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Making tracks: Developers look northeast and northwest as plans progress for streetcar, Blue Line extensions

Construction on the Lynx Blue Line extension, seen from East 11th Street, will lengthen the light rail 9.3 miles northeast of center city, starting at East Ninth Street in uptown and ending at UNC Charlotte’s campus. The extension is expected to start running in summer 2017. Photo by Eric Dinkins

Construction on the Lynx Blue Line extension, seen from East 11th Street, will lengthen the light rail 9.3 miles northeast of center city, starting at East Ninth Street in uptown and ending at UNC Charlotte’s campus. The extension is expected to start running in summer 2017. Photo by Eric Dinkins

Development along the Lynx Blue Line extension is ramping up in anticipation of it coming online, and the second phase of the Gold Line streetcar is likely to receive federal funding this year on top of being picked to be part of a new national transportation program.

In support of the streetcar’s second phase, the U.S. Department of Transportation recently named Charlotte as one of seven cities included in a pilot program named Ladders of Opportunity Transportation Empowerment Pilot. The program will provide “technical assistance and work to attract public and private resources to game-changing community transportation projects,” according to the DOT’s website.

In Charlotte, that potentially “game-changing” project is the streetcar, which is planned to run through uptown perpendicular to the Lynx Blue Line.

The DOT will be working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Charlotte Housing Authority and the Charlotte Mayor’s Office to identify development opportunities suited for the second phase of the streetcar.

Ashley Simmons, communications officer for the mayor’s office, said DOT officials have already visited Charlotte to look at plans for the second phase of the streetcar. She said it was too early in the process to provide specifics on how the project would benefit from the program, but that those involved are creating a plan to use as a guide.

The first phase of the Gold Line is expected to start running in June. It will run along East Trade Street from the Charlotte Transit Center in uptown then along Elizabeth Avenue, turning northeast on Hawthorne Lane and stopping at East Fifth Street in front of the Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center.

 

Grant for streetcar likely

The streetcar was tested in April, and all that’s left is the construction of shelters for the stations and some sidewalk work.

“For some properties along Elizabeth, the streetcar will act as an amenity, and in other cases we would expect that the streetcar will catalyze future development,” said Krystel Green, public and community relations manager for the Charlotte Area Transit System, which is handling the Gold Line’s operations.

The next step is to finance the streetcar’s second phase, which will extend northwest along West Trade Street from the transit center and onto Beatties Ford Road, ending at French Street. At the other end, it will run northeast along Hawthorne Lane to Sunnyside Avenue.

Mike Griffin, a partner at Griffin Brothers Cos. in Charlotte, said the area starting at Gateway Village, which is southeast of North Irwin Avenue between West Trade and West 5th streets, out to Interstate 77 is ripe for development opportunities.

Griffin’s company owns 6 acres at West Trade Street and South Bruns Avenue, which is about one-fourth of a mile south of Johnson C. Smith University. On 2 acres of that land, the Griffin Brothers developed Mosaic Village, a mixed-use project that includes 72 apartments, a 400-space parking deck and 7,000 square feet of retail.

“We feel that we could start (construction) tomorrow if we knew the Gold Line was funded to Johnson C. Smith,” Griffin said regarding the remaining 4 acres of land his company owns adjacent to the Mosaic Village site.

He said it would likely be developed into office space, and that 60,000 square feet was the minimum his company would build there.

Funding for the second phase is largely dependent on a federal Small Starts grant, which would cover half of the $150 million it will take to complete the project. The City Council has promised to match the grant to fund the other half.

But whether or not the city is awarded the grant is in the hands of Congress. The grant is included in the president’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year, and Congress will determine the final budget for the 2016 budget year, which starts October 1.

 

Waiting for the gold

If the city receives the Small Starts grant, construction on the second phase of the Gold Line would start in mid-2016 and would be completed by the end of 2019, according to the Charlotte Area Transit System.

The distance of the first phase of the Gold Line is about 1.3 miles, and the completion of phase two would bring the total distance to about 4 miles. A third phase is planned that would extend the route another 6 miles east to the Eastland Community Transit Center on Central Avenue.

The effect the Gold Line could have on development remains to be seen, but in Charlotte’s northeast neighborhoods developers are gearing up for the completion of the Lynx Blue Line extension, which is expected to start running in summer 2017.

“I think that not only are we seeing speculation, but also real development proposals. And those are two different things,” said Frank Warren,director of development at Vision Development, who has worked in the Charlotte real estate industry for most of his career.

“And I think that – in some cases – the land values have reached a point where there’s no room for speculation; there’s a big price for development,” he added.

Most recently, the City Council approved a rezoning request by Crescent Communities for nearly 7 acres at East 36th Street between Cullman Avenue and North Davidson Street. Crescent plans to build between 325 and 350 apartments, a structured parking deck and possibly a hotel.

 

Setting the tone

Further up the line in the University City area, development activity has started to stir as well. And whereas development along the South Boulevard Blue Line has been mostly in South End, Warren said UNC Charlotte could help spur urban development at both ends of the extension.

“The northeast corridor has a very strong ridership base with its terminus at UNC Charlotte that the south line does not,” he said. “I think that will generate demand at the other end of the line.”

Carolina States Regional Center has submitted a rezoning request for about 15 acres at the southwest corner of North Tryon Street and the Interstate 85 Connector. The company plans to build 375 apartments on the site.

Darleen Heater, executive director of University City Partners, said Carolina State’s project could influence future development in that area.

“We think that this – being the first one most likely out of the ground – can set the tone or the bar for other types of development that we’ll see in the future,” she said.

Heater said Carolina States also has under contract a 22-acre parcel on the east side of Macfarlane Boulevard near the intersection of North Tryon Street and the U.S. Highway 29 Bypass. The company’s plans for site will include a mixed-use multifamily apartment complex. A public hearing for the rezoning of the property is scheduled for July 20.

Heater also said five or six owners of parcels within a mile east and west of the extension are looking to redevelop their land. She said that the parcels range from 4 acres to 50 acres, but that she could not disclose the names of the property owners.

“A lot of our opportunities in University City are going to be redevelopment, and that will take some more time, but we’re good with that,” she said.

Also, in terms of how development along the extension may differ from the existing line, both Warren and Green said industrial buildings along the extension could still be utilized as industrial space as opposed to being redeveloped into other uses.
“The primary difference between the (Blue Line Extension) and the existing light rail corridor is the continued presence of freight operations within a portion of the (Blue Line Extension) corridor, including the rail yard located in NoDa,” Green said in an email.

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