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‘Ambitious’ downtown project faces hurdles from growth management task force

This stretch of brick buildings on Catawba Avenue represents the eastern edge of the Mill’s Market project. /File photo

CORNELIUS – The next big step in the bolstering of downtown Cornelius has been proposed in the form of a mixed-use development that will likely see adjustments amid last year’s growth management policies.

The vision for Highline Partners’ Mill Market project is to have five stories of 263 apartments above a row of ground-floor spaces likely in the food and beverage industry. It would cover 2.3 acres across nine parcels between the Cain Center for the Arts and Meridian Street.

The height and number of units drew red flags from town commissioners and residents alike at the Nov. 21 town board meeting. Though the town’s land-use plan allows up to six stories, the group of mostly new commissioners last December passed a blockade of projects with more than 10 residential units. The Growth Management Task Force that was implemented to further vet development recommends three stories along the street, and may increase its allowance to four.

“Projects that bring value to the town may be considered to deviate from the policy,” Deputy Town Manager Wayne Heroin explained. “We receive projects everyday that might bring value, whether it’s through parking, appearance, retail. There are a lot of ways to bring value to the town.”

Any project with more than 10 residential units may not be considered until new land-use plan guidelines are considered.

Highline Partners principal Mark Miller knew the process wouldn’t come with roadblocks, however.

The Mill’s Market mixed-use development covers 2.3 acres between Potts Barbershop and Meridian Street.
/Town of Cornelius

“This is an ambitious project,” he told commissioners. “We consider ourselves a boutique developer. This is what we started the company to focus on, not more generic apartment projects. This is a special location. We don’t want our project to look like every other project. We strive to have a customized approach to create a unique project.”

The street-front businesses would retain the current historic facade, Miller said. The majority would be in the food and beverage realm. The two commercial buildings in the block not acquired by the developer are a consignment shop and salon.

“It was initially kind of a downer losing the two buildings,” Miller said. “But this became my favorite part of the project. It’s a European experience. The commercial spaces that spill into alleys. multiple garage doors that open up into the alleys. This is a public amenity, not just for residents or patrons.”

The parking deck for the residences is slated for the interior of the property, with entrances off Meridian and behind the Cain Center. Miller suggested an opportunity to add 170-210 public parking spaces to the bottom levels, and Herron acknowledged that’s a facet to be discussed.

The community meeting participation the week before was lauded by Miller and town leaders. There were upwards of 70 residents in attendance.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” Miller said. “We wanted to provoke some conversation. I think we got some good, candid feedback.”

Herron agreed.

“It was one of the best community meetings,” he said “Our citizens are wonderful. We take them seriously, whether the comment is pro or con. I appreciate them expressing concern in polite, respectful ways.”

Several commissioners said that four stories would be as high as they would approve.

“We really don’t want to engulf, overwhelm the Cain Center,” Commissioner Michael Osborne said. “We want Cain Center to be the main draw. We don’t really want to go higher than four stories. We hope you take that consideration. That will be our recommendation.”

Though traffic along the two-lane Catawba Avenue is a common concern, road projects are underway nearby, including Gem Street and the roundabouts near the interchange with U.S. 21. A traffic impact analysis for Mill’s Market is beginning, and town staff review is ongoing, and the planning board review and second public hearing are to be determined.

Closest to the Cain Center, the building housing Old Town Public House represented the eastern end. Potts Barber Shop was designated as a historic landmark by the Mecklenburg Historic Preservation Society last fall.

“I’m very excited about our downtown,” Commissioner Denis Bilodeau said. “It’s clear our downtown needs help. The buildings are in disrepair in places. The onus is on us, to get the  traffic signal at Hickory Street, Gem Street as an alternative route. There’s a lot of work to be done. I commend you for being willing to listen, to look at the uses, so downtown can be as attractive as any other downtown in this area.”

The Mill’s Market rendering on 2.3 acres in along Catawba Avenue. /Highline Partners

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