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The Little Creek That Could

Greenway supporters say Midtown setbacks won't stop the project

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Supporters of a Little Sugar Creek greenway say you shouldn't believe the hype: despite disputes over big box developments and more, the project itself is alive and kicking. It's true: looking under the Midtown Square parking lot, or near the softball fields at Park Road Park, or across from Carolina Place Mall in Pineville, it's hard to imagine the polluted creek that runs through these areas as the anchor of a picturesque Charlotte greenway. Nonetheless, a group of local supporters including Mecklenburg County's Park and Recreation Department are all working on a plan to help transform the embattled Little Sugar Creek into what they say could be one of the Queen City's most unique and valuable attractions. Although these folks have faced some setbacks along the way -- which have given the false impression that the entire project has been sidelined -- they say things continue to move forward.

In fact this group -- formally organized as the Little Sugar Creek Greenway Committee -- hope to unveil the first leg of the greenway project at Cordelia Park off North Davidson St. this spring. Plans call for this to be the northernmost phase along a 12.5-mile park and trail system along the creek ending at the SC state line. Everything from historic landmarks, shops and restaurants to bike and hiking paths has been suggested as greenway amenities. Once the Cordelia Park phase opens, people will be able to walk along the greenway's trails from Parkwood Avenue to the Alexander and 16th St. area.

Wayne Weston, director of the county's Park and Recreation Department, says that while the recreation and fitness components of the trail system are undoubtedly a benefit, he stresses the importance of the environmental component of the greenway as well.

"Our number one concern is water quality," Weston said. "This is the most polluted creek in North Carolina. It has been a longtime blight in this community. So we want to really focus our efforts on the water quality with the hopes that this creek can become interactive for future generations. That's why we've included environmental protection groups as well as the Department of Natural Resources within the committee."

Bringing such a large and potentially troublesome project to fruition is no easy task; in fact, it's fraught with land ownership, infrastructure, and money challenges.

Tommy Norman, President of Norcom Properties, is heading up the financial end of the greenway committee, and says that while it may be a daunting task, he feels they have the support to get it done.

"We have some very large and visionary plans for Little Sugar Creek," Norman said. "We're trying to orchestrate a fairly substantial undertaking that could include some wonderful natural venues and major recreational facilities. We've already raised private dollars and are in the process of raising public dollars to get things underway. We have a lot of momentum."

Norman indicated that the committee's goal is to raise $300,000 by spring from the private sector.

"We have funds coming in," he said. "And we continue to get support from non-profits such as Voices and Choices, Trust for Public Land, and the Catawba Land Conservancy. And as far as the county's park and greenway program, I think this is number one on their priority list."

Norman estimates that the cost of tying together all the real estate along the projected greenway route is in the $60 million range. Park and Rec officials -- who point out the county already owns about half the land needed to finish the trail -- estimate it could cost upwards of $90 million and take over a decade to complete the entire project.

This isn't the first time an effort has been made to revitalize Little Sugar Creek. Named in Colonial times for the Sugaw Indians, the creek has been beleaguered for decades by everything from industrial runoff and sewage spills to bone-headed litterbugs. In the 1960s, the City of Charlotte planned to spend millions to dredge and dam Little Sugar from Fourth Street to Freedom Park, but federal funding fell through. Although civic-minded groups made efforts to clear away debris and trash along the creek's shoreline, pollutants continued to be dumped in and around the water, helping further cultivate the creek's unique funk.

Then in 1999 at a public workshop for the Center City 2010 Plan, the idea of cleaning up and revitalizing the creek was revisited, and it was included in the final plan. Some progress was soon made as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities curbed sewage spills and replaced leaking pipes, resulting in a 73 percent drop in the creek's bacterial level from 1998 to 2000.

Then last spring the Little Sugar Creek Committee was formed. During a retreat in Colorado, the committee showed members of the county commission the greenways in Denver and Pueblo, such as the Arkansas Riverwalk Project, to give them an idea of what they had in mind for Charlotte's Midtown area.

The committee soon announced plans to make further improvements along Little Sugar, including recreational amenities and commercial projects. The greenway project received yet another boost when Pappas Properties and Home Depot announced plans to renovate Midtown Square, including a significant section of Little Sugar Creek, which runs under the Midtown Square parking lot.

Those plans, however, hit a snag in November 2001. Citing a sluggish economy made all the worse by 9-11, Pappas Properties indicated they would scrap their plans to rebuild Midtown Square, which included a mix of shops, offices, hotel rooms and residences. Home Depot indicated it wanted to scale back its original plans, although the company still wants to move forward with building an upscale showroom at the old Charlottetown Cinemas site, located across from the mall. Home Depot has already spent $12 million to buy the cinema and Midtown Square property, and while they indicate they are still committed to working on the greenway project, the specifics of that commitment remain in negotiations. Both companies asked City Council in December to allow them to withdraw a rezoning application they filed to develop the complex. The council voted not to allow the withdrawal until at least January, giving them more leverage with Home Depot and their design plans.

Despite this setback, Norman and others are quick to point out that things are still moving forward.

"As a result of Pappas Properties and Home Depot's change in plans, there was this perception that the greenway had come to a stop, and that's just not true.

The next segment in the works for the Little Sugar Creek Greenway will connect Seventh St. to the Fourth and Third St. area and St. Mary's Park. Weston says funding for this project will be available in June (most of which will come from 1999 voter-approved Little Sugar Creek bonds). Weston added the committee is also in the process of hiring a consultant, which will allow for a more concentrated effort towards the overall 12.5-mile comprehensive master plan.

"I know it's hard to picture now," Weston said, "but people just have to close their eyes and understand that this project could be a tremendous community amenity and resource."

Contact Sam Boykin at (704) 944-3623 or sam.boykin@cln.com.

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