MINT HILL – Signs signs, everywhere are signs. Mint Hill’s more than scenery; is it a gold mine? Sell this, sold that – can you read the signs?
Look at the signs on roads with names like Lawyers, Idlewild, Matthews-Mint Hill, Lebanon, Margaret Wallace, wending their way through bucolic, small-town America 15 minutes from the big city, and the signs are pretty clear:
Mint Hill is available, baby. A-vail-a-ble. Fifteen acres here, eight there, 215 over by the four-lane.
Now dig the larger signs:
And if all that isn’t sign enough, consider that Howard Hughes Corp. the Dallas-based development giant, in concert with Charlotte uber-developer Childress Klein, is out there actively touting the 215-acre Bridges at Mint Hill retail project at the Lawyers Road interchange with I-485, a highway that is bound to get busier on the east side when its final, northeastern leg is complete.
Stalled by the recession, Bridges is still not officially ready to break ground. But Hughes is trumpeting the project, has updated its website to include 2013 demographic figures, and uses the future tense “will” not the conditional tense “would” when it says the project “will offer one-stop shopping, dining and entertainment to the under-served Southeast corner of Charlotte.”
But don’t take it from Howard Hughes. Listen, instead, to John Culbertson, of Cardinal Partners, an expert observer of the Charlotte market, as he plays a little word association game.
Quick, John what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear: Mint Hill.
“An undiscovered gem,” Culbertson said. “There’s just a great story that’s about to be told in Mint Hill.”
Developers like the demographics
Really, you’re thinking, Mint Hill?
The sleepy little municipality, population 25,000, where the only $1 million-plus permit pulled in the past year went to the town of Mint Hill to build a new police station?
“Yeah, most of the building activity you see right now are town projects,” said John Hoard, town planner.
Look past what’s going on right now, and past what you always thought about Mint Hill, warns Culbertson.
Think of it the way Ryland Homes’ Charlotte division President Jay Thrower sees it: “Charlotte’s the next frontier; a high-growth area.”
Culbertson, whose firm brokered the deal for Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Stiles Real Estate Investment Services to buy the 52 acres on Lawyers Road where the Mint Hill Publix will be built, advised that “off-the-shelf” demographic data about Mint Hill is not to be believed.
“When we pulled those demos out, the ones that all developers use, they just didn’t look that great. So we spent a couple of weeks doing our own studies, hired a guy who went out and counted rooftops, studied the traffic patterns, we saw a lot different picture.”
The way the Hughes Corp. sees it, Mint Hill is not an island. It’s the hub of a submarket that includes parts of east Charlotte, a tad of unincorporated Mecklenburg County, and pieces of Union and Cabarrus, too.
Here’s some of the demographic data about the 5-mile radius around the site of the Bridges at Mint Hill being used by Hughes – and credited to Claritas Inc., the demographic compiler – in its online flier for the project:
In Mint Hill proper, Town Manager Brian Welch said he’s “not the least bit surprised” about the all the bullish talk about the area, comparing his bailiwick with Huntersville, the biggest Mecklenburg municipality outside Charlotte, and one of the fastest growing in the state.
“Us and the Huntersville area, we have the largest tracts of undeveloped land left in the county. We’ve got five interchanges on I-485, three all our own and two (on the outskirts). We’ve got Highway 24-27 that will take you into downtown Charlotte and as far east as you want to go.”
But the town has something else as well, Welch noted: A clearly defined development master plan that calls for keeping a lot of Mint Hill’s flavor, which Thrower described as “close in, but also a lot of small town charm; it feels like the suburbs; it’s got a nice feel.”
And, Welch said, elected officials who take planning seriously:
“We got hit pretty hot and heavy (by developers) during the boom, and since 2006 and ’07, the town commissioners have taken a very active stance. The word has gotten out: We want smart development, but not development for development’s sake. A (proposed) development is not a done deal here. They’ve especially taken a very controlled approach with the (I-485) interchanges.”
Culbertson said that isn’t always such a bad thing, as he learned in getting the Publix project approved by the town.
“When you leave Charlotte and go into some of the towns, some of the planning processes can be very complex and different,” Culbertson. “Everybody wants another Ballantyne.
“But in Mint Hill, the planning staff and officials are very hard-working and very knowledgeable. They have a vision that works for the people who live there. It certainly wasn’t easy, but it was a good experience.”
Outside Mint Hill, in Charlotte and in the unincorporated areas of the county north of Albemarle Road that are under the city of Charlotte’s planning jurisdiction, District 5 City Councilman John Autry expects to see growth specifically along Albemarle, near the Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center campus that is expected to open in 2018.
“We’ve just been waiting for the (Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities) sewer line to come in for the hospital to be built; it’s been a long time in coming,” Autry said. “I anticipate that will be a real catalyst – both the hospital and the sewer line – and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a site for more future development.”
Nor would Jay Priester, vice president of Cambridge Properties Inc.
As The Mecklenburg Times reported earlier this month, Priester – betting on increased traffic on I-485 because of its pending completion and on Albemarle because of the pending hospital – is developing a 17-acre site on vacant, unincorporated land east of the Albemarle Road exit of I-485, a half-mile from the hospital site.
“I believe this area has great potential for growth with the Novant Health center coming in,” Priester said. “Charlotte Utilities is just now bringing sewer (lines) into the area, which means more household growth.”
Rooftop plans revived
More household growth is already underway.
Hoard estimated that developers during the housing bust abandoned some 2,000 lots – already developed, in the midst of development, or approved but undeveloped.
Builders have snapped them up. “People got great deals, paper lots or ready-to-go,” Hoard said, noting that “they were entitled years ago and no new approvals are needed.”
Some of the builders active in the area, Hoard said, include Essex Homes, Citizens and D.R. Horton, and then he named a long list of subdivisions, some zombified, others stalled, and still others just slow.
One of the most active, Hoard said, is Ravenscroft, the larger of two Mint Hill subdivisions that Greater Los Angeles-based Ryland Homes picked up when it bought 14 Charlotte-market housing developments from Timberstone Homes in July.
“There were maybe five or six homes built when we made the acquisition,” said Thrower, Ryland’s Charlotte honcho. Now workers are constructing nearly a dozen homes and bulldozers are clearing more lots, many of them already sold.
At buildout – which Thrower said will be sooner rather than later – there will be about 100 homes in Ravenscroft.
“Mint Hill is interesting,” said Thrower, whose company also did a lot of market research into the area before buying in.
“We like this position because of the bigger lots, 80-foot-wide lots, because you tend to get more for your housing dollar out there. There’s a great availability of land but you’re close in, too. There’s good value. It feels like the suburbs.
“It doesn’t have the name recognition of some of the other submarkets out there, but we like the long-term value.”
As the adage goes, retail (and commercial development in general) follows rooftops, which may explain why you see so many big parcels of land up for grabs all over the place.
“We’re just waiting on the economy, but we’re confident we’ll have a sale,” said Mike Carlin of Allen Tate, who is trying to get $990,000 for the owner of an 8.5-acre tract along Lawyers Road designated as “downtown overlay” by the town’s zoning code. “It’s prime land.”
One piece of prime land that was grabbed, the foreclosed, bank-owned 54 acres Stiles bought for the 50,000-square-foot Publix – right across Matthews-Mint Hill Road from a Harris Teeter – has already drawn a lot of interest from other retailers who want in on the outparcel action, Culbertson said.
And 42 acres of the tract, behind the grocery story, Culbertson said, is in the process of being sold to a single-family developer.
Less clear is what is happening with the 215 acres behind a chain-link fence that occupies the northwest quadrant at Lawyers and I-485, an interchange that is now a no-man’s land in terms of development except for a convenience store in an old Pure Oil station.
That’s the Bridges at Mint Hill retail project, which with 628,461 square feet of initial retail and another 1.3 million of for future development, has been talked about since at least 2005.
That’s when developers had to deal with the Carolina heelsplitter (Lasmigona decorata), a freshwater mussel indigenous to Goose Creek, one of only seven remaining populations of what District 6 Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James described as “a snail, or something like that.”
The town finally approved the project seven years ago, town manager Welch said. And earlier this year, the N.C. Environmental Management Commission lifted its restrictions on development in the Goose Creek basin, clearing the way not only for Bridges at Mint Hill, but also for Charlotte Mecklenburg water and sewer lines.
But since the town’s OK, Welch said, “I can tell you that they have been very short on the detail.”
“They still have to come before us for site-plan approval, and we’re still not sure when to expect that,” Welch said. “But even at the lowest point of the economy, on the few occasions I’ve talked with Chris Thomas at Childress Klein, it’s always been ‘when,’ not ‘if.’”
Or, as Hoard said: “I’ve heard every year that it’s going to happen next year. But I’ve heard nothing about it lately.”
Thomas, a partner at Childress Klein, had little to say.
“We’re still working on a development plan, and we hope to be able to share a more specific schedule at the appropriate time,” Thomas said. “There’s nothing really I can share with you in terms of details, but as plans progress. . . .”
Of the three officials contacted for this story at Howard Hughes Corp., which is reportedly providing the bulk of the capital for the project, one would not comment, and the other two did not respond.
But the recently updated Hughes website isn’t shy at all about its plans, including artist’s renderings, under the headline “Bridging the Southern Retail Gap.”
After noting that Charlotte in 2012 became the nation’s ninth-fasting growing city, the Bridges page says: “The eastern Charlotte market will continue to experience a large portion of the population growth in the area with the newly completed I-485 beltway allowing easy access throughout this underserved market.”
If developer hype is any kind of sign of things to come, Mint Hill could prove to be a bridge – or at least an interstate overpass – into southeast Charlotte’s future.