INDIAN TRAIL – The Monroe Expressway opened Nov. 27 after nearly three decades of discussions, planning, legal wrangling and finally construction.
With its completion, a wave of residential and commercial development is expected to begin in Indian Trail and stretch all the way to the toll road’s end near Marshville.
Along the 18-mile route that stretches just past the U.S. 74 interchange with I-485 near the Mecklenburg-Union County line, there are six full interchanges and two partial interchanges. It is around those interchanges where that wave of development will probably begin.
In fact, there are already two major developments, one in Indian Trail and one in Union County, that are already in the planning stages. More projects are probably on the horizon, especially around interchanges at Unionville-Indian Trail Road, North Rocky River Road and U.S. 601 in Monroe.
But thoughts of transforming the land around the Monroe Expressway actually began when the project was first discussed some 30 years ago.
If one makes the drive on Secrest Short Cut Road beginning at Unionville-Indian Trail Road and heading toward North Rocky River Road, a driver will see sign after sign of parcels of land for sale on both sides of the expressway.
Those signs did not pop up overnight.
Just ask Jess Perry of Walt Perry Commercial Real Estate in Monroe. Perry, whose father, Walt, started the real estate company in the 1980s, has worked with property owners around the Monroe Expressway for many years, and many of the for sale signs bear the name of the company his father started.
“When they first started talking about the bypass and planning for the future, we started investing in getting to know the landowners in strategic places around the bypass,” Perry said. “We have been working with property owners for quite a long time. I get great pleasure in the families trusting me to make sure it is a fair deal all the way around. When people see our signs, they think we own the property. But, no we don’t. That is people selling the property.
“That is a primary area. People want to be closer to Charlotte. It (development) will all happen on the western end of the county, and then come toward the eastern end of the county.”
Perry currently has 76 acres under contract for a potential residential development on Unionville-Indian Trail Road close to Ridge Road, which is not too far from Porter Ridge High School.
“We have been working with that family since 2003,” Perry said. “We know developers and they call on us. We get calls from developers from Charlotte, from all over the country and even sometimes investors from out of the country on these properties because they know about it.”
The first wave of development will probably be more of a mix of residential housing but a plan already submitted to Indian Trail includes a residential and commercial development that could be anchored by a Publix. A plan that is expected to be presented to Union County officials next month, which is close to the planned development in Indian Trail, will include single-family residential uses, townhomes and an apartment complex on several different parcels that totals 60 acres.
“If someone wants a retail development, one of the first things they are going to look for is rooftops,” Perry said. “They count rooftops and they do demographic studies about income. If a retail outfit likes this area and the demographics, they would be interested once they get up to a certain point where there are enough rooftops.’’
Indian Trail planning director Rox Burhans somewhat agrees.
“What we have been told by developers going through our rezoning process is that the retail will follow the rooftops,” Burhans said. “However, because of the additional traffic generated at the interchanges, we have been told by some of the applicants going through the rezoning process commercial development may be willing to come in advance of those rooftops because they will have fairly good access to the expressway and the traffic that comes through that.”
Small area plan
Local governments have also been preparing for a development boom around the Monroe Expressway.
A little over a year ago, Indian Trail and Union County got together to develop a more focused planning effort near the expressway to better plan for future growth. What they came up with is now called the Secrest Short Cut and Monroe Expressway Small Area Plan. Both the Indian Trail Town Council and the Union County Board of Commissioners have unanimously adopted the plan.
The plan stretches from Faith Church Road to near Rocky River Road and encompasses 1,323 acres, or 230 parcels, of land on both sides of the expressway. About two-thirds of the acreage in the plan area is in Indian Trail while almost all of the rest of the land is in Union County. Hembry Bridge has a small portion of land in the northern end of the plan area.
Currently, less than 10 percent of the acreage is developed and 99 percent of that development is residential. Most land use is currently zoned for one-acre lot residential.
“The Monroe Expressway has been on the region’s radar for decades,” Burhans said. “As the project started coming more into focus, local governments like Indian Trail and Union County realized that this was going to be a transformative-type project. It created some major interchanges in our community.”
Indian Trail and Union County eventually settled on a plan that incorporates suggested uses of the area ranging from low density residential to commercial-retail. In the area of the plan it is estimated there will 2,759 dwelling units – 122 low density dwelling units, 1,683 medium density dwelling units and 954 high-density units. A high-density zoning would on average have six dwelling units per acre.
“You could have pockets that have a higher density, maybe pockets that are lower density than that number,” Burhans said. “When you look at the area as a whole, it would average out roughly to six.”
There is almost 2 million of potential non-residential square footage in the small area plan. There are areas around the interchanges where it is envisioned that mixed-use development will take place, which could include national restaurant chains and hotels.
The 10-month study started in December 2017 and concluded last August. The planning process studied existing conditions, regional growth projections and area plans to identify issues and opportunities in the study area.
Gresham, Smith and Partners, a firm of architects, engineers and planners in Charlotte, was hired to assist with the study. The public was engaged through two open houses, which were attended by almost 200 people, and an online survey.
“There were some unique challenges with the project,” Burhans said. “One being there wasn’t a lot of industry research regarding what happens to land uses adjacent to toll expressways. There wasn’t a lot of comparable research to pull from because each of these tollways are in a unique situation or developed in different circumstances. We didn’t have a good parallel to draw from.”
One of those challenges is a “wedge” of land that is sandwiched between the Monroe Expressway and Secrest Short Cut Road. It was deemed that those areas be designated as an employment zone. Approximately 70 percent of Union County residents commute outside the county to work and an employment zone would create more job opportunities for county residents.
“You have a strip of land between two high volume corridors maybe that is not appropriate for residential or commercial,” said Union County transportation planner Bjorn Hansen. “So, targeting for employment, for which we did, seems like a reasonable response. That is where you might see your HVAC contractor, your supply companies, maybe some light industrial. Uses that are not too concerned about having the high traffic volume in the front and the rear.”
There is also open space designated in the area, which could include trails and greenways.
“We heard from the community, ‘Don’t forget about recreational opportunities,’” Burhans said.
Burhans, however, points out that the small area plan is just a guide for future development in the area studied.
“Those decisions on rezoning whether it is in the town or the county are made by the town council or the board of commissioners,” Burhans said. “This is just a plan that is providing some information and some guidance. At the end of the day, the decision makers on the town council and board of commissioners have the final decisions on those questions.”
The Monroe Expressway interchange at U.S. 601 will become an even bigger connection to Monroe now that the new road is open. U.S. 601 will continue to move people to downtown Monroe and development in the area around the interchange is expected to make the area a regional destination. The same could happen at the interchange at Rocky River Road.
The area around U.S. 601 and the new expressway has been tabbed as a potential “regional mixed-use center” in the Forward Monroe Land Use and Transportation Plan the city adopted in April 2018.
A regional mixed-use center will attract people from outside the area for shopping, entertainment, employment or recreation, according to the plan. The plan states a regional mixed-use center is usually one-mile in diameter and usually built in phases with a mix of non-residential, residential and civic uses.