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With county OK, Levine says First Ward project is a go

CHARLOTTE – An ambitious and long-anticipated proposal to transform uptown’s First Ward from a maze of parking lots into a $700 million “urban village” is at last a go, developer Daniel Levine said.

The 264 apartments that would be part of Phase 1 of developer Daniel Levine’s First Ward revitalization plan would wrap around a parking garage. Courtesy of Levine Properties

The 264 apartments that would be part of Phase 1 of developer Daniel Levine’s First Ward revitalization plan would wrap around a parking garage. Courtesy of Levine Properties

The Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday night unanimously approved amendments to a city-county agreement with Levine Properties to develop structured parking and a county park as part of the $84 million first phase of the 23-acre project.

“Woo-hoo!” Levine said the morning after the vote, and only hours after returning from a vacation cruise that took him to Turkey.

“Now that we’re approved at city and county levels, when the amendments are finalized and executed, we will pull (county building) permits. I’m going to stay away from naming a date. It is imminent, but it is also out of my control.”

In addition to waiting for the amendments to be finalized, Levine said the groundbreaking is also dependent on the completion of work by Duke Energy, Time Warner Cable and AT&T on the overhead utilities in First Ward, “which I understand is going to be by the end of the month.”

The vote by the county board came with a laugh, thanks to repartee between at large Commissioner Trevor Fuller, the chairman of the board, and District 3’s George Dunlap, both Democrats.

After Dunlap moved to approve the changes, Fuller gave the public-private project – which was originally negotiated and planned in 2009 – an eloquent endorsement.

And he urged Levine to hurry up.

“There is a great deal of interest in seeing this project come to fruition,” at-large Commissioner Fuller said.

“I think we’ll all be glad to see shovels in the ground and dirt moving. This is a really nice project and when finished will really transform that area of the center city and county.”

That’s when Dunlap, who had made the motion to approve, jumped in with a rejoinder: “Our vote is all that is standing in the way.”

Fuller got the message, and two quick 9-0 votes later, the deal is all but codified and signed.

Part of the first vote by the commissioners replicated what the Charlotte City Council had approved eight nights earlier: modifications to an agreement giving Levine up to $23.7 million in property tax increment grants to develop 1,335 spaces of structured public parking.

The changes allow Levine to qualify for up to $16.7 million of the city-county economic development grants if the developer completes by July 1, 2016, the construction of a parking deck with 935 spaces.

Levine would be eligible for the other $7 million of the grant only if he provides 400 more structured public parking spaces by Dec. 31, 2019.

Both Levine and city and county officials say that waiting until 2019 to release all $23.7 million was complicating Levine’s attempts to get private financing for the project, which also calls for an apartment building with 214 market-rate units and 50 workforce apartments and $5 million in street and utility improvements.

In addition to signing off on the City Council-approved changes, the county commissioners’ first vote on the project Tuesday also OK’d a few changes to the central component of the project, which does not involve city funding: a 3.2-acre county park that Levine will develop and then hand over the county.

Leslie Johnson, assistant county manager, told the commissioners that the changes involve making one part of the park, which will occupy  almost an entire block, about 6,300 square feet bigger than originally planned; and making a second part of the park, which will be part of an adjacent block, about 6,038 square feet smaller.

The changes, Levine said, were necessitated after land-planners and engineers at Charlotte’s ColeJenest & Stone finalized their plans for the park’s development. Because of the difference Johnson said there is in the market price of land in the two blocks, the commissioners also agreed to give Levine an additional $83,470.

The second vote taken by the commissioners Tuesday authorized County Attorney Marvin Bethune to negotiate a liquidated damages clause that will be added to the agreement.

Although the clause – which Levine said “we agreed to reluctantly, but we agreed to” – has yet to be finalized, Levine said it would most likely involve a $1,000 per day penalty against the developer if the park is not delivered within a 60-grace period after the agreed-upon deadline, Dec. 31, 2015.

Levine said the project “couldn’t have happened without the unanimous support of city and county elective officials from the inception.” But he also bristled at criticism of the holdups in getting it started.

“If you read all the press around our deal, you’d think we were the only deal that was late getting started because of the recession,” Levine said. “Now we are getting ready to launch, and the effects it is going to have should be well worth the wait.”


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