Charlotte’s hips are wide enough. We can’t grow out anymore. So city leaders and developers are pouring millions into the heart of our city. Which leaves us with a few questions: Where’s it all going? What’s it all going to be?
The framework for BB&T Ballpark is now in place, and by this time next year fans will be clamoring to find seats that give them the best views of the game and the uptown skyline.
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Along Church Street on a warm, cloudy weekday in April, a mixture of pollen and red dust from dry Carolina clay settles on anything that stands still. The sound of masonry saws, jackhammers, and bulldozers roaring all at once activates the work zone, a space several blocks long surrounded by chain-link fences.
Crews are racing the calendar (and a looming thunderstorm) to finish work on Romare Bearden Park, a 5.4-acre parcel bordered by Church, Mint, and Third streets and Martin Luther King Boulevard. A couple of gazebos, with pressure-treated wood still unblemished by nature, stand at this end of the future park. For now, though, the park is more rusty and dusty than green and fresh.
Standing here, you can look across this future park to another future park, albeit of a different kind. BB&T Ballpark, the future home of the Charlotte Knights, is coming to life in the distance, I-beams rising from the ground. From here, it’s difficult to determine where construction on Romare Bearden Park ends and where work on the ballpark begins.
These two projects not only are changing the landscape of Third Ward, they’re leading the next wave of development uptown. This is the start of a growth spurt for the center of the city, one that should make the 10-block center city more appealing to young professionals, and more ready for a future where people want to be nearer to Charlotte’s heart.
Building the office towers and public transportation that brought uptown to this point took decades. Daniel Levine, a Charlotte native and developer, watched the transformation and began making plans to be a part of it. More than a quarter century ago, Levine and his father, Al, began cobbling together 23 acres of land in First Ward. One day, Levine says, the land will be home to a transformational project.
“Great cities take many, many generations to develop, sort of like a bouillabaisse,” Levine says, referring to the slow-cooked fish soup. “It takes time for it to be really good.”
That doesn’t necessarily sit well in Charlotte, a city that has grown by about 500,000 people in the past 50 years, a city that expects changes to happen quickly.
“We’re just not a patient place,” says Michael Smith, president of Charlotte Center City Partners and uptown’s cheerleader in chief. “We’re a hungry, aspirational place.”
More than that, though, there is a real need to move. A recent study by UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute found that between 2010 and 2012, Mecklenburg County grew at a faster rate than its surrounding counties. That’s a quick shift after a decade of suburban boom in places like Union, York, and Cabarrus counties. If people are indeed coming back to Charlotte’s core, uptown must be ready for them. But the race to build uptown is complicated by competing opinions and landowners who move at different paces. Some construction will speed along and other projects will crawl, underscoring one fact of development that hasn’t changed through time: Behind every project are people.
Smith has a map spread across a conference table in his office, just a few blocks from the construction site. Smeared lines of colored ink cover the map; they’re marks Smith has made in conversations like this one about the possibilities for uptown. More than a billion dollars in new development is planned for uptown and South End by 2020, according to Center City Partners. This includes plans for 7,200 apartments and condominiums, of which 2,800 are already under construction. Not all of those projects will come to fruition, Smith admits. Permits will be denied; funding will fall through.
“It’s not only about how much development. It’s about the quality of development,” says Debra Campbell, Charlotte’s planning director. Campbell is a 25-year veteran of city government, the type of longtime resident who has to remember to say “uptown” instead of “downtown.” She says developers now give more consideration to the experience of being uptown. They want the projects to be more than steel and glass and concrete.