Already skeptical of SouthPark Mall, a big, new complex built in the middle of pastureland, residents weren’t happy when they learned that Charlotte developer Johnny Harris planned to build offices and retail shops around it.
It was the early 1970s, and Harris, then a partner at The Bissell Cos., said his family had sold the 100 acres on which the mall was built to the Belk and Ivey families, who owned and operated the mall.
At the time, SouthPark was not the bustling urban area it is today. Still, Harris believed the new mall and the land around it were going to be pivotal in the area’s growth.
But his plans were facing opposition from residents in surrounding communities, such as Barclay Downs, who didn’t want offices and retail developments encroaching on their tony neighborhoods.
That’s when he sought out Bailey Patrick, who had a reputation as the go-to lawyer in Charlotte when it came to big, complicated and potentially volatile real estate developments.
Harris hoped Patrick would be able to get the zoning for his proposed project changed from residential to office and retail.
After a lot of back and forth, most residents begrudgingly OK’d the development, Patrick said. But they demanded a then-unheard-of 1,000-foot buffer between their neighborhoods and new offices and retail stores. A majority of the City Council wanted the same thing.
“This was new to Mr. Harris,” Patrick said. “But it was pretty obvious to me that if we didn’t give that 1,000 feet we weren’t going to win.”
Patrick found himself not only having to use his persuasive powers on city and neighborhood officials but also on Harris, who had to be convinced to agree to the buffer.
Harris, now CEO of Charlotte-based real estate company Lincoln Harris, said the zoning changes, approved in 1974, paved the way for him to build Specialty Shops on the Park on Morrison Boulevard, along with some office complexes.
For Patrick, it was his first big case and, he said, one of his toughest.
“I lost a lot of sleep over that one,” he said.
Since then, Patrick, who will turn 76 in August, has helped smooth over some of Charlotte’s most prominent real estate deals, from Harris’ SouthPark project to Ballantyne Corporate Park.
“He knows the city’s zoning ordinances backwards and forwards,” said Bill Nicholls, Queens University’s vice president for campus planning and services. “Plus, he knows all the big players in town. He’s been doing it so long he’s kind of like the godfather of Charlotte zoning.”
The son of a Hickory lawyer, Patrick arrived in Charlotte in 1960 fresh out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s law school and ready to launch his career as an attorney.
He worked for a few years at Kennedy Covington Lobdell & Hickman in Charlotte then accepted an offer in 1964 from attorney Whiteford Blakeney, who ran a small Charlotte law firm that represented corporate management in disputes with labor unions.
After running a solo practice, Patrick helped form Perry, Patrick, Farmer and Michaux in 1974. In 2000, the firm merged with Kennedy Covington Lobdell & Hickman. In 2008, Pittsburgh-based K&L Gates, one the biggest law firms in Charlotte, acquired it.
The company occupies the top seven floors of the 47-story Hearst Tower, Charlotte’s second-tallest building. Patrick’s office is on the 43rd floor and is cluttered with papers, case files and zoning records crammed into bookshelves and stacked in piles on his desk and the floor, competing for space with dozens of family photos; he and his wife of 55 years have three kids and nine grandchildren.
On the wall next to his desk is one of his most prized possessions: a memento from Pine Valley Golf Club in Wilmington commemorating when he hit a hole-in-one in 1986.
“When I first moved here Charlotte was just a sleepy little town,” he said. “It used to be that when I left the office at night there was nothing happening. Now everything is happening.”
When Queens University was looking for legal counsel to help it navigate rezoning issues for its ongoing campus expansion, it turned to Patrick.
Nichols said that prior to the university breaking ground in May, Patrick helped develop a new master plan for the campus, making sure it complied with zoning requirements, and assisted the university in presenting its plans to the city’s planning commission, residents and homeowners associations.
“I was really impressed with his knowledge,” Nicholls said.
Harris would later go to Patrick for help with developing land that would become Ballantyne Corporate Park. In the early 1990s, Harris formed his own company, Harris Group, after leaving Bissell Cos.
Patrick helped him get the zoning changed to develop an office park on farmland. Once the zoning was changed, Harris sold about 400 acres to Smoky Bissell, founder of Bissell Cos., who then developed Ballantyne Corporate Park, which covers 525 acres and has more than 3 million square feet of office space.
Patrick has also helped with zoning on such SouthPark developments as Piedmont Town Center and Morrocroft Village Shopping, as well as the Wall Street Capital office building on Sharon Road, Bissell said.
John Culbertson, managing partner for Cardinal Real Estate Partners in Charlotte, points to another major deal in which Patrick played a pivotal role. When the Charlotte Bobcats moved in 2005 to a new uptown arena, the team left the outdated Charlotte Coliseum on Tyvola Road without an anchor.
Atlanta-based development firm Pope & Land Enterprises bought the coliseum in 2006, a deal that Culbertson brokered. Patrick helped Pope get zoning approvals to build a mixed-use project on the 2,000-acre site, Culbertson said.
Although the project has stalled because of the recession, Culbertson said Pope hopes to break ground on townhomes in the next year or so.
“This was a really complicated deal, and Bailey is good at handling that,” he said.
But sometimes, not even Patrick can make a deal work.
In the late 1980s, Patrick worked with Charlotte architect and real estate developer Jim Gross on a townhome project on Carmel Road in southeast Charlotte.
It was an area that backed up to a high-class residential neighborhood, and residents didn’t like the idea of a townhome development, Patrick said.
After he filed a rezoning request, residents filed a petition.
In the end, in order to get around zoning restrictions, Gross developed single-family homes built close together instead of townhomes.
“So they ended up with about 20 driveways where there would have only been one,” Patrick said. “It was stupid on their part and a real disappointment for me.”
There was also the time when an angry homeowner called Patrick a liar — in church.
He was working with home improvement giant Lowe’s to get zoning approved for a new store on South Boulevard. The store backed up to the affluent Dilworth neighborhood.
During a community meeting at a church on East Boulevard, Patrick was presenting plans for the store.
“That’s when this guy stood up and called me a liar. I told him I’m a lot of things but I’m not a liar.”
Patrick went back to Lowe’s and convinced it to change its plans and create more of a buffer between the store and neighborhoods.
Patrick is not as active as he was in his younger years.
He will be 80 in 2014. He says he takes on three or four cases a year as opposed to around 30 when he was a younger man.
And with the recession slowing new development to a crawl, Patrick said he’s been supplementing the dwindling number of rezoning cases with minor legal work, like drawing up wills and trusts.
He said he has no plans to retire, but he enjoys his abbreviated schedule. It gives him time to do things like go to Moscow, a city he’ll be visiting this month as part of a two-week solo trip to Russia.
And he remains one of Charlotte’s most sought-after attorneys.
“He has an unbelievable ability to communicate,” Harris said. “You may not agree with him, but he’s honest and he believes in what he does. He smoothes things over. That’s just what he does.”
Sam Boykin can be reached at [email protected].