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Cornelius News

How plans for an apartment complex changed is a lesson in local government and economics

Jake Palillo, right, has brought on developer Jamie Rolewicz as a 50-50 partner in new apartments that will go up on W. Catawba / Photo by Dave Yochum

ANALYSIS | By Dave Yochum. As Cornelius approaches build-out, it’s only natural that new projects receive more scrutiny from town officials ranging from the appointed members of the Planning Board to planners on town staff, from the Town Board to ordinary citizens. That was the case with Jake Palillo’s plan for 252 apartments on West Catawba. Cornelius officials say the project would almost certainly have been approved 10 years ago with hardly any changes coming from the town.

That wasn’t the case with what’s also known as the Junker Property, named for the real estate visionary, the late Norman Junker, who assembled the property around the Wher-Rena Boatland decades ago.

The Junker Proposal property is just east of Wher-Rena, where White House Gardens is now. The property between Junker Drive and Harbor View Drive consists of 12 acres.

In controversial 4-1 decision, the Town Board approved the Palillo project after the proposal was negotiated and scaled down “on the fly” during the final town board meeting on the subject in June. This, after it was voted down by the Planning Board, the second time in recent months that the advisory body’s advice was ignored. (Click here for Point/Counterpoint on this subject.)

“Negotiating an amended zoning decision from the dais is not the norm, based on my experience but it is certainly legal and based on the circumstances, may be an option that a majority of Commissioners may choose from time to time,” said Mayor Woody Washam.

It was reduced in size from 252 apartment units to 195, a 22 percent reduction. In similar fashion, the retail space that was part of the deliberations before the planning board was removed altogether. All told, reducing the number of units and eliminating the retail will cut the trips per day by 60 percent, commissioners Tricia Sisson and Michael Miltich said in a June 22 letter to neighbors in Lake Norman Cove at Jetton.

All that said, there’s no doubt traffic on West Catawba will continue to worsen—thanks in part to ongoing new development. State law prohibits assessing impact fees such that new development would fund accompanying road improvements.

“Impact fees would solve all the problems for the entire region,” said Palillo, who employs more than 150 people across multiple businesses.

Jake Palillo

Building to meet demand

“The property is for sale, and there is no denying it will sell. So if not this project, what could come in its place?” Sisson and Miltich said in their letter.

Developer Palillo, who advertises with Cornelius Today, said he is looking forward to building a high-quality project. The developer of Bailey’s Glen said he will retain the $40 million investment in the West Catawba apartments in his own portfolio.

He has also brought on board one of the most respected developers in Lake Norman—Jamie Rolewicz, the developer of the million dollar condos in the Watermark project farther east on West Catawba. (Rolewicz is also an advertiser in Cornelius Today.)

That project targets the top end of residential buyers. Palillo said the new apartments will target “higher income and empty-nesters, and young professionals who are the next Peninsula buyers.”

Rolewicz and Palillo will be equal partners, Palillo said.

“We don’t want to go after the masses, we want to go after the people who want nice, quality apartments,” said Palillo, who has lived in The Peninsula some 20 years.

By inference, he’s saying the project will be a good neighbor and enhance property values similar to the Watermark condos.

Demands on the Planning Board

Palillo took issue with the role of the Planning Board, calling them “wonderful people” who may not be up to the task of development for future generations of renters and buyers.

“They give you a decision based on what they ‘think,’ but it’s not what they ‘think,’ it’s where is the world going today…and that’s the direction that you have to go in…but the planning board  doesn’t understand the population,” Palillo said, explaining that great projects will meet the needs of the marketplace for years to come.

A Lake Norman Economic Development study—outlined at the July 19, 2020 Town Board meeting—called for more residential on West Catawba, something Palillo is passionate about. He says apartments will bring more customers to struggling Cornelius retail. Despite the presence of high-end single-family neighborhoods nearby, it’s not enough to keep businesses here going strong, he said.

“You need more multifamily to help spur the businesses,” Palillo said. “Catawba has more than enough retail [space] to last for a long long time.”

He said apartment dwellers will live, shop and eat in the neighborhood, more so than employees in an office building.

Indeed, Lake Norman Chamber CEO Bill Russell came out in favor of the first, larger version of Palillo’s project.


Among the possibilities on the site, “by right,” were a convenience store, a hotel, offices up to four stories and a drive-through restaurant, according to the Sisson/Miltich letter.

“What would you rather have next to you? Nothing is not an option,” Palillo said.

Fair is fair?

Meanwhile, in November of 2019 the town approved a plan by Convenience Development Partners for a mixed-use retail/office development for a convenience store and carwash, with outparcel retail at nearby Nantz Road and West Catawba. The project includes a 45,000 square foot multistory office building.

While giving high praise to Planning Director Wayne Herron, Palillo said the Planning Board would benefit from “vision, direction and reasoning.”

Project timeline

Palillo and Rolewicz will close on the property within the next 60 days, Palillo said, with construction starting about eight to 10 months after plans and permits are completed.

Build-out will take about 14 months.

Palillo anticipates opening day sometime around the late fall of 2023 to spring of 2024. Lease-up takes another eight to 10 months.

He is planning for 90 percent occupancy in late 2024.

Phase Two West Catawba construction from Jetton to Sam Furr isn’t expected to begin until 2025.

“I’m not a developer who is coming into your community and then going away,” Palillo said.

People are coming

Cornelius and Charlotte remain high on the list of fast-growing destinations for all ages of people, from Millennials to empty-nesters.

“I’ve sold more houses in the past month to people from California than in the past five years,” Palillo said of home sale trends in Bailey’s Glen. People are buying houses in excess of $350,000 sight unseen.

Palillo said he plans to hire someone to drive up and down West Catawba from 7 am to 7 pm and clock every trip from Hwy. 73 to Hwy. 115 on the east side.

“The only way to fix Catawba is to make Catawba east of I-77 one way,” he said.

But that’s another story.

Backgrounder: The Planning Board


In Cornelius, up to 10 citizens who have been appointed by the Town Board review and make recommendations on matters related to real estate planning and development. Members may be lay people who use common sense and market knowledge. Planning establishes the ground rules for development. When a project doesn’t comply with the ground rules or overlay zones, the Planning Board will vote on whether an approval or a denial is appropriate. The Planning Board, legally speaking, is only advisory with no final authority.

“The Planning Board is the one Board that is required of all local governments nationwide. Planning Boards are generally expected to be a good cross-section of residents that can provide an advisory opinion to the elected body. Planning Board members spend a great deal of time becoming familiar with plans and ordinances, but ultimately, the expectation is not that they be experts, but that they provide an opinion based on their common knowledge, daily neighbor and friend interactions as well as collective discussion and evaluation of facts presented based on adopted policies and ordinances.”

—Mayor Woody Washam