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Overlooked Long Enough

Commissioner and Councilman want new government buildings on West Side

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A battle may be brewing that pits uptown interests against those of stagnating, traditionally African-American areas on Charlotte's West Side.

For years, both the city and the county have given lip service to -- and many slide presentations on -- the need to redevelop abandoned strip malls and create other development along the Freedom Drive and Wilkinson Boulevard Corridors.

Now at least two of Charlotte's African-American district reps from these areas say it's time for the city and county to finally follow through. County Commissioner Norman Mitchell and City Council member James Mitchell say the city and county don't need to continue building government buildings on expensive uptown land, even if local government's 2010 planning document suggests clustering future government buildings in close proximity uptown.

At issue is a potential $60 million expansion of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center which commissioners will get a closer look at next month. At that time, the commissioners will examine options for moving at least 500 employees from the Hal Marshall Center, and potentially housing county and city departments that deal with planning, building, engineering and permits in one central location.

Norman Mitchell said he recognizes the need to bring the departments together in one centralized location. What he doesn't understand is why it has to be uptown, rather than in an abandoned strip mall on Freedom Drive that the county could likely purchase for $8 million.

"Why does this have to be downtown? asked Norman Mitchell. "I know these contractors don't want to park in a parking deck when contractors with trucks could come right off Freedom Drive, hop out and go in and out. We have lost a lot of businesses over here on the Freedom Drive corridor and the area is just holding on. The county putting a facility here would nail it down. Then businesses wouldn't mind coming in here because they know some of the county employees would be doing their shopping here. It would be a big help."

James Mitchell agrees. Since Freedom and Wilkinson lack development and aren't exactly known for traffic problems, it would make more sense to put future government buildings there than in the busy uptown area.

"If we had a Magic Johnson movie theater come there (Freedom Drive) right now, it would go belly up," said James Mitchell. "That was one of the reasons Charlotte lost it at the last minute."

The issue could turn into something of a firecracker. Rob Walsh, the head of Charlotte Center City Partners (CCCP), an uptown development advocacy organization funded in part by Bank of America, said in a letter to the county last year that he favors the high-rise consolidation and expansion of the government center uptown. Walsh, who was out of town last week, did not return Creative Loafing's call.

The two Mitchells realize they might have to take on uptown interests to advocate for West Side corridor development. That's a politically tricky thing to do right now. Given the state of the local and national economy, it's understood that the Hearst building on College Street, which is currently under construction, is likely to be the last major high-rise private development undertaken uptown in the near future. Government building development and expansion would ensure that cranes could be seen along the city's skyline for years to come. But that doesn't change the Mitchells' opinion.

"If (uptown business interests) want to see a lot of things happen uptown, then they should step up to the plate and help us pay for these things," said Norman Mitchell. "If we have to do bond referendums just to make our city look good, I don't think the voters will go for it."

A compromise option to move county social services workers from Billingsly Road to abandoned Freedom Drive strip mall(s) as part of the expansion of their department is likely to come up on November 20, when the county commission gets a first look at its employee shuffling options. While this option would likely allow government-funded development on Freedom Drive as well as the 60-story high-rise near the current government center, Norman Mitchell said it's not enough. Mitchell wants all or the majority of government building expansion to go to the West Side, and he said he'd even go so far as to lobby to build the new headquarters for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in blighted West Side corridors.

The Mitchells' West Side development advocacy is clearly putting other African-American leaders, who must walk a fine line between district, racial, party and uptown interests, in something of a tough position. County Commissioner Darrel Williams -- who Norman Mitchell claimed supported his position -- wouldn't go on the record about it last week.

Williams said he needed more information on all the options for relocating city and county employees before he could comment. Eric Douglas, head of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus, wasn't sure where he stood on the issue, either, when asked about it last week. CL asked him to think about it and call us back with an answer. As of yet, we haven't heard back from him.

Douglas and Williams may have plenty of time to decide, because lumping city and county agencies together on the corridors may involve plan shuffling and extra footwork, although it could be done.

Mark Hahn, the director of real estate services for Mecklenburg County, has been studying the county's relocation options in the event that private development of the Hal Marshall land becomes reality. Hahn said building and development industry leaders don't seem to have a preference for where a consolidated building services facility is located, as long as all the services are located in one place. Hahn said that would mean that only county building and regulation services would be consolidated in one location, since there currently is no option on the table in which the city and the county co-locate services together. So the city's engineering department, for instance, which plays a crucial role in all sorts of development regulation, wouldn't be part of the Freedom Drive picture, though locating city engineering in the proposed $60 million government high-rise is likely to be one of the options on the table later this month.

Of course, a call from county bureaucrats to city bureaucrats could change that. But there are other challenges, Hahn points out. Although the Freedom Drive corridor, which is favored by the Mitchells, has plenty of parking and little traffic, it isn't slated to be a major transit corridor, as Wilkinson is. The final location of the new courthouse, which is still an unresolved issue for the county, could also impact where buildings and employees are located.

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