Redeveloping the area’s textile mills can come with snags

By: Sam Boykin//June 3, 2011//

Redeveloping the area’s textile mills can come with snags

By: Sam Boykin//June 3, 2011//

Listen to this article
Charlotte-based Crosland in 2007 finished a $23 million rehabilitation of Alpha Cotton Mill, built in 1889, converting the site north of uptown into an apartment complex. The developer worked with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission to have the project listed as a local historic landmark. Photo by Sam Boykin

The Charlotte area could soon see two more historic textile mills undergo a facelift and go from vacant to back in use.

Plans are under way to restore and renovate Mecklenburg and Johnston Mills, NoDa properties that have been eyesores for years.

In April, after a bidding war that lasted more than two months, the City Council OK’d the sale of the mills just north of uptown to The Community Builders, which bid $1.24 million for the properties.

Washington, D.C.-based TCB plans to turn the mills into work force housing. But before the developer can close on the sale, it must first submit an environmental report to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said TCB Vice President Rob Fossi. That would allow the project to use $4.7 million from a HUD neighborhood stabilization program.

It’s just one step in what developers say can sometimes be a frustrating process to redevelop mills in Charlotte, one of many Southern cities where the textile industry defined the economy then faded away, leaving behind hulking, vacant mills.

At one time there were 15 textile mills in Mecklenburg County, according to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. Some have been razed, about 10 have been renovated and some still sit empty.

While TCB gears up to tackle its two mills, developers who have renovated mills in the Charlotte area say the process — from dealing with the federal government to the painstaking task of retaining historic architectural features — was complicated.

In 2007, Charlotte-based Crosland finished a $23 million renovation of the Alpha Mill, a 167-apartment complex between uptown and NoDa.

Jud Little, who at the time was Crosland’s residential division president, called the project complex. For one, the company had to take extra steps to retain the building’s details, including 12-foot windows and 14-inch diameter wooden beams, Little said.

Crosland was also building new apartments next to the mill as part of the overall complex, so emphasis had to be placed on the scale and design of the new apartments to make sure they didn’t detract from the historic character of the mill, Little said.

Although the process of getting the project listed as a local historic landmark with the CMHLC went relatively smoothly, the project hit a snag when Crosland submitted plans to the National Park Service to have Alpha Mill listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It was like we fell into a black hole,” Little said.

Crosland wasn’t interested in going ahead with the project unless it could qualify for the federal and state income tax credits that come with being listed on the National Register, he said. But as the project moved forward and deadlines loomed, the company wasn’t getting any response from the National Park Service, he said.

“The most maddening thing was we were at critical point of final approval,” he said. “And we couldn’t get any communication as to where we stood, and we were under a time crunch. That was a white-knuckle time. But in the end we got everything approved just in time.”

Because Johnston and Mecklenburg mills, built in the late 1800s, have been designated as local historic landmarks, TCB also has to go through a design review process with the CMHLC, said Dan Morrill, the CMHLC’s director.

Fossi said that once his company gets approval from HUD on the environmental report, the company will submit its plans to the CMHLC for review. He hopes to start infrastructure work at the site in a few months.

TCB has renovated historic mills before, so it’s familiar with the hurdles and regulations that come with such a project, Fossi said.

“There are certainly challenges,” he said. “But the reason why the NoDa mills qualify for tax credits is because they’re an important historic structure, so we certainly understand the expectations that accompany that in terms of maintaining its integrity.”

Federal standards apply

The CMHLC uses the U.S. Department of the Interior’s standards for rehabilitation to determine whether a planned renovation is appropriate, Morrill said.

Those regulations require developers who are renovating a historic structure to not damage or destroy materials or features that help define a building’s historic character, he said.

“If you’re going to remove or alter existing historic materials or structures in a building, we have to be given a real good reason as to why,” he said. “But we realize the only way these buildings will survive is if they meet a contemporary economic use. We’re not an impediment to development.”

In addition to preserving a historic structure, Morrill said another benefit of having a property designated a local historic landmark is that the owner can apply for a 50 percent reduction in local property taxes.

“The justification for that (tax reduction) is that the owner is using their own money to preserve and maintain something that has special historic significance and contributes to the public good, so they deserve that special consideration,” he said.

There’s also a preservation program through the National Park Service in which a property owner can apply to have their property listed on the National Register, Morrill said. The designation provides a 20 percent federal income tax credit and a 20 percent state income tax credit for an approved rehabilitation of an income-producing property, such as condominiums.

Tax breaks not worth the hassle

But not all developers think the tax breaks are worth going through the hoops to get the historic designation.

In the late 1990s, Tony Pressley, president of Meca Real Estate Services in Charlotte, rehabilitated the Nebel Knitting Mill, built in 1929, and turned it into the Design Center of the Carolinas, a mixed-use complex with a courtyard in South End. Pressley also redeveloped the Atherton Cotton Mill, built in 1893 in south Charlotte. It’s now a 13-acre complex with shops, restaurants and residential condominiums.

“I learned early in my career not to participate in those (historic designation) programs,” Pressley said. “There’s great limitations and restrictions. The adaptive reuse of older properties is a very difficult and challenging process to begin with.

“I know the intent of the Historic Landmarks Commission and the National Register program is to try to preserve character, but their specific goals and objectives can sometimes run contrary with function and use.”

At Atherton Mill, Pressley was dealing with a space that was 498 feet long and 78 feet wide, according to the CMHLC. The space was intended to accommodate large, heavy-duty machines and equipment, and the building didn’t lend itself to contemporary, partitioned workspaces, Pressley said.

Other unique, though challenging, design features were the building’s many tall, recessed arch windows, which were used for ventilation because the mill had no air conditioning. Pressley also had to redo the building’s antiquated plumbing and electrical systems.

“Basically we tore everything down to the ceiling, floors and walls and started over,” he said.

Although Pressley didn’t renovate Atherton Mill or the Design Center of the Carolinas under the CMHLC’s guidelines, he said preserving mills like the ones in SouthEnd is important for the city.

Tom Hanchett, staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, calls the textile industry that the mills served “the single most important thing that turned this little backwater village into the biggest city in the Carolinas.

“Charlotte often doesn’t pay a lot of attention to its history, but we’ve been fortunate that some farsighted people have found reuses for many of the early textile mills,” he said.

Sam Boykin can be reached at [email protected].

Latest News

See All Latest News


See All Features


Will the Trump Organization ever go through with a purchase of The Point Lake and Golf Club in Mooresville?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...