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Let's Say The Hornets Leave. Then What?

Revitalizing Uptown Without An Arena

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That loud sucking noise you hear isn't Ray and George, but rather the vacuum being created uptown by the Hornets' seemingly imminent departure. It's hard to believe the whole stupid, sleazy mess is finally coming to an end, but here we are.

So what now? If the Bugs do indeed fly the hive, what's going to happen to the center city? Surely the city won't go ahead and build a big empty arena in hopes of getting another NBA team, oh, 10 years from now -- not when other needs are so pressing. But since one of the reasons given for an uptown arena was to create more vitality in the center city, it's valid to ask what else can be done to continue the upward swing downtown? After all, an arena is not -- repeat, is not -- the only way cities have to goose their center city.

Most urban experts agree there are four basic qualities cities can rely upon for being attractive, viable destinations: geography, history, retail/entertainment, and sports. In terms of what the Queen City has at its disposal, you can pretty much eliminate geography and history. Although we're reasonably close to the coast and the mountains, San Francisco or New York we're not. And history? We're mere infants compared to cities like Boston and Charleston, and the vast majority of whatever historical character we may have had has been replaced by marble, steel and glass.

That leaves sports and retail/entertainment. Let's look at potential uptown venues that involve something a little more creative and participatory than assuming the couch potato position, drinking beer and watching pro sports -- hell, you can do that at home, and the beer is cheaper.

Lost Momentum

While there are several uptown projects being bandied about, it's also true that several have lost their momentum after the Hornets started making noise about moving to New Orleans. Plans for the Hal Marshall Project, a mixed-use urban village in First Ward, were put on hold recently when NY-based The Palladium Co. pulled out in March, citing a lackluster retail market. The company had won a competition to develop close to 20 acres of city and county property in the First Ward area. However, the second finalist in the competition, Levine Properties and Cousins Properties, recently met with city and county officials to revisit the plan they submitted last year. The joint Levine/Cousins venture proposes to combine the city and county's 20 acres with an additional 20 acres owned by Levine Properties, creating an expansive village of offices, residences, shops, cultural facilities and a public park.

"Our interest is in developing a true urban neighborhood that consists of a high-density residential component for all kinds of people -- from young professionals to empty nesters," said Dan Levine, president of Levine Properties. "We envision a place where people will want to bring their friends and family and just hang out. We also want street level retail, with services like produce stands, boutiques, bookstores and movie theaters, but avoid the formulaic strip mall."

Although city and county officials have said they have several priorities they must address before making any decisions regarding the Hal Marshall Project -- including the annual budget and the apparently eternal arena issue -- they are expected to reconvene in the next month or so to discuss it further.

Another big project whose downtown future now seems uncertain at best is an outdoor adventure center, which could include climbing walls, biking trails, and as its anchor, a custom-built whitewater river. Since the innovative project was first presented, the talk was of it being located uptown. But now developers say it may be too costly to locate in the center city, and they're looking at other suitable locations.

Jeff Wise, executive director of Charlotte Whitewater Park, the nonprofit group raising money for the project, says that while an uptown location is still possible, they are actively scouting other locations. "We're not necessarily trying to get away from uptown," says Wise. "We're trying to get people to open up a little bit, and to find the best way to create synergy and critical mass for Charlotte."

Some of the other locations that have been mentioned are north of Interstate 85 along the Catawba River, and next to Park Road Park, near the intersection of Tyvola Rd and Park Rd.

"We're land intensive," said Wise. "I'm not sure that with 40 percent of uptown property being non-taxable (churches, government buildings, etc), we want to put another major piece of real-estate there that doesn't generate tax dollars. So we don't really consider ourselves an uptown project, but more of a quality of life project."

As far as rejuvenating uptown, Wise says people shouldn't look for one magic project to suddenly turn the center city into a viable destination, including a whitewater park.

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