HUNTERSVILLE – Following 15 years of abandoned plans and false starts, the possibility of redevelopment for the former Magla Mills property near downtown is back in play.
The town Board of Commissioners last week instructed Manager Greg Ferguson to craft a request for proposals to develop the 30.5 acres after receiving a proposal from TDON Development of Coral Springs, Fla., to pay $1.3 million for the land to build 260 apartments, 20 town homes and up to 40 detached cottages.
Developers will have 90 days following the town’s posting of the RFP to submit their proposals, Ferguson said in an email.
“We’re looking for the highest and best use of that property,” said Gerry Vincent, assistant town manager. “The board indicated for the manager to send out an RFP to other developers to see if they are interested in purchasing it, and what they would do with it.”
Sitting just a couple of blocks from City Hall, the property at 440 N. Church St. now known as Anchor Mills would be near a possible station along a proposed 30-mile commuter train from Charlotte, the Red Line.
“We have had plans proposed for years that lean toward higher density along the rail and in the center of town,” said Mayor Jill Swain in an email. “It is a property with great potential on its own to be successful but also to contribute to the future of our downtown vitality.”
Industry, town evolve
The land seemed on the cusp of being redeveloped 15 years ago, before politics and the recession forestalled the effort.
Built just before the turn of the 19th century, Magla Mill made ginghams and chambrays and in 1915, “employed 176 men, women and children who operated 10,700 spindles and 400 looms, and lived in rows of look-alike houses beside the mill,” according to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission website.
The construction of the long brick building and opening of the mill brought industry and urbanization to the agricultural area, which has transformed again from a mill town to one of Charlotte’s fastest growing bedroom communities.
Between 1990 and 2013, the city’s population grew to more than 50,000 from about 3,000, an increase of 1,567 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The mill was a steady source of employment for decades, but was closed after two fires and changes in the economy.
Fifteen years ago, the town was ready to create something new on the site.
In 1996, the city began considering a vision to steer development away from suburban sprawl and toward development principles of interconnectedness and walkability.
It bought the land for $600,000 in 1998, and created a master plan in 1999, which included transit-oriented development for the site.
In 2000, the land’s redevelopment was one of four major recommendations to come of a pilot study on reinventing downtowns, in which Huntersville was one of 11 communities nationwide participating. It was designed by the National League of Cities and HyettPalma, a national consulting firm specializing in downtown enhancement and older commercial districts.
The town then sought proposals for the redevelopment of the mill and property, and initially chose a development team that included Nate Bowman, the developer of the Vermillion subdivision just across Huntersville-Concord Road from the mill property’s southeast border. Other group members were the late David Rogers of Rogers & Associates Inc. and Kent Walker of Walker Real Estate Group, who had worked on redevelopment in Rock Hill, S.C., and were at that time pursuing plans to redevelop Gastonia’s Loray Mill.
The development team and the town hired a company nationally known for its “new urbanism” town planning, Duany, Plater-Zyberk & Co. of Miami, to create a master plan for the site through a process of inviting the public and groups to participate in several collaborative sessions.
The result was a mixed-use plan, with spaces for recreation, apartments, civic uses, office and retail.
Those plans included renovating the mill building itself, but the structure burned to the ground before the redevelopment could begin.
When elections brought new members to the town board, the plan was rejected, and the town was left with a water tower and a brownfield in need of environmental remediation and clearing.
“We missed a really good opportunity to develop that, frankly,” said Jerry Ingalls, a Huntersville resident and a professor emeritus at UNC Charlotte who taught geography and urban studies. He was a member of the Magla Mill Redevelopment Committee tasked with evaluating developers’ proposals.
“It was a wonderful building inside, it had some real prospects. They were going to add to it with some office and a little retail.”
Since then, the town has considered plans including using the property for a continuing care community or for a town annex, but none of those plans took hold.
“The huge problem that has never been solved is that the Red Line is not a reality and, at this stage, there’s no end game on how to make it a reality,” said Bowman, who after 15 years has retained interest in seeing what happens on the property.
Waiting for the train
The proposed commuter rail hit a significant roadblock recently, when Norfolk Southern Railway Co. revised two policies that would exclude such trains from its O-Line, which the company said is its most viable alternate route to the North Carolina Railroad corridor that runs between Charlotte and Greensboro. Norfolk Southern currently leases that corridor, but wants to hold the O-line as a “strategic reserve,” said Brain Nadolny, a project manager for the Charlotte Area Transit System, in an email.
Unless that changes, CATS and the other agencies and municipalities involved in planning for the Lynx Red Line now face deciding how the project could move forward, given expenses for designing, building and maintaining a parallel line. That would also include realigning and reconstructing adjacent roadways and driveways and obtaining rights of way.
Still, said Nadolny, the Red Line “while currently unfunded, is part of the overall system plan and is a high priority project. However, the project first must overcome the challenges of funding and Norfolk Southern acceptance before it moves forward.”
Bowman said towns and developers were hoping the Red Line would do what the Lynx Blue Line, a light rail system, has done in South End: attract an abundance of high-density residential development, office space, retail and entertainment with walkability and access to public transportation.
But he believes that whoever develops the property – and he hasn’t ruled out submitting a proposal – should focus on attracting an anchor, preferably a grocery store, or perhaps a craft brewery.
“It’s unusual for a town to have 32 acres near its downtown that’s available for development,” he said. “We need to come up with a game plan that gives it somewhat of a destination.”
“It takes a while to deliver on that,” he said. “I would say to the town, ‘You’ve waited this long; don’t settle.’”