River District: The Country Behind the Airport

Two Charlotte developers are about to embark on the city’s biggest development in decades, on the last large piece of undeveloped land in Mecklenburg County. Who and what’s been out here all this time, and will it disappear for good?


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PHOTOGRAPHS BY LOGAN CYRUS

WE REACH THE CREST on the old logging road a little before noon. It’s late January and stunningly bright and warm, but it rained over the weekend, and the road is a morass of burnt orange mud and wet, matted leaves. Creighton Call has his company-owned Ford Expedition’s four-wheel-drive switch at 4L, the lowest possible gear, but the behemoth still won’t make it over the hill. The wheels spin in the muck. “Gonna start over,” Call mutters. “I stopped all my momentum, and I shouldn’t have done that.”

He backs the truck up and accelerates, trying to generate enough speed to power us over the hump. The wheels spin again. “Nope.” He backs up once more. We start to fishtail. “Aw, shit,” Call says. “I’m gonna hit that tree.” A poplar looms behind us. Branches and brush scrape the side of the Expedition. Some careful maneuvering saves us from a collision. “Damn it,” Call says. “We’re just gonna turn around and go out the other way.” A few minutes later, we’re just short of merciful pavement when Call has a repeat performance at another rise. Engine roaring, tires spinning, we make it. “Man, slippin’ everywhere,” he exclaims. “This is the sloppiest it’s been since I’ve been coming out here.”

We’ve spent the previous hour or so exploring a portion of the 1,378 acres that Crescent Communities—which employs Call as a vice president for mixed-use development—plans to build on, with fellow real estate development company Lincoln Harris. The planned development’s working name is the River District, and it’s the largest mixed-use development approved in Mecklenburg County in a generation. Crescent has owned roughly a thousand of the acres for decades, farming and harvesting it for timber. You’d never know that a prominent real estate developer planned to build on the property. It looks and feels like national forest land.

Already on the excursion, Call has led me and a photographer from the edge of the logging road about 50 feet down a steep slope through thick brush to an unnamed creek. It burbles through a scattering of foot locker-sized granite boulders—“We call these the rolling stones,” he says—amid poplars, birches, and mixed Piedmont hardwoods, with the occasional stand of pines. He has pointed out one century-old beech, still growing at a 25-degree angle from the slope next to the creek bed. Back up top, at the road’s edge, Call asks, “You hear anything?” It’s a rhetorical question. Aside from a faint, constant, vaguely familiar whoosh of traffic in the deep distance, you don’t hear a thing.

That’s the idea. After the last mud adventure on the logging road, we emerge onto asphalt. Call turns left, then right. Not three minutes later, we approach an intersection and catch sight of a regional American Eagle jet soaring skyward at takeoff, the lanes of Interstate 485 below, and ahead of us, the barbed-wire-topped, chain-link fence that marks the western edge of Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

***

Developers promise to maintain some of the land’s integrity when they build the massive River District over the next 20 to 30 years.

FROM THE DECK behind her house, Sue Friday gazes out over a five-acre lake. Springs and streams feed it from the east, to the left in the direction of the airport, and the lake drains into the Catawba River to the west, about a half-mile to the right. It’s technically not a “lake,” just a widened section of creek, but Friday owns it, so she can call it what she wants. It’s part of a 30-acre plot of land she and her husband bought in 1979. Little has changed out here since then, but it’s about to.

“You see how steep that is, down to the lake? Picture hands cupping water,” she says, pointing to the equally steep slope on the opposite bank. She owns that land, too. “But what you’re also seeing is a muddy lake. The 60 acres upstream from me was timbered two-and-a-half years ago, and I’m still getting mud. … I mean, it should be a beautiful dark gray, you know, sort of wintry-looking, and instead, I’ve got café au lait.”

The culprit is a piece of land owned by another family just upstream. She doesn’t begrudge the owners their right to harvest their land for timber. But after being out here for so long, caring for her own property and serving on community boards and committees, she feels a certain ownership of the land’s future that goes beyond formal title. “It’s sort of my own private nature preserve,” says Friday, a slender, fit woman with short, silver hair. “I walk it all the time. I keep up with what’s blooming, and the tree that’s fallen and needs to be cleared.” That’s why, as she moves deeper into her 70s, Friday gives more and more thought to the people she’d like to sell to when the time comes. 

Would you believe that, as things stand, a real estate developer sits at the top of her list?

“A landowner has no protection against timbering. You just don’t,” she says. “That’s why, actually, I would like to sell to somebody who would not do that. One of the things I think is so important, and why I appreciate what they’re saying, is that they’re going to protect these slopes. You could develop them, without a doubt. You could build houses on that.” But Crescent has promised not to, and its plans for the land reflect that promise.

It seems strange on its face—someone with this much land, who’s done so much to keep it as pristine as possible, nodding approvingly at a developer. “No one knows what all of this will bring, but at least we’ll have time to guide the changes,” she says. “And we’re all getting older, too. When you get older, your goals change—especially when you’ve been in a place for 38 years.”

***

“People in the South, we have a love for owning land, for having a place,” Sue Friday says. She and her husband, Tom, bought 30 acres near the Catawba River in 1979.

THE RIVER DISTRICT is a milestone for Charlotte and Mecklenburg County in more ways than one. It will be the largest master-planned development in the county since Ballantyne, the south Charlotte community that Lincoln Harris CEO and commercial real estate giant Johnny Harris envisioned in the early 1990s. The City Council approved a rezoning of the River District land in November, green-lighting the first major project planned for the largely undisturbed land just west of the airport—Mecklenburg County’s final frontier, the only vast stretch of undeveloped land left.

After decades of Charlotte regional growth to the north, south, and northeast, the River District will orient major development for the first time to the west, setting up Gastonia and environs as bedroom communities for service and blue-collar workers employed in or near the airport. It’s designed to complement the airport’s continued expansion. And it illustrates how real estate developers—rarely known collectively for careful stewardship of land and water—increasingly grasp the value of creating jobs, housing, and business opportunities without ruining the attributes that distinguish their chosen sites in the first place.

It’ll take between two and three decades to develop the area completely. “Hopefully, I will live long enough to see it to fruition,” North Carolina Representative and then-City Councilman John Autry, 64, said the night of the council vote. When finished, the River District is expected to accommodate eight million square feet of office space, half a million square feet of shops and restaurants, 2,350 apartments, 1,000 hotel rooms, and 2,300 houses. But it’ll also hold 552 acres of open space, including parks, trails, greenways, and points of boat access to the river—much of it intended as natural buffers to protect freshwater from contamination by sediment and pollutants during and after construction.

This balance between commercial and environmental considerations didn’t just materialize on its own. It took two decades of thought, discussion, and tugs-of-war among public and private interests, driven by the runaway growth of Charlotte’s largest and most visible economic engine.

***

The landscape of the Catawba River where it divides Mecklenburg and Gaston counties will soon see dramatic changes.

The River District, shown in purple, is positioned between Charlotte Douglas International and the Catawba River.

FIRST, PICTURE the land on a map. The Dixie-Berryhill area is a 7,600-acre block named after two of the townships it contains. It starts at Interstate 85 and stretches south with the flow of the river that forms its western border. Steele Creek, Shopton, and Rock Island roads mark Dixie-Berryhill’s southern edge, Interstate 485 its eastern. Just east of 485 is the airport. The River District site takes up roughly a fifth of this property, about midway between the northern and southern boundaries. 

Planners and builders knew for decades that the area would be developed eventually. They also knew there was no way to plan or build without accounting for the two bookends—one natural, the other man-made—that define and restrict the area: the river and the airport.

By the mid-1990s, city-owned Charlotte Douglas International was booming, along with its namesake city, well on the way toward its current status as the world’s sixth-busiest airport. In 1996, airport officials unveiled a master plan for airport expansion that included projects since realized—a third parallel runway, connection to a planned I-485, and an intermodal station for truck and rail traffic. The plan also included the rough outline of a “Western Development Zone” due west of the airport, that would encompass homes and businesses.

Some of the roughly 4,000 people who lived in the zone—including Sue Friday, already a community leader and a member of the local Sierra Club—worried that, as the airport grew over the next 20 years, industrial development would spread from the airport into Dixie-Berryhill, ruining its character and environment. They worked with city planners on a Dixie-Berryhill Strategic Plan, which championed a mix of homes and businesses that would accommodate the land’s natural features, public transit, and pedestrians. The City Council adopted the plan in 2003. Threats of airport noise, an initial concern, turned out to be a non-issue; the main runways run north-south, not east-west. Developers began eyeing the area afresh. Then 2008 came, the housing market crashed, the recession hit, and developers backed their ideas into the garage.

Six years passed before Crescent and Lincoln Harris began talking in 2014 about putting a plan together for the near-blank slate west of the airport. The two companies had worked together on a series of mixed-use projects over the years, including Ballantyne, with Crescent building houses and apartments and Lincoln Harris concentrating on offices and retail. A decade or so before, another developer opened Berewick, a planned residential community just south of Dixie-Berryhill, near the Steele Creek Road-I-485 interchange. The Charlotte Premium Outlets mall opened at that interchange in 2014. The airport was planning another expansion that included a fourth parallel runway and a new master plan for growth. The time and place seemed right.

“Just realizing where this property sits … you’ve got the global reach of the airport, which continues to go through billions of dollars of expansion,” Creighton Call tells me when I meet with him and Tracy Dodson, his counterpart at Lincoln Harris, at Crescent’s uptown offices. “You’ve got a robust transportation network, 485 with access to 77 and 85, to really get anywhere, and the labor pool you can draw from, given how centrally located this is within the region. It just really makes sense.”

Then again, the rugged topography and the ecological sensitivities of the river and streams complicate matters for the builders. This isn’t Ballantyne, which sprawls over relatively level, empty land. “Any developer would tell you they love an easy, flat site. This is not,” Dodson says. “However, like Creighton said, we wanted to turn that around into an opportunity.”

They started the turnaround by reaching out to the people they knew would worry most about the land and water. A year ago, before they even began detailed planning, they asked Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins and longtime county Water Quality Program Manager Rusty Rozzelle to meet with them about controlling erosion during and after construction and maintaining water quality throughout. “We’ve had a really bad history with development (on the river),” Perkins tells me.

Perkins and Rozzelle were taken aback when Crescent and Lincoln Harris offered from the outset to meet or even surpass environmental standards for the area. The developers agreed to map the bottoms of riverine coves to ensure construction didn’t fill them with sediment. They agreed to pay for regular county monitoring of water quality at the site. They agreed to stream buffers and sediment-collecting retention ponds whose size far surpassed what the county and state required—all without having to haggle. “In the past, with other developments, we would get there, but it’d be a little tougher road to hoe,” Rozzelle tells me. “But I think they realized that due to the magnitude of this project, they were going to have to do some things special, and they were agreeable from the very beginning.”

Perkins, perhaps the area’s most passionate and vocal advocate for the river, is even more emphatic: “I basically tell people who still have concerns, ‘You have no idea how badly I wish I could get this with every development.’ I wish this was standard everywhere,” he says. “This is much closer to being truly protective of water quality than anything we’re used to seeing.”

The developers’ sensitivity to environmental concerns is, literally, by design. They care about water and land quality, but for financial as well as ecological reasons. As Lake Wylie and Lake Norman—another dammed and widened segment of the Catawba to the north—have developed over the years, individual landowners with waterfront lots have controlled most of the access to the river. Crescent in particular sees public access to the Catawba, through waterfront parks and boat launches, as one of the most inviting features—and sellable assets—of the community to come.

“What we have here at the River District is about 3,500 linear feet—or over half a mile—of river frontage that we see, and we’ve made a commitment to making (it) a public place,” Call says. “So we’re not going to privatize it and put individual lots down on the water. We very much see that being uptown Charlotte’s closest connection to the Catawba River.” And it’s far closer, about eight miles away as the crow flies, than anyone is used to imagining.

Call points that out as he drives the Expedition south on Dixie River Road through the heart of the Crescent property. To either side of the road are stands of deciduous trees, denuded in winter, that rise from steep banks of red Piedmont clay—about as far from what’s planned for this stretch as you could get. This will be the Town Center, he tells me. “Imagine this road being four lanes wide, with on-street parking, and it kind of comes to an old town, and it chokes down and slows down, the streets tighten, the buildings are brought up closer to the street.” Call slows the truck and sweeps an arm across the landscape. “You have, you know, ground-floor retail, maybe offices above, apartments above, that kind of define that main street that comes through here.”

It’s hard to imagine amid the woods. But I guess that’s the point. The trick is to look at the blank canvas and envision the painting. We pull into the main parking lot at Berewick Town Center. Call pulls out a map and spreads it on the hood of the Expedition. He explains that, ideally, River District residents would never be more than a block or two from a park, trail, or greenway, which is especially nice when you’re also just a mile or two from a Harris Teeter, a Walgreen’s, and a Wendy’s, three Berewick Town Center amenities arranged around the lot we’re standing on.

“We’d still be planning for what we’re going to do without this being here,” he says. “But I think this takes away a lot of objections about, you know, ‘When’s my grocery store coming?’ or ‘When’s my pharmacy gonna be here?’ There’s restaurants, retail. It’s here.”

***

Helen and Benjamin Hoover still live in the house they bought in 1953. 

IT ALL MAY SOUND marvelous, but none of this can happen without displacing some people, such as Sue Friday, from their land. Dixie, Berryhill, and other tiny rural townships have crouched for decades in the woods off Dixie River Road, unbothered in a part of Mecklenburg County that hardly anyone’s ever had reason to explore. Most of the homes in Berryhill still have wells and septic tanks. About 20 people own 45 parcels of private land on or near the development site, most of which belongs to Crescent. The developers hadn’t made any formal offers as of early this year. But they’re in the works, and a bittersweet air is settling over the scattered, humble houses.

“On the sad point, this is where you grew up, and this is home,” Marcellus Hoover tells me. He’s 49 now and lives in the Steele Creek community, but he grew up in Berryhill, in a cozy house off Sadler Road that his parents, Benjamin and Helen Hoover, bought in 1953. Benjamin, 90, and Helen, 85, still live in that house. It sits second in a row of four single-story, wood-frame homes within the 15 acres the family owns. We’re in their overheated living room on a weekday afternoon. Helen’s younger brother, Jackie Wilkes Sr., and his wife, Lucinda, are here, too. Wilkes owns two-and-a-half acres nearby and maintains a giant garden that yields green beans, potatoes, collard greens, and other vegetables for the family. “There’s just something about planting that seed and watching it grow,” he says. The garden was open until Wilkes constructed a wire fence to keep the deer out.

“Even the air is different here. The water, it’s well water. And with Mom and Dad, it’s the only place they’ve ever owned,” Marcellus continues. “On the other hand, seeing the progress—I’m old school, but I’ve got some new school in me, too. They don’t have Internet out here. Time Warner won’t even run cable down Sadler Road. And if they could go somewhere else and live well in their senior years, I’d be happy.”

Benjamin and Helen Hoover’s house is a renovated and expanded barracks from World War II, when the airport was Morris Field Air Base, a station for repairing damaged bombers. The year after they moved in, the city opened a 70,000-square-foot passenger terminal and renamed the airfield Douglas Municipal Airport after a former mayor. The extended family has lived in Berryhill for even longer, along with about 50 other black families that have made their homes in Dixie-Berryhill over the decades. Wilkes says his grandfather, “Papa” William Wilkes, first staked out property here about a century ago. “That’s a long story,” he says, chuckling, “with a whole lot of splinters in it.”

Helen Hoover was born in the house next door. She tells me she never really wanted to live anywhere else. “We could raise our children,” she says. “When it wasn’t freezing, we canned. We had fruit trees. We had a garden, and it was better than in the city. And it was a quiet life. I just liked it out here! It was home for us.”

A dirt road runs along the property, dividing the family’s land and the woods that mark Crescent’s. Marcellus Hoover and Wilkes lead me down the road toward the last house in the row of four. Hoover owns a landscaping and property maintenance company. He’s wearing gray work Dickies, a cap, and a Bluetooth headset in one ear. We pass a pair of Massey-Ferguson tractors parked on the shoulder; Hoover uses them for work. “That’s a 1964,” he remarks. We walk on. The afternoon has turned gray. The only sound is the faint rush of I-485 traffic. We approach Wilkes’ garden. “He brought me some collard greens out his garden yesterday,” Hoover says. “I worked ’em up last night.”

They’re not opposed to the idea of selling, but they want to make sure the family is justly compensated. The two men know the history of developers strong-arming black landowners off their property in the name of progress. “If a good offer came through, we would consider that,” Wilkes says. “But we’re not going to give it away.”

***

WHAT'S NEXT BOILS DOWN to exchanges of land, the planning and building of roads, and the extension of water and sewer. Planners expect traffic in the area to triple after the River District is complete. So they plan to expand and extend West Boulevard, which now turns into Garrison Road and dead-ends west of I-485, and build another east-west road and a pair of north-south roads to handle the flow to and from the center city and interstate.

They also want to include ample bus stops, anticipating the eventual extension of the city’s Gold Line streetcar to the airport, part of Charlotte Area Transit’s 2030 Plan. An additional connector road crossing the river to Gaston County is a possibility, too, although the proposed state Garden Parkway is stalled because of environmental concerns. As for the land, negotiations continue with landowners, and the timing and price are up to the likes of the Hoovers and Sue Friday.

Friday moves our conversation from her deck to her living room, where she settles into a steel, tube-frame chair near the fireplace, as jazz from a Bill Evans CD floats in from another room. She explains that her husband, Tom, moved to Charlotte from Atlanta, where he was a graduate student at Georgia Tech, in the mid-1970s. They were living in the SouthPark area and generally loved it. But Tom’s hobby, fixing up old sports cars, required more space than they could afford, even then. “We needed a garage,” she tells me. “It’s that simple.” She’d grown up in east Texas and enjoyed the feeling of living out in the country. In the spring of ’79, they came across the 30 acres with a house and multicar garage and snapped it up. “When you grow up like that, you either develop a love for the land or you hate it,” she says. “People in the South, I think, we have a love for owning land, for having a place.”

When Friday thinks about it, she’s amazed that, just a few miles away from one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities, one that’s transformed almost completely in the last decade or two, she’s been able to hang on to her place out past the airport and that nothing much has changed. They finished 485, and Berewick nearby means she can get to the grocery store in three minutes instead of 10 or 15. Aside from that, it’s as it was in 1979. She and Tom raised two children out here. They fixed up the house, painted the barn, worked together on little projects on the acreage. While remodeling the kitchen, they left some space in one corner where the tiles didn’t mesh, and the Fridays filled it in with rocks their second child, a daughter, had collected during her explorations of the property. But it’s a lot of property for a woman in her 70s. “You don’t just live on a property, you maintain it,” she says. “That’s what’s starting to get to me.”

Tom Friday died in 2008. Their son lives in Kansas City. Their daughter lives in Mooresville, and Sue Friday wants to move to Davidson to be closer to her. She’s known all along that the day would come when she’d leave, and if the buyer is someone, even a developer, who’ll take some care of the land and water, so be it.

“If I were going to get sentimental about undeveloped land, it would probably have to be somewhere other than Mecklenburg County,” she says. “I would have to be anti-Charlotte to feel that way, because the city is just getting bigger and bigger—and people have to live somewhere.”

Greg Lacour is a contributing editor to this magazine. Read more of his work in the News + Opinion and #discussCLT sections of this website.

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