Council wary of $2.4M request to rehab NoDa mill

Council wary of $2.4M request to rehab NoDa mill


by STEVE HARRISON / The Charlotte Observer

Posted on September 24, 2012 at 3:25 PM

Updated Sunday, Oct 27 at 9:00 PM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Charlotte City Council came close to refusing $2.4 million to help renovate Mecklenburg Mills in NoDa on Monday, but the vote was postponed for two weeks to try and salvage the plan.

Two years ago, The Community Builders of Washington, D.C., bought Mecklenburg and Johnston mills from the city for $1.25 million. The developer plans to convert the historic mills into workforce housing, but Community Builders vice president Robert Fossi said the buildings are in far worse structural condition than first believed.

Renovating the turn-of-the-century buildings will cost nearly $5 million more than anticipated, and The Community Builders is asking the city to pay for half of that cost.

Council members were skeptical, however.

The city has already sunk nearly $7 million into the buildings. In the last decade, two other efforts to rehab the buildings – with different developers – have failed.

Democrat Michael Barnes, who said he would vote against the request, said his goal in voting to sell the buildings in 2011 was “to be done with it.”

Democrat David Howard also said he would vote no.

“We had a clean process,” Howard said. “There was a winner, and I thought that would be last I would hear of it.”

Some council members objected to the small number of affordable housing units at Mecklenburg Mills – 48 – compared with the cost.

Said Democrat John Autry: “This kind of money could help people in affordable housing in my district.”

With the request apparently headed for defeat, Mayor Anthony Foxx suggested the vote be postponed for two weeks. He suggested the developer and the city work to lower the $2.4 million subsidy.

“City staff have a lot of work to do,” said Foxx, who didn’t say whether he supported the request.

‘Part of the DNA’

The request faces an uphill battle. But there are a number of advocates for the project, many of them in NoDa.

Paul Manley, a NoDa restaurateur, said the spruced-up mills would be a positive jolt to NoDa.

“This neighborhood is an essential part of the DNA of Charlotte,” he said. “…The risk is worth the reward.”

Council member Patsy Kinsey, a Democrat, said the project is worthwhile, in part because it saves part of Charlotte’s history.

“You can’t reproduce that outer shell,” Kinsey said. “It’s a landmark in the NoDa neighborhood.”

Foxx noted there are few neighborhoods that ask for affordable housing – a reference to often bruising fights the city has had to spread low-income housing throughout Charlotte.

City staff have said the project is worthwhile because the mills are adjacent to the planned light-rail station for NoDa, which could open by the end of the decade when the Lynx Blue Line is extended to University City.

When council members asked whether he would move forward with the project if he didn’t get the city money, Fossi said: “It’s not in our DNA to give up.”

Fossi’s group bought the mills “as is.”

City staff said they believed that the structural damage wouldn’t have been apparent during a walk-through and that it was only visible once renovations started.

Fossi has said he faces a deadline of Oct. 12 for the money. That’s the last day he can apply for funds from the N.C. Housing Finance Agency.