When it comes to major development projects in Charlotte, places like Ballantyne and SouthPark come to mind.
But another spot — one of the last large undeveloped tracts in Mecklenburg County to be developed — will be added to the list.
The River District.
Spanning 1,400 acres of mostly forested land by the Catawba River, Crescent Communities’ project will include 5,000 homes and apartments, millions of square feet of office space, half a million square feet of retail and 1,000 hotel rooms. It will even include a 2-acre working farm. The project is on a similar scale to Ballantyne, which over the past 25 years transformed woods and farmland on the edge of the city into a mini-city and center of development.
“This place is no longer just emails and meetings and designs,” Chase Kerley, managing director at Crescent, told a large crowd gathered on the site Wednesday afternoon. Behind him, a large, partially cleared field stretched back toward the woods’ edge. Beyond that, out of sight, was the riverbank where Crescent and city officials envision one day people will be able to go for a paddleboard session in the morning before heading to the nearby office for a day’s work.
Some will be keeping a watchful eye as construction gets underway in the coming months. The Catawba Riverkeeper, which has put a stamp of approval on the project, will be monitoring any impacts to water quality. Nearby residents are watching, too. Some are excited for new retail, but remain worried about affects on traffic.
Kerley along with a number of city officials, including assistant city manager Tracy Dodson, were marking a ceremonial groundbreaking for the project. The district has been in the works for roughly six years. The City Council paved the way for the project in late 2016. The council committed to about $30 million of infrastructure.
The River District will be built in phases and take nearly a decade to finish. Crescent will preserve 500 acres.
The project will be a “magnet” for a talented workforce to come to North Carolina and the Charlotte region, said Chris Chung, CEO of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina.
A new town center
The first phase is known as Westrow.
The “town center” will be a 70-acre development with more than 500 apartments, 124 mixed-income apartments, 100 townhomes and 60,000 square feet of office and retail, Kerley said.
Over the coming months, work will start to extend West Boulevard from Interstate 485 out to the development, Kerley said. The extension will be a four-lane, median-divided road. Developers are emphasizing walking and biking so new roadways will have multi-use trails on the outside, according to Kerley.
Dixie River Road — currently a two-lane road that runs directly by the site — also will be widened. The site is just west of Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
While roads will be widened to help with traffic flow, the project was designed to have somebody who works there or lives there be able to walk or bike to where they need to go.
“That’s what new urban development needs,” Kerley said. “It doesn’t need a vehicle for everything. You can get on a bike or get on a trail, go eat lunch, leave your office, go to your house.”
A community with a farm
What would a 1,400-acre development be without a farm?
The Westrow phase will include a small farm. Tucker Smith will manage it. Early plans are to grow mixed vegetables: carrots, radishes, turnips and beets. There also will be a farm store with a cafe. They might also have farm dinners where a chef comes in to cook.
The idea is to help people reconnect with where their food comes from, said Erich Schultz, who owns Steadfast Farm, the company Crescent hired to run the River District farm.
Residents have mixed feelings
Debbie Sutton lives in the Dixie-Berryhill neighborhood, not far from the River District.
Sutton, 67, called the project starting work “bittersweet” as she’s hopeful about having closer options for restaurants and shops but worries about impacts like on traffic.
“I have very mixed feelings about it,” Sutton said.
Keeping an eye on water quality
After the project was unveiled several years ago, the Catawba Riverkeeper was pleased with protections to water quality. Sam Perkins, the riverkeeper at the time, believed the safeguards the developers were putting in place to protect water quality would shield the area’s vulnerable streams and coves.
Riverkeeper Brandon Jones remains pleased, saying the developer has gone above and beyond to put water quality safeguards in place.
The foundation will keep an eye on the project both during active construction and post construction. The site will have large vegetation buffers to essentially filter out any contaminants, Jones said. Plus, there are sensors in the water to measure how clear the water is.
“We remain optimistic that this site is being developed in one of the most responsible ways possible,” Jones said.
Preserving city’s tree canopy
Construction of the River District will clear hundreds of acres that are mostly forested now.
That is not the direction needed to grow the city’s open forest, said Jane Singleton Myers, executive director of TreesCharlotte.
A tree canopy assessment published in 2019 showed the city’s tree canopy declined to 45% in 2018, down from 49% in 2012, according to the report. Much of the loss occurred in areas zoned for residential, where most of the existing canopy is located, the report states.
But TreesCharlotte has to balance maintaining and growing the tree canopy with the fact that Charlotte is a fast-growing city, Myers said. Her group has met with Crescent Communities to talk about committing to tree-saving measures that go above what’s required in various ordinances.
“We have to be looking at this holistically,” she said, adding it’s helpful to have relationships with developers like Crescent.
Trees are important for a city’s overall health by helping to clean air and a number of other factors like helping with drainage. Studies have also shown the positive impacts to people’s health like lowering stress.