Thursday, February 26, 2015

Cautionary Tales for Davidson’s Catalyst Project

When government gets into the development business, things often do not go exactly as planned.  That happens for any number of reasons.  Some are legitimate.  Some are not.  But there is always a reason or an excuse for why it happened.

“It was the economy.” Or, “the consultants gave us bad advice”. Or, “even though the project is an economic failure, it's really a success.”

That last one only makes sense when you are spending someone else's money, but it gets used on occasion.

For sure, the answer is never “we’re sorry.  It was a bad idea, and we shouldn't have done it.”

The recent post about potential development on Davidson’s Main Street, specifically the so called “Catalyst Project” being driven by Davidson Town hall garnered some feedback from Commissioner Rodney Graham.  He made a couple of good points on the upcoming changes to the town planning ordinance as well as the Catalyst Project that deserve mentioning.

Commissioner Graham said on Facebook...

“It is important to note that in what I would call the postcard image of downtown Davidson, that area between the new Mooney's Corner building extending to Depot Street, the proposed revisions to the planning ordinance actually call for a reduction in the allowable building height from 4 to 3 stories. We recognize the uniqueness and importance of this area to Davidson.”

That's definitely good to hear.

He goes on to say “the Town has recognized that it owns some very significant real estate in downtown Davidson. The goal is not to get into the development business by investing in buildings, but rather to guide development on those properties to ensure it is consistent with the needs of our citizens.”

Davidson is known for its strong commitment New Urbanist planning principles, and over the years it has done a very good job of protecting Main Street from development that doesn't “fit” with that Norman Rockwell, small-town image people have come to associate with the town center.

The examples of the two-story CVS and the Stowe Building at the south entrance to the “postcard” section of town are regularly held up as examples of the Town sticking to its guns in the face of possible unwanted change.

However, those are different animals all together than what the Catalyst Project could become – a transformative project in an area that has tried really hard to change as little as possible.  That the Catalyst Project could change what it means to go to downtown Davidson is undeniable when the town is talking about bringing some combination retail, office space, multifamily housing, and a large parking deck to the area adjacent to its “postcard”.

Even if the town is not building any of the actual buildings, is “guiding” and encouraging that much development something the town really wants to be doing?  Also, if things go wrong how much will be taxpayers be on the hook?

Will the project end up like the NASCAR Hall of Fame built by the City of Charlotte which just had the City asking for a bailout from its lenders due to poor attendance?  Or, will the project end up like the Huntersville Town Center built with the intention of spurring revitalization of the old downtown area?  That project cost the town $19 million, but has had limited impact on additional development.

One thing that does not bode well for the Catalyst Project, is that the stated demand according to town hall, does not seem to mesh with what’s happening on the ground.

At the recent presentations on the project, economic development director, Kim Fleming, talked about regularly turning down requests for space in the downtown area.

That sounds promising.  However, when I asked (twice) for a list of commercial projects over the last year that have been unable to find space in the downtown area, the answer from town economic development director, Kim Fleming, was that no such list exists.

Moreover, two blocks down the street at South Main Square you’ll find that nearly all of the commercial space lies empty in the live work portion of the  complex.  Further out from town center you'll see things like the “for lease” signs above RushCo at Exit 30.  The town has also floated a preliminary proposal to convert the planned live-work units in the Bradford neighborhood to affordable housing rentals.

Granted, these may not be comparable examples to the demand for small-space commercial in Downtown Davidson, and I am sure they will be explained away as such.  However, they are examples of the town “guiding” commercial development in ways that have been less than successful.

Let's hope if the town ends up guiding development in a way that transforms Main Street, they don't have to look for any of those same excuses.

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