Proposed apartments near Willowmere cause angst

Hundreds of residents near and along McKee and Weddington roads say a low-income housing apartment complex proposed across the street from Socrates Academy will cause further traffic congestion, increase crime and overcrowd area schools, though the developer warns the project is badly needed in the area and would be better than what could go on the seven vacant acres.

More than 400 neighbors from the Willowmere, Nottingham Estates, Matthews Ridge, Providence Plantation, Providence Hills, Deerfield Creek and Weddington Meadows communities attended a public discussion Tuesday night, Sept. 17, in Willomere to hear more information and ask questions about the proposed Weddington Road Apartments. Charlotte’s The Housing Partnership, a nonprofit that works to revitalize neighborhoods and create homes for low-income families and individuals, will soon petition Charlotte City Council to rezone Bank of America-owned land on Weddington Road between Portstewart Lane to the south and Simfield Church Road to the north to make way for a 70-unit apartment complex for households of three making $35,160 per year and houses of two making $31,260 per year, according to The Housing Partnership president Julie Porter. The land was rezoned in 2010 to make way for a child development center that never came to be.

Partnership officials say the apartment project is vital to create affordable housing for residents in the expensive south Charlotte market, with Porter being clear to say the project is not public housing or Section 8 housing and is not subsidized by the government in any way – such as the proposed project that ultimately failed in Ballantyne after much public outcry.

Regardless, residents say the project needs to be moved out of their back yards and to an area with less traffic and more mass transit options. At points the meeting boiled over with residents’ frustrations about traffic, safety and a disbelief in officials’ answers to their questions.

Projected traffic numbers were at the heart of the argument Tuesday night, with some in the crowd accusing partnership officials of blatantly lying about traffic estimates for the site or refusing to do additional studies. A traffic analysis indicates the apartment complex would cause roughly 500 vehicle trips per day, with fewer than 40 in the morning and evening rush hours. That’s opposed to what could be built at the site under current zoning, which would allow a child development center that could serve as many as 450 children and would likely cause backups during morning and evening drop-off times.

Partnership officials say, since the apartments would draw mostly residents who work at jobs with shifts – such as entry-level police officers, restaurant workers and staff at nearby Providence High School, they said – those people wouldn’t add to traffic during peak rush hours.

But any additional cars on Weddington and McKee roads, residents argue, will just make a bad situation worse – especially considering the ongoing expansion of facilities at Socrates Academy. The school recently expanded its campus to better accomodate its kindergarten to eighth-grade students and has plans to eventually launch a high school. The complex entrance would line up with the academy’s driveway.

“You have gridlock in the morning, and you have gridlock in the afternoon,” one resident said Tuesday night, with others adding they often can’t turn left out of their neighborhoods due to a constant stream of traffic in each direction or lines waiting to turn into the school.

“Yes, there will be a (traffic) impact,” project representative Keith McVean said, “but it will be less than what it could be” if developed as zoned.

There also isn’t a nearby Charlotte Area Transit System stop, causing residents to question why the project would be built where it is proposed instead of closer to a mass transit stop that would benefit low-income residents who may not have access to a reliable vehicle.

Many residents also are concerned about what an apartment complex, which could see as many as 240 tenants, would do to area crime numbers – pointing to the stigma many associate with people living at or below the poverty level.

“You bring in low-income housing, you bring in crime,” said one area resident, questioning what studies The Housing Partnership had done with other area projects and if strict standards will be enforced with residents at the complex that would have to undergo limited background checks before being allowed to move in.  Other residents expressed concern that the project would add to loitering problems some have seen in their neighborhoods, especially if the partnership can’t background check youths living with their parents at the complex.

People moving to the complex will be screened, given a credit and rental history check and have their employment verified, Porter said. Anyone convicted of a misdemeanor in the last three years or felony in the last 10 years would not be allowed to move in, though Porter said the partnership cannot check for people who were arrested but never charged, and can only monitor tenants to make sure they don’t allow others to move in with them who aren’t background checked.

“The safety of our residents is foremost in our minds,” Porter said, “but also our residents want to be safe.”

There also is disagreement over how many school-aged children would live at the site, with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools estimates projecting the project would only add an additional 11 students to McKee Road Elementary, one student to Jay M. Robinson Middle School and one student to Providence High School – numbers many residents openly mocked Tuesday night as potentially huge underestimates.

CMS uses a population estimate formula for every possible rezoning in the area and has the opportunity to make recommendations about rezoning to the city. Partnership officials say the project, which will be mostly two- and three-bedroom units, won’t result in a large number of school-aged children being added to area schools, though some residents say they are concerned the project could add as many as 70 to 150 kids.

Porter, who said those “excellent schools” would be one thing that likely draws residents to the project, added the Weddington Road site was picked because it is within a few miles of many retail options where possible tenants could work, and the partnership has been “desperate to find something in south Charlotte.” Porter said the project has been in discussion for about eight months, but she could not say how many other sites had been discussed for the complex. There also have been no long-term impact studies on property values around the partnership’s projects.

The average rent would range from $835 to $965 per month, which Porter acknowledged could be hard for many low-income families to afford – though it’s cheaper than many similarly sized apartments in the south Charlotte and Matthews area.

The three-story building would be sided in brick and not look out of place in the community, Porter said. It would come within 65 to 70 feet from the closest homes in the two adjoining neighborhoods, Willowmere and Nottingham Estates.

Both sides tried to simply sum up their arguments at the end of the discussion.

“Housing is needed…,” Porter said. “But not out here,” many in the crowd responded.

The rezoning petition is scheduled to be filed Monday, Sept. 23, with another community forum taking place soon after. The Charlotte City Council could hear a discussion from the developer, proponents and opponents to the project at the city’s meeting on Oct. 21 or Nov. 18, with the decision likely coming no sooner than Dec. 16.

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