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Plowed Under

Stealth plans for South Boulevard

While transit planners work to put light rail along South Boulevard in motion, political leaders are quietly planning more local governmental involvement than has been previously acknowledged in the large-scale redevelopment of the South Boulevard transit corridor.

If plans in the works come to fruition, the City of Charlotte could assume the role of developer along the south transit corridor. Using land condemnation authority and millions of dollars in public money from a variety of existing and proposed programs, local government -- in all likelihood the City of Charlotte -- would buy large tracts of land around transit stations from uptown to Pineville, demolish existing structures, clean up old industrial land pollution, and provide gap-financing and other financial assistance to developers seeking to build high-density development in the transit corridor.

A consultant's report by Charles Lesser & Co., commissioned by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission in February and obtained by Creative Loafing last month, suggests that to generate enough ridership along South Boulevard to make light rail work, local government would have to purchase hundreds of acres of land along the corridor and subsidize its redevelopment.

When CL asked Planning Commission Director Martin Cramton about it a few weeks ago, he dismissed the report, insisting that its conclusion that subsidized redevelopment would be necessary to make transit work was wrong.

"I don't care what the report says," Cramton told CL. Cramton said what public officials have been telling the public for years, i.e., light rail and high density zoning along the transit corridor would attract the development needed to make the transit corridor work.

It now appears, though, that the city has been planning to do exactly what the report recommends for about a year now. A station area principles document recently adopted by the Metropolitan Transit Commission, City Council and the County Commission lists multiple programs and sources of revenue local governments plan to study and pursue for the redevelopment of the transit corridor.

According to the document, local government has committed to acquiring land within a quarter-mile of the transit stations that "cannot be developed by the private sector without some public participation."

The goal is to help developers assemble large tracts of land for mixed-use development. In most cases, each parcel should be a minimum of three acres in size, according to the document. After the structures on the land are demolished and environmental cleanup is paid for, the land would be sold to developers. The report also commits local government to studying the process for lobbying the state legislature for land condemnation authority along the corridor for redevelopment purposes and the pursuit of state legislation needed to sell bonds to fund incentive programs for development along the corridor. The document also commits local governments to pursuing something called a Transit Investment Gap Financing program, essentially a public subsidy program to help developers close financing gaps in projects along the transit corridor.

According to the policy document, the City of Charlotte will shoulder most of the burden for subsidizing affordable housing along the corridor, both as part of joint development projects with developers and, in general, within a half-mile of the transit stations. Funds for this will come from affordable housing bond money voters approved a few years agoand various city housing assist- ance programs.

The document contains no estimates of how much any of this might cost, but makes clear that transit funds from the half-cent sales tax passed by voters in 1998 won't be used. Most of the revenue that will subsidize these developments would come from new taxes or revenue sources or the expansion of current revenue sources.

While the station area principles document doesn't make clear which governmental body will create and oversee most of the programs it suggests, the City of Charlotte appears to be pursuing many of them as part of a proposed expansion of its existing business development programs the City Council has been studying for close to a year.

While a final plan hasn't yet been presented to City Council, John Palmieri, the city's director of economic development, said he has been talking with the council about incentives that would provide some gap financing loans or grants for development along the South Boulevard transit corridor, as well as in other areas of the city.

Palmieri said the city has also been studying the creation of a type of development district that could be used along the transit corridor and elsewhere in the city. With approval from the state legislature, the city could borrow money for redevelopment within these districts and levy district-specific taxes to pay it back. He says the city has also had discussions with the Charlotte Chamber and members of the local state legislative delegation about obtaining the state's OK to condemn land within those districts for development purposes, "as a last resort" if property owners refuse to sell land needed for redevelopment at market value.

Palmieri said City Council will likely receive a more formalized version of the proposed plans, which were initially presented to them last year and again this Spring, in the coming months.

"We haven't gone anywhere with this yet because we've all agreed that it may take some time to gain some consensus," Palmieri said. "We certainly understand the importance of having the Chamber of Commerce work with us and our legislative delegation work with us. We know it's a tough issue to discuss, but we also think it may be helpful to us as we consider larger development programs within the inner city neighborhoods and along the transit corridor."

Brian Schick, Group Vice President of Business Advocacy at the Charlotte Chamber, said that the city tried last year to get the Chamber's public policy task force to endorse its quest for broad condemnation authority along South Boulevard.

"One concept was for them to just draw a radius, a circle around each of the transit stations," said Schick. "And we said, "Well if you drew a circle of a half-mile around the transit station right downtown you'd have most of the center city in there.' . . . We impressed upon them how it could be dicey for us just to give them carte blanche Chamber approval of something like that."

Schick said the Chamber supports the transit plan and understands that the city needs to assemble land around the transit stations for redevelopment. So far, he says, the city hasn't come back to the Chamber with more detail.

Palmieri said the city plans to meet with the Chamber in the future and that the transit corridor development programs the city is studying are part of a larger economic development effort to attract investment, grow the tax base and create jobs.

"We in Charlotte haven't had to devote much attention to this kind of assistance in the past because the city has grown by leaps and bounds and has been so successful," he said. "I think that now as we look at redevelopment issues and transit development, we are beginning to recognize that we have to do more to provide assistance to the private sector in concert with their development initiatives. That's what these programs are all about."

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