Nov 18, 2021 - Business

Neighbors worry about ripple effects of Atrium Health’s Innovation District

atrium health

atrium health medical school

Editor’s note: After this story’s original publish date, Charlotte City Council unanimously approved its proposed incentives package for the Atrium Health Innovation District. Then, on Dec. 7, Mecklenburg County commissioners voted 6-2 to approve the county’s incentives deal. Combined, the total incentives package is worth $75 million from the city and county.

Atrium Health and Wake Forest Baptist will receive public funds for a transformational medical school campus and innovation district in Charlotte, despite neighbors’ concerns about the sweeping project’s effects on surrounding communities.

What’s happening: The healthcare systems are seeking to rezone 14.28 acres in midtown for a state-of-the-art medical school campus. They’re also asking for $75 million from the city and county to fund infrastructure upgrades, such as new streets and utilities.

Among other amenities, the rezoning for the campus would allow for:

  • Four towers.
  • Street-level retail space for restaurants and other businesses.
  • An education building.
  • Up to 1,000 apartment units.
  • A maximum of 600 hotel rooms.
  • Parking garages with 2,000 spaces combined.
  • Public outdoor space.
The medical school and innovation district site plan, which Atrium presented to Mecklenburg County Commissioners Nov. 9.

The project would create 5,500 jobs onsite and around 11,500 throughout Mecklenburg County, according Atrium. Roughly 30-40% of those would not require a college degree, says Hillary Crittendon, the healthcare system’s head of commercial development.

In a recent letter to the city and county, the Housing Justice Coalition and the Southern Piedmont Central Labor Council outlined a list of requirements they say are necessary for the project “to be truly beneficial for all Charlotteans.”

In its current form, the groups said, the plan leaves “a lot to be desired.” For instance, currently only 5% of the apartments on the property are planned as affordable housing.

  • Among their requests: Set aside at least 70% of apartments onsite as affordable housing, construction of a low-cost medical clinic and a commitment to work with CMS on STEM education and internships.

“This project has the potential to attract more jobs, drive property values higher, and thus add to a worsening housing crisis that is compounded by the fact that North Carolina has some of the worst labor protections and utilizes the abysmal federal minimum wage of $7.25/hr,” the groups wrote.

  • HJC did not respond to a request for an interview.

Zoom out: New development in any almost any neighborhood in Charlotte prompts concerns over rising property values and displacement. But part of the Atrium project includes where Brooklyn, Charlotte’s once-thriving Black business district, used to be.

  • Brooklyn was once a thriving Black commercial and residential district. It was home to a number of important institutions, including Black churches, public schools, dozens of Black-owned businesses and a YMCA.
  • In the 1960s and 1970s, the city tore the community down in the name of “urban renewal.”

Dr. Sylvia Bittle-Patton, a member of the Housing Justice Coalition and member of the Cherry Community Organization, said it’s easy for anyone not from Charlotte to understate the importance the importance of the area.

  • The city acquired the former Brooklyn land through eminent domain before leveling it, she noted.

“Yes, that may have been decades ago, but for Charlotte’s Black community, the betrayal is still fresh in our minds. We must be intentional about righting this wrong,” Bittle-Patton told city council Nov. 15. “More than a public apology from city leaders is needed.”

“There must be a commitment to mitigate the disruption and gentrification of established surrounding communities, namely Cherry and Dilworth,” she added.

Local affordable housing advocate James Lee said in a neighborhood presentation last week he wants to see more of a commitment to “challenged communities” that could be affected by such a massive development.

He calls Atrium’s current plan “one-sided.”

  • “We want to see that you’re down with us. If you bring some things that’ll help the community you’d have applause. As usual our concern is always when we see things like this, how is the community really going to benefit from this?” he said.

Wexford Science and Technology, the firm Atrium is partnering with on the Charlotte campus, has developed several innovation districts around the country, including in Philadelphia and Winston-Salem. In those markets, the firm has established community advisory boards to help guide the vision for the project.

The plan is to do that in Charlotte, too, Crittendon says.

  • This group would include community members and education partners like Johnson C. Smith University, she tells Axios.
  • Atrium would turn to this group for input on decisions that could impact the community.
  • The plan is to set it up sometime in the first quarter of next year.

“We think this council is probably the best way to ensure needs of the community are linked up with the work we can do with the district,” Crittendon says.

Rendering of the new Atrium/Wake Forest medical school (courtesy of Ayers Saint Gross)
Rendering of the new Atrium/Wake Forest medical school (courtesy of Ayers Saint Gross)
charlotte med school
Another view of the new Atrium/Wake Forest medical school (courtesy of Ayers Saint Gross)
charlotte medical school
An aerial view of the new Atrium/Wake Forest medical school (courtesy of Ayers Saint Gross)

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