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Charlotte's Transit Related Development Boom

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Good things happen beside tracks

Offices, condos, retail, restaurants blossom along South Boulevard

DOUG SMITH

"Stay away from those railroad tracks!"

Those were always my parents' words of warning when my friends and I hiked from our homes on West Boulevard to catch a flick at the old Dilworth Theater on South Boulevard.

You couldn't get there without crossing the tracks, which parallel South Boulevard.

But that's not what worried my mom and dad.

They understood the attraction curious boys had to those tracks, lined with wino habitats, empty whisky bottles, blackberry thickets, vacant warehouses and all sorts of unclaimed treasures.

The rail bed was our shortcut to stores on Park Avenue, our favorite route to the old A.G. Junior High School on Morehead Street (where the YMCA is now) and our after-school playground.

It's hard to believe that was more than four decades ago.

Even more difficult for a native like to me to fathom is how the rail corridor is being transformed from the underbelly of South Boulevard's industrial development to a revitalization magnet.

Urban planners say the tracks -- which will host regular daily trolley service starting in January and light-rail service in 2006 -- might compensate for Charlotte's lack of a river or natural feature to lure additional development.

That theory gained credibility last week when a Charlotte developer disclosed plans to remodel the 76-year-old Fowler's Office Furniture & Supplies building on South Tryon Street at the Camden Road fork.

Chris Branch, president of The Boulevard Co., said the South End building will become the centerpiece of a restaurant, retail and most likely residential project.

The location next to a planned trolley and light-rail stop is crucial to the company's development plans, he said.

The Boulevard Co. will construct a patio in back of the building, which likely will become a restaurant, and develop a four-story structure that could be either offices or residential condos.

Lower level shops will include services oriented toward passengers -- a newsstand and a coffee shop, for example -- and the outdoor patio will emphasize skyline views from track side.

Branch estimates the project's value will exceed $10 million. It's one more layer of private investment along the trolley tracks, where the city estimates condo, apartment, retail and office development has exceeded $400 million between uptown and South End over the past few years.

Light rail trains will run on those same trolley tracks and then continue on their own tracks to near Pineville.

The Charlotte Area Transit System expects to spend $26 million to buy property along the rail line for stations and parking lots.

The $371 million line will have 14 stations from Seventh Street uptown to Interstate 485 in south Charlotte.

Encouraged by the momentum, developer Andy Heath started work last summer on the first private development designed to tie directly into a transit stop -- $17 million 3030 South at New Bern Street Station.

He's building 36 units in the first phase of the 4.2-acre project, which eventually will include 96 condos and two small office-retail buildings.

Condo owners will be able to walk 50 yards to the station -- behind the Pepsi-Cola Bottling plant -- for a six-minute ride uptown when passenger service begins in about three years.

The first condo buyers are expected to occupy their units in February.

Activity also will pick up next week when Edifice Inc. starts construction of a CATS bus operations and maintenance facility north of Clanton Road between South Boulevard and Tryon.

The bus hub will dovetail with a light-rail yard and rail shop to be developed in a later phase on the 23-acre site.

At my old stamping grounds around Park Avenue, Camden Road and South Boulevard, new restaurants and shops already are clustering in close proximity to the tracks.

Four-story Park Avenue Condominiums, one of the first residential projects to be developed along the trolley line, has a rooftop terrace overlooking the tracks between uptown and South End.

The 67-unit residential project and the adjoining Park Avenue Building were developed on a block that once housed a drugstore, a furniture store, a shoe shop, a barbershop, a jewelry store and other retailers.

Across the tracks on Camden Road is a neighborhood mainstay: Price's Chicken Coop, which evolved from the Dilworth Poultry business I knew in the 1950s.

Next door to Price's an old tire store has been demolished and rumor has it someone wants to develop an office building there.

All along the line, construction is changing the landscape. The Design Center of the Carolinas has emerged from the old Nebel Knitting Mill at Camden Road and Worthington Avenue, and the Westin Charlotte had opened at College and Stonewall streets.

Restaurants and shops that arrived in the first wave of South End revitalization a decade ago now are talking about reorienting toward the tracks with signs, patios and additional entrances.

Forget my mom's advice.

Stay away from those tracks today and you'll miss out on good eateries, cool places to live, quaint shops and perhaps even an attractive real estate deal.

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