The nation as a whole may be experiencing a downturn in construction and real estate transactions but Charlotte, N.C., is growing in an unprecedented boom. The most pronounced evidence of this growth appears in the sky, where a record-breaking number of cranes loom above construction sites ranging from new tourist attractions to high-end, high-rise residential towers.
Jason Kenna of Heede Southeast Inc. is well versed in Charlotte’s building boom. At last count, there were more than two dozen cranes working in the city and Heede Southeast is responsible for the presence of 20 of them.
“We had a boom in the early ’90s,” Kenna said, “and then we only had nine cranes in the city. What’s going on now is amazing for us and for the city of Charlotte.”
Heede supplies Linden Comansa cranes throughout the Southeast, so getting enough cranes into the area has, so far, not been difficult for them.
“We are getting the cranes from all our locations and right now nearly all of our cranes are in the Charlotte area. And as we’ve gotten busier, we’ve had to hire more operators, and the pay rate for qualified operators [certified by the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators] has increased,” said Kenna.
“The south Florida boom has slowed, therefore a lot of operators are looking elsewhere for work. We get a lot of calls from operators in south Florida, Atlanta and other areas that were once booming but now are slowing down a little bit. Historically, Charlotte keeps about six cranes up and operating. Currently there are 20–plus cranes operating in downtown Charlotte. The real lucrative areas for tower crane operators are Las Vegas, Atlanta and south Florida. Operators will go to where the work is,” Kenna said.
Kenna anticipates that the boom will continue.
“A lot of jobs are just starting out. By the end of the year we should have seven more cranes up in downtown Charlotte. One crane has been there for two years and will probably be there for two more,” Kenna said.
Heede Southeast is working on a variety of projects in Charlotte, including the Hearst Tower, the Bank of America “Super Block” project and the Westin Hotel at the Charlotte Convention Center.
Its primary involvement, however, is in residential condos in downtown Charlotte.
But another up and coming part of Charlotte’s new skyline is buildings for businesses, according to Brad Richardson, business expansion manager for Mayor Patrick McCrory. According to Richardson, office vacancy is at an all-time low in Charlotte, so there is a “booming demand for office space.”
The city also is building the NASCAR Hall of Fame, a light rail line and numerous other projects that call for cranes. The workers to fill all these projects are coming from national as well as international construction firms.
“Local construction firms are digging up a lot of work for us,” Richardson said.
With the amount of construction on and above the ground, it seems as if Charlotte’s denizens might be inconvenienced as they travel into and around the city.
But Richardson said, “The impact on the traffic is minor. Construction has been living organically in our city for a decade so the impact on the population is minor. ”
“We are growing and doing well,” Richardson said. “Charlotte is a good place to be right now.”
Michael Smith, president and CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners, is in firm agreement about the bright future of the city.
“The 26 cranes in the Uptown area are a symbol of investments and of confidence in our city’s future. The construction sites mean more residents, more workers and more visitors. Traffic patterns have shifted because of the construction. Some traffic lanes have been lost to the construction crews, equipment and cranes, but that’s just a small price to pay for progress. Our [City Department of Transportation] team has done an excellent job in managing this period of transition. No one would trade the small inconveniences for the reverse … no building … no investment … and no confidence in Charlotte’s future. We’re glad to welcome the work crews,” Smith said.
He, too, expects the building boom to continue for the next several years, in both the residential and office markets.
“We have the tightest downtown office market in the U.S. Our market has 0.7 percent vacancy. Charlotte’s Center City is building another 4-million square feet of badly needed office space over the next three years. This is a 28 percent increase in office space. Those new employees will be great prospects for new uptown homes. We remain confident in the Center City housing market. We found that the Center City is not being overbuilt and that the market is delivering housing at a very digestible rate. Historical analogs have shown that Charlotte’s Center City can absorb 500 to 1,000 units per year,” Smith said.
Smith offered a breakdown of the pattern of delivery of housing in the Uptown and South End areas of Charlotte that showed significant growth over the next several years. The breakdown shows:
• 673 units in 2008
• 979 units in 2009
• 831 units in 2010
• 272 units in 2008
• 670 units in 2009
• 331 units in 2010
“This is a great time to be a part of this electric urban core and many are joining the renaissance by moving to the Uptown and South End. The context for many of our new and ongoing developments that transforms this Central Business District into a vibrant neighborhood and entertainment center was established in the 2010 Vision Plan, the latest in a series of master plans guiding development of the Center City. We are just at the beginning of a really exciting period for Charlotte’s growth and development and urban housing is a vital component,” Smith said. CEG