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Cornelius News

Downtown will change dramatically with new development

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NEWSMAKERS BREAKFAST | Story by Erica Batten, Photos by Jason Benavides

March 13. In a room full of business leaders, it’s understood that any development project has constraints: time, cost, quality, and scope—even when the project is a partnership of public and private, even when the “project” is a town.

So when two developers and a mayor offered answers about the future of downtown Cornelius, the real question was: What’s the trade-off going to be?

Cornelius Mayor Woody Washam, considered one of the visionaries behind downtown development, joined Ashley Peterson of Proffitt Dixon, developers of the Caroline project, and Mark Miller, founder of Highline Partners, which is developing Mills Market. The three were panelists at the February Newsmakers Breakfast hosted by Cornelius Today and Business Today and, incidentally, the largest crowd ever garnered by the monthly event.

Mills Market is a $70 million mixed-use development adjacent to the Cain Center that includes 12,000 square feet of commercial space, 238 residential units, and a parking deck. Caroline is a residential development with 180 luxury active adult units and 110 multi-family residential units adjacent to the site of the planned Olde Mecklenburg Brewery. A future phase of the Caroline project may include 62,000 square feet of commercial development.

Preserving individuality

A foremost concern as Cornelius grows is avoiding cookie-cutter development that has overtaken many areas, even around Lake Norman.

Miller said his firm was attracted to downtown Cornelius because of its unique character.

“That’s not something we would want to lessen or diminish,” Miller said. “We’ve felt a lot of pressure designing Mills Market because it’s probably the last block that’s going to be significantly developed.”

Even if he wanted to push through a cookie-cutter project, the land-use policy provides constraints.

“I don’t think you can do more than five acres of development without providing some kind of ancillary benefit to the town,” Miller said. “You’ve got to be prepared to give something when you come to Cornelius. That’s not like any other town that I’m aware of.”

Peterson said the town’s architectural review board will help ensure a desirable aesthetic, and Proffitt Dixon has emphasized the importance of maintaining the tree canopy and integration with existing greenways as it develops the Caroline project. With family in Cornelius, Peterson also has a personal stake in its development.

“Take solace in knowing that this ship is being driven by somebody that really cares,” she said.

A downtown master plan

In January the Town of Cornelius issued a request for proposals on the development of a downtown master plan to guide development of its 137 acre main thoroughfare along Catawba Avenue and NC-115. The document said that prior development of downtown has occurred piecemeal, but a comprehensive master plan would clearly define how public and private investment should shape the core area.

Aesthetics aren’t the sole concern.

“The roots are tremendously important,” said Washam, acknowledging that the comparison between Cornelius and adjacent Davidson has shifted. “Davidson was predominant,” he said. “They were the pretty town, we were the mill town. Now I think they look up to us.”

Speaking of mills, there are plans to renovate the old Oak Street Mill behind the Police Station and the Cain Center for the Arts–another indication that downtown will continue to transform.

Washam said Cornelius should acknowledge and preserve the history of manufacturing and agriculture. He’s working on a history museum as well as the preservation of an old agricultural building. He also recognizes the cultural importance of the Smithville community.

Traffic, not congestion

And then there’s traffic, which you want. Traffic—but not congestion. Washam said two road projects “at or nearing contract” will help open flow at Exit 28, as will the completion of Exit 27. More importantly, transportation—including public transit connecting into Charlotte—will be part of the comprehensive plan.

“We can’t go out and approve development carte blanche,” he said. “It’s not about transportation; it’s about creating place.”

Peterson added that Caroline and Northwood Ravin should be able to coordinate construction of a new road connecting Zion and South Streets with minimal disruption to other traffic.

While many Cornelius residents may be thinking, “I’m lucky to live here,” the sentiment might have a double edge. Can Cornelius be aesthetically appealing, historically significant, navigable and affordable, all at the same time?

“Affordable housing is something that we all care about,” Peterson said. But the Caroline development, aimed at the 55-plus demographic, isn’t about affordability per se. The prices will be competitive against larger markets like Atlanta or New York, she said.

Miller acknowledged that “price points” are inherent in the quality of Mills Market, but that the development has varied offerings to address affordability.

“We intentionally have studio apartments and one-bedroom apartments,” Miller said. “We have a bigger percentage of those in the downtown.” The plan also provides for 10 affordable units.

“Part of [the Mills Market] arrangement is to provide funds to our CDC,” said Washam, referring to the Cornelius Community Development Corporation formed in 2022 to address the need for affordable workforce housing. “We hope and plan to serve 45 additional families this year. We’re making progress and I’m proud of that.”