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ON THE LEVEL: Walt Disney’s vision fuels Daniel Levine’s dreams

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Daniel Levine, who began in real estate 32 years ago when he started buying up land in uptown, has a vision for uptown Charlotte, and one of the first parts of that dream is expected to be realized Tuesday with a ribbon cutting for First Ward Park.
But the park, next to the UNC Charlotte Center City campus on East Ninth Street, is just a part of Levine’s plan to transform 25 acres of uptown into a mixed-use development with 1,500 residential units; 350,000 square feet of retail; three parking decks; 500 hotel rooms; 1.5 million square feet of office space; new streets and sidewalks; and up to 400,000 square feet of institutional space, possibly for UNC Charlotte. Levine developed the park and it will be owned by Mecklenburg County.
The First Ward development site includes the old brick Dixie’s Tavern, which is being renovated and should be ready for a tenant early next year. Levine cited a confidentiality agreement and is not disclosing the tenant. The renovation work on the building includes a breezeway being cut through part of the building for people to walk from a Lynx light rail stop to the park.
Levine, 54, who owns Levine properties with his father, Al, has operated much of his uptown land as parking lots.  The company’s portfolio includes 16 surface parking lots totaling 1,200 parking spaces in First Ward.
Real estate and development is a far cry from the family business: retail. Al Levine is the former owner of Pic ‘n Pay Shoes and Levine’s uncle, Leon Levine, started the Family Dollar stores.
Levine said First Ward may not be the biggest project, area-wise, that he’s done, but it is certainly the most complex because of the nearby transportation projects and having to work with the city and county governments as part of a private-public partnership.
Levine, who grew up in Charlotte, said he has no plans to work outside of Charlotte when it comes to development.  He said he sees a lot of development potential in Charlotte because of the city’s growth.
Other projects he is working on include a mixed-use project with Charlotte’s Raley Miller Properties Inc. that is almost 11 acres at Providence and Fairview roads. That project entails building 195 apartments and 95,000 square feet of retail space to replace the Carmel on Providence apartments and a convenience store.
Levine Properties is also going to build a 105-unit boutique apartment community south of Plaza Midwood.
Your father and uncle were in the retail business, so how and why did you get interested in development and real estate?
For me it started in 1966 or ‘67 when I was reading an article on Walt Disney and his original concept for Epcot Center, which was an experimental prototype community of tomorrow and was really a new town designed and developed for about 100,000 people.  I just thought how fascinating that somebody could design and build a new city for people to work, live, play and recreate. That is not ultimately what got built as part of Epcot, but at least his original dream is what got me started. From there I got interested and followed real estate.
The park in First Ward went smoother than you anticipated with an earlier completion date than expected, so what are your expectations for the rest of the project?
The First Ward Park project is really complete. Our obligation to the city and the county for the park was to design and build the park, and so we held a national competition (to find an architect) and ultimately hired Shadley Associates Landscape Architects out of Boston. They designed the park and then we took on the responsibility of building it and we are in the final stages of delivering it to the county. It will become under their ownership the week of Dec. 28.
We don’t really look at it as a project. We look at it as helping to build out a neighborhood. This is nine square blocks; this is a significant part of the city. What I hope to see is that the master plan we put together comes to fruition over the next 10 to 15 years.
We have big dreams for this neighborhood.
What do you believe will be the biggest challenge to completing First Ward and how are you addressing that?
I think one of the challenges is if the economy can stay strong and Charlotte can continue to grow.  All of which are outside of our control. I’m hopeful that the economy and Charlotte’s continued growth stays in place so we can build out this neighborhood.
Living in uptown is pricey, and you have said that you want people of all ages and income levels to be able to live there, so what kind of rents do you envision for the apartments you want to build there?
Part of the private-public agreement is we are going to deliver 50 workforce housing units as part of the project that is currently under way (with 264 apartments that will be built).  I think it is the first time that a private developer without dedicated low income housing tax credits or other direct financial assistance is adding to the workforce housing stock and we are very proud of that.  It will handle people who historically couldn’t afford the very high rents that are in the center city. At least 50 units (of workforce housing) will be delivered within the next two or 2 1/2 years.
Have you ever taken on a project of this size before and if not, what have you learned from it?
This is the largest real estate holding of any private company in the center city ever. I would dare say there are very few companies or individuals who have taken on a project or neighborhood development of this size.  I certainly have never taken on one in a complicated location like the center city of Charlotte, where you have streets and infrastructure like light rail projects and other transportation projects. It’s very complicated in nature. I’ve built projects that have been on more land but none that have been as complicated. We are up against the light rail project.
How will the lessons you have learned so far with First Ward help you down the line with the development?
We had a terrific team of professionals that we hired and stayed with us throughout the origination of the idea through the planning through the construction and execution and through the delivery. What I learned is you hire great teams of people.
We have had terrific working relationships with the city and the county.  I think throughout the process we have touched (bases with) almost every department within city and county government.   The thing I’ll take away is, you hire good people, you keep them on your team, you let them do their job and at the end of the day you get a good result.
What impact do you believe your development will have on uptown and Charlotte beyond the First Ward?
Well First Ward is a quarter of the center city and this is the first time that the city and the county have had such a significant investment in infrastructure in a generation.  I think that when we open the park on Tuesday morning and the residential public, the employers and employees who come in and out of the center city and are able to come and enjoy the park on a daily basis, whether it is coming to have lunch, whether it is coming to one of the programs that will be throughout the year, whether it is a transit rider who gets off on one of the two stops that bracket the park, whether it is a tourist or visitor who come to Charlotte and sees the park for the first time, I’m fairly confident that they will see a new and emerging neighborhood that is exciting to be in.
That is going to help us grow this neighborhood and it is going to help us deliver to the center city uses that are either not either currently here or uses that are underserved. As an example, we have two hotels with about 500 hotel (rooms) that we will develop in the next phase that will add to the inventory of our center city that will help us attract more convention traffic, more sports-related events and more overall traffic to center city, and that is a good thing.
What are you most excited about with the First Ward development, and why?
I think part of our dream of what First Ward can become is a fully interactive neighborhood that is part of the center city of Charlotte.
I think we are so blessed to be in Charlotte because if you look back over the last 50 years at the planning and all of the different corporations and public entities that have put a lot of time, energy and money to building what we have in the center city, which is frankly unparalleled in the Southeast. We have the best center city in the Southeast bar none. So my dreams are that we fit into the wide path that has been plowed and that we add to all of the great parts of our city and that will come with all of the different uses that I described earlier.
You heard this notion that the millennial generation particularly wants to live in the center cities throughout the country and they want to because it is a dynamic place. You hear either 18/7 or 24/7 neighborhoods or communities. I would say Charlotte today is an 18/7 city, 18 hours a day, 7 days a week.  When I say a dynamic place that means there is something happening all the time in our center city.
It’s a fairly small piece of geography that generates a great deal of activity, a lot of interactive things to do.
What other kinds of development are you interested in doing in Charlotte or elsewhere, and when do you want to do that?
Our company is involved in a lot of initiatives in and around the center city. We believe that Charlotte and the growth over the next generation are going to be very strong and it should outpace the rest of the nation. And we have committed a lot of resources to developing retail, office, multifamily, and hotels in a very tight geographic area starting at the center city and rolling out to South Boulevard and Independence (Boulevard).
We think over the next generation that geography is going to grow significantly and that is where we want our investments to be.
We are all in for Charlotte.

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