Oct 26, 2023 - Development

Massive rail facility would stifle South End’s growth, opponents say

NCDOT TRAIN RAIL

Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

In the midst of the South End boom, the state is planning to use large tracts in a key part of the neighborhood for a train maintenance facility expansion. The controversial project could take up a brewery, historic buildings and the site of a proposed mixed-use development, according to conceptual plans obtained by Axios.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation’s project would be on land that has skyrocketed in value and development potential. Plus, the state is exempt from paying property taxes — meaning lost revenue for the city.

  • The facility could require the state to exercise eminent domain and take several historic properties.

Why it matters: NCDOT faces resistance as it pushes forward on expanding its Charlotte Passenger Rail Facility. It says the expansion of the industrial land it already owns is necessary to support the Charlotte Gateway Station, a planned transportation hub at West Trade and Graham streets.

  • Opponents say the expansion project would divide the city like the construction of highways did in the 1950s-1970s.
  • It would surround a crucial artery, Summit Avenue, that links South End to a future 55-acre, mixed-use destination called the Iron District, where Charlotte Pipe currently is.

Driving the news: NCDOT says the Charlotte Passenger Rail Facility will support bringing first-class passenger rail to Uptown. They’re trying to align the timing with the Charlotte Gateway Station and the delivery of new trains in 2027, Jason Orthner, director of the rail division, tells Axios.

  • “Charlotte is currently our busiest market in the system today and serves as the anchor, the endpoint for southbound train services,” Orthner says. “In the future, it’s going to be even more important.”

Details: It’s early in the process to share specifics, including whether additional property is needed, NCDOT says.

“NCDOT is still coordinating with stakeholders and working through optimization and minimization of the facility footprint and required property,” according to the department.

This map was obtained by the Wilmore Neighborhood Association and shared with Axios. NCDOT confirms this is “an early, conceptual version of the plan” for the expansion.

But nearby property owners say the conceptual maps are alarming. They show the majority of the planned expansion would go on 18 acres — owned by an entity called White Consolidated Industries— that backs up to homes.

  • NCDOT would also need to acquire many historic properties, according to the map’s acquisition matrix. They include Frothy Beard Brewing Company, H&S Roofing, 1216 and 1220 South Graham Street, and 501 Penman Street. Providence Group Capital is planning a high-density mixed-use development on a potentially impacted site at the corner of Mint and Winona streets.
  • “Our quest has been to give people … a glimpse into Charlotte’s past,” says Jim Whiteside, who owns Frothy Beard’s building. “One of the things that really hurts is to see the callous and insensitive position that the North Carolina railroad has created for us by just dumping this ugly, greasy train maintenance facility in our backyard.”
This conceptual map was obtained by the Wilmore Neighborhood Association and shared with Axios.

What they’re saying: Neighbors and groups, including the Gold District board and Wilmore Neighborhood Association, are concerned the facility will be noisy and produce harmful and unhealthy emissions. They are pushing for NCDOT to relocate the facility to a different location, such as the airport.

The other side: Orthner says this location is one of the few places that would connect to the Gateway Station and not conflict with freight train operations.

  • “The type of facility that we are building is modern, and the types of trains we’re talking about are super quiet,” Orthner says. “We’re not talking about an old freight yard.”
  • The new trains will be a European style, he says, “where you can flow freely between the cars. They’re light and bright. Lots of technology on board. Super good ride quality. Super-efficient train sets.”
NCDOT TRAIN RAIL
White Consolidated Industries’s property on West Summit Avenue. Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

Zoom in: Mike Conroy’s parents bought a 1925 building on Penman Street in 1992, where the family runs its printing business. Now they suspect they’ll be forced to give the building to NCDOT just as they’re seeking a historic designation for it.

“My dad’s a 91-year-old veteran. My mom is 86 years old,” Conroy tells me. “They had an idea that this would be a great place to invest in and be a part of a community. At this point in their life, for them to have this happen is, to me, just appalling.”

  • He only recently learned about NCDOT’s expansion. He says he received a letter in October (though it was dated 2022) about survey work being done this month on and near the property. The work was to gather information for the construction of “roadways, bridges, and other project features,” the letter states.

Another point of contention: Summit Avenue would run right through the expansion. NCDOT would not close Summit Avenue permanently as part of the project, Orthner says. But it’s still the obvious connection and walk between the Blue Line light rail and a future Silver Line station. The preliminary plans show multiple train crossings, which could be unsafe for bikers and pedestrians.

  • “We’ve got an opportunity to integrate the new Iron District into the Gold District, South End and into the Bank of America Stadium district,” says Michael Smith, president of Charlotte Center City Partners. “To do that, Summit has to be a connector.”

Zoom out: Demand for passenger rail in North Carolina is growing. Last year’s ridership was more than 522,000 passengers, 13% higher than 2019, Orthner says. This year is on pace to eclipse that number. In the first half of the year, ridership was up 28%.

  • “It’s a reason why we’re really looking to make these kinds of investments, to make sure that there’s even better access to the system for the folks in the region,” he says.

The bottom line: NCDOT’s expansion doesn’t align with the official South End Vision Plan, Smith says. He says infrastructure can inhibit growth, but it also stimulates and supports private development.

  • “Is this the right location? Are there other alternatives?” Smith says. “We’ve just got to continue to have conversations about it and find that middle ground of supporting really exciting new passenger rail service at the gateway station, and the continued development, and the neighborhood that already exists.”

What’s next: NCDOT is reaching out to communities, businesses and stakeholders “very, very soon,” Orthner says, as part of its public engagement process for projects.

  • In the meantime, residents and property owners are hosting a community meeting at 5:30pm today (Thursday) at Frothy Beard.

Site of NCDOT’s current facility in Wilmore off Summit.

Renderings NCDOT uploaded to Flickr in 2016 showing the proposed second phase of the railcar maintenance facility:

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