For $29 million, Concord could have a pretty hopping downtown.
From a concert hall to lakeside living, the new Concord urban design plan outlines a future vision for the Cabarrus County seat designed to promote walking, encourage development and maximize entertainment. The Concord City Council and county commissioners heard a presentation on the plan at a joint meeting Monday, Aug. 1; the project is still in the early design phase and council members have yet to make a decision on whether to move forward.
“We can all remember when Concord and most downtowns were dead; they just hadn’t been declared dead, but they were,” Concord Mayor Scott Padgett said. “Now we’ve got so much going on. I honestly think our best days are ahead of us with some of the projects that I know you already know about. It’s been very good, and things are changing a lot. Whether it will look like this or sort of like this or nothing like this, I just want to emphasize that we have made no decision about this.”
The plan outlined five driving projects: a revitalized Union Street, a market plaza behind old city hall, the proposed county parking deck, a Bicentennial lot parking deck and lakeside living downtown. Projected costs total about $29.5 million with a potential $165 million in private investment and an estimated $2.3 million return on investment each year in property taxes.
The city started laying the groundwork for the plan a while ago, conducting a parking study in 2015 and hiring the Development Finance Initiative out of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government to run a market analysis and see what types of residential and commercial assets Concord could sustain.
City staff then met with Benchmark Planning in Charlotte to draft the urban development plan. Community input sessions ran February through July followed by a downtown analysis, design workshop and several drafts. Now in the plan adoption phase, staff presented initially to the two boards, and Concord will formally consider it at the Thursday, Aug. 11, meeting.
The first step of the project is to redesign the two-and-a-half block portion of Union Street from Corban Avenue to the crosswalk just north of the library. The main goals remain to open sidewalks up for outdoor dining, highlight local restaurants and shops, and add value to surrounding buildings.
Currently, the street boasts 12.5-foot travel lanes—just shy of the 13-foot lanes on Interstate 85—bookended by 9 feet of parking on either side. One side has 11 feet of sidewalk while the other only has 9 with a 2-foot curb.
Dan Douglas, an urban design director with Benchmark, said restaurants need at least 14 feet of pavement to have outdoor dining, and staff drafted three variations to achieve this. The wide option essentially narrows the existing setup to create a wider sidewalk on the west side.
“This is really squinching it in as hard as you can and still maintaining that exact pattern that you have out there today,” Douglas said. “The preferred sort of outdoor café that you see in a lot of cities now is a table against the building and a table against the curb. You walk through the café; the idea that it has to be roped off is kind of the old way that cafes were done. When you have retail next to restaurant and you’re window shopping and you have you know 6 feet of tables, you move out to go around those, and then you never come back to the windows.”
The Park One design eliminates one parking lane, allowing the inner travel lanes to widen slightly from the previous option and also create an even wider sidewalk. A shared concept eliminates the curbs and parking altogether, using ballers to divide sidewalk and street.
“It’s kind of an emerging new streetscape design that you see in a few places around the country; there’s only I think one or two in North Carolina,” Douglas said. “This is a street where you send the signal that the pedestrian is the most important thing.”
Benchmark estimated the cost for this phase of the project at $1.6 million, bringing a potential $29 million in private investment. That would return $400,000 each year.
“If it comes to fruition that way, the economy stays strong, there’s development interest in these sites, we think that the Union Street streetscape could pay for itself in four or five years,” Douglas said.
The biggest proposed change to the downtown look comes in the form of a market plaza behind old city hall where the old finance building sits. The idea is to create a public gathering and event space with infrastructure—such as bathrooms and generators—built in so potential users wouldn’t have to also rent other equipment.
“Concord is growing,” Douglas said. “It will probably be over 100,000 by the next Census in 2020, and there isn’t a real driver of foot traffic in downtown besides the courthouse and a little bit the Davis Theater. Most cities of your size, they start exploring a performing arts center, Kannapolis the baseball diamond or maybe a convention center, some of these things to build foot traffic to help to create the demand for retail and restaurant in downtown.
“What we’re suggesting here is that you create a signature destination on what is really a valuable site just behind the old city hall.”
With pedestrian alleys to Union Street, an amphitheater, terraces, a fountain and built-in vendor booths, the plaza could transition from a concert hall to festival to ice rink depending on the season. Smaller rentals such as family and class reunions could also use the space.
Installing such amenities could also help spur more development in nearby vacant buildings.
“These are your drivers of demand downtown, and they are amenities that residents really love that they can walk to these things and live in downtown,” Douglas said. “It isn’t just about having concerts and entertaining people. It’s about creating value for the sites around it, creating demand for the restaurants and retailers and building an amenity base that really attracts new residents.”
Market plaza could cost about $6.2 million with $1.2 million for Market Street’s streetscape for a total of $7.4 million. The project could draw $11 million in private investment, yielding a return of $158,000 in taxes each year.
Cabarrus County commissioners have already begun planning a parking deck off of Spring Street and Barbrick Avenue with buildings on one side set for commercial or residential development. The deck would house courthouse customers and serve as paring for some residential and government buildings downtown as well as the general public.
“There are opportunities between the city and the county to capitalize on this,” Douglas said. “You really get sort of one bite at the apple when you’re building a big parking structure. It’s not like you can come back five years later and add another level on top. Parking is what drives downtown development.”
The proposal also suggests the city buy the bicentennial lot for future parking and development now while land prices remain low. A potential liner building facing Church Street could hold offices, and a hotel could sit near the expanded courthouse.
“We think—and DFI has demonstrated through their marketing study—there’s a lot of demand, unmet demand downtown and that some of these catalytic projects are going to start to unlock that,” Douglas said. “That’s going to create a rise in values in downtown.”
The county deck takes up a bulk of the plan’s budget, costing about $12.5 million with an estimated $35 million in private investment and a return of $482,000 each year. The bicentennial deck could cost about $6 million with a possible $37 million in private investment and about $500,000 in tax returns each year.
The last piece of the urban development plan steps a bit outside downtown—and the box of conventional thinking. Douglas suggested creating a lake on government-owned land in the valley just three blocks or so from the city center, ringing the property with greenway trails and a green space complete with a pavilion. Residences could surround the body of water.
“There are some people who want to be right in the middle of downtown with the car horns and the sirens and the noise on the street,” Douglas said. “And then there’s another group of people who want it to be a little bit more quiet but want to walk to it and be on Union Street in maybe five or 10 minutes. You can be living in an apartment on a lake watching the birds and there’s a concert in Market Plaza, be there in five minutes.
“This is something that doesn’t exist in the ring city marketplace that I think really sets you apart and really has a big return on its investment.”
Since the city already owns the land, creating the lake and trails as well as extending sewer would only cost about $2 million with a potential private investment of almost $52 million. That would see an annual return of $725,000, paying for itself in three years.
Staff has essentially finalized the conceptual design and is reviewing the plan for a second time. A formal presentation to Concord City Council will occur Thursday, Aug. 11.
“People without a vision perish, and I just appreciate the vision of the residents and leaders of Cabarrus County for wanting to think far enough ahead to benefit folks that are old now that may not be here someday to enjoy this,” commissioner Lynn Shue said. “But just like the things that we’re enjoying now, someone had to think of it a long time ago. With the parking deck, the area up there with the greens and all the open space, just so much that’s just going to really make Concord a better place.”