all smart enough to know that change is coming, regardless," said Anna Wilder, president of the Barclay Downs Homeowner's Association. "We're just looking for the most responsible change there is."
In addition to growing into a denser residential area with more apartments, SouthPark is also one of the city's main business centers. It has about 4.3 million square feet of office space, less than Ballantyne or uptown but still one of the city's largest office districts. Steelmaker Nucor, Coca-Cola Bottling Co. and National Gypsum Co. all have headquarters along Rexford Road, and Piedmont Natural Gas is on Piedmont Row.
In 1995, about 30,000 people worked in the SouthPark area, compared with 50,000 uptown, according to Observer accounts at the time. Today, both numbers have roughly doubled: The SouthPark area has about 67,000 workers, while uptown has about 100,000, according to estimates by the Charlotte Chamber and Charlotte Center City Partners.
Wilder said she and her neighbors understand the benefits of the coming growth: Rising property values, more retail and restaurants in walking distance. But she wants to see improved, well-lit sidewalks, more pedestrian-friendly connections and design standards to guide the height, density and appearance of development.
At a forum Friday hosted by the Urban Land Institute at the SouthPark Marriott, the area's rapid growth was on everyone's mind. To get there, attendees drove past cranes, construction sites and rezoning notices heralding construction to come.
"These are very exciting and complex projects taking SouthPark to a new level," said Peter A. Pappas, who spearheaded development at Phillips Place and Sharon Square, adjacent mixed-use centers along Fairview Road.
SouthPark has come a long way from its open, agrarian roots in a few decades. Ed McKinney, Charlotte's interim planning director, said upcoming projects will likely continue the pattern of redeveloping older sites.
"We're going from greenfield to infill. We've essentially exhausted the greenfield sites," said McKinney said.
Some fight, citing traffic
The biggest redevelopment plan in the area has already drawn opposition from a highly unusual source: Fellow developers Cameron and Dee-Dee Harris. The Harrises own two retail buildings, housing Rooster's SouthPark, a Walgreens and a food court, next to the aging Colony apartments.
Colony's owner Synco Properties and developer Schlosser Development Corp. have filed rezoning plans that would let them replace the existing apartments with a 300-room hotel and 1,100 apartments and for-sale units, along with offices and retail.
The Harrises joined other property owners in filing a protest petition to block the rezoning. The proposed redevelopment plan would result in a big increase in vehicle trips, and Synco and Schlosser are seeking to connect a road through Adair Court, now a cul-de-sac on the Harris property. Cameron Harris didn't return a call seeking comment.
According to a Charlotte Department of Transportation analysis, the Colony apartment site could generate up to 7,550 vehicle trips a day under its current zoning. That could rise to more than 26,000 under the proposed redevelopment plan, a more than three-fold increase. The plan is up for a public hearing in front of the City Council in July.
A nearby plan from Childress Klein would redevelop a tract that includes Sharon United Methodist Church – known for its modernist, steeply sloping steeple – into a mixed-use site that also could lead to a big increase in car trips. Under its current zoning, the church property could generate up to 1,000 vehicle trips a day – a number that could rise 15-fold under the plans, according to CDOT.
Mixed-use developers hope that by having people live, work, shop and eat in connected developments, rather than in separate places, more car trips will be kept within the developments. That's called "internal capture." Or, if the developments are walkable, people might not have to drive at all.
Such ideas about mixed-use development have become increasingly popular in dense districts such as uptown and South End. But they represent a big shift at SouthPark, a district built around a suburban mall surrounded by acres of parking.
"People who go on the site can do the true live, work and play without getting in a vehicle," Tim Hose, CEO of Synco Properties, said of plans for redeveloping the Colony apartment site.
Plans to address congestion?
Smith said proposed developments offer opportunities to mitigate congestion, not just a guarantee of more traffic. More feeder streets can be connected to main arteries, easing pressure on intersections that have become choke points. Smith pointed to the Sharon United Methodist plans, which would connect Coltsgate Road to Morrison Boulevard.
"You're going to add some more cars to the road, but you'll give folks another way to get through SouthPark," Smith said.
Smith is also trying to get a new area plan started for the neighborhood, which would help plan land use. SouthPark's current area plan is based on data that's nearly two decades old, Smith said.
John W. Harris III, chief operating office of Lincoln Harris, echoed the need for a new plan to guide development, especially as more developers work in SouthPark.
"I think there needs to be a plan," Harris said. "We did have Smoky (Bissell) and dad (Johnny Harris) for the longest time developing this area. There's been a transformation. It's not just them anymore."
Chris Thomas, a partner at Childress Klein, said he expects redevelopment of older sites to continue, especially with many of the office properties that have been around 30 years or more.
"As we approach the age many of these buildings are, I believe we're going to see more of this," Thomas said.
Smith said that even if no one were to develop anything new in SouthPark, the area would still face increased traffic from more people driving through to work in uptown or coming to SouthPark's restaurants and shops.
"Say none of the development happens in SouthPark and it happens farther south. You're still going to have these people coming through," Smith said.
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