A Sweet Rebirth for Little Sugar
Herons once again stalk fish from the banks of Little Sugar Creek, which has emerged from decades of abuse to become Charlotte's urban waterfront.
Little Sugar's sweet name belies a sordid past. Into the 1960s, businesses dumped wastes straight into its water, the fumes so noxious they were said to peel the paint off nearby buildings. Drums of orange-blossom deodorant once hung from its bridges.
Now green and vibrant, the creek may be a reminder of Charlotte's past in more ways than one.
In an era of budget deficits and bottom-line politics, the time may also have passed when Mecklenburg County can spend $43 million to restore the natural meanderings of about a mile of creek and create a linear park beside it.
Nearly a third of that money, from voter-approved land bonds, bought commercial properties prone to flooding from the creek. New buildings went up, including the creek-side Metropolitan complex of condos, retail and commercial space.
The project's blend of dressed-up nature and redevelopment draws both gushing praise and, among some, qualms over its public and personal costs.
"It's the best view of Charlotte from Charlotte," restaurant owner Jon Dressler said. The terrace of Dressler's overlooks the creek, its woodsy floodplain and the city skyline. "That's what drew us to that space initially - that view of downtown will remain unencumbered forever."
A business owner ousted from heavily-trafficked Kings Drive views the creek's new look less warmly.
"It is much more attractive. Everything is brand new, sparkling and pretty. But the bottom line is they used public money to shut down private business," said Brad Woodie, whose family car repair business lost its prime, leased site.
Sparkling and pretty did not describe Little Sugar as work began a decade ago.
Concrete and asphalt covered 1,800 feet of the stream. Concrete banks entombed
some of the most polluted water in North Carolina, an urban brew of bacteria, sediment and chemicals. The deep channel, artificially straightened, was more ditch than creek.
Biologists who spent a day searching for signs of life in 1969 found one dead frog, an earthworm and two beer cans.
Conditions improved as straight-piping wastes became illegal and the city upgraded its overburdened sewage system.
City and county officials began thinking of new possibilities for Little Sugar. A 10- year growth plan, adopted in 2000, envisioned a creekside park and new development.
First, the creek itself had to be revived. The relatively new discipline of stream restoration would try to replace some of Little Sugar's lost natural functions, improving its water quality while providing habitat for fish and other creatures.
The result, said restoration expert Greg Jennings of N.C. State University, "is a model of urban stream restorations throughout the Southeast."
But the creek remains vulnerable to pollutants washed from miles away by torrents of rain water, leaving a trail of litter on its banks.
The Little Sugar watershed above Kings Drive and Charlottetowne Avenue drains 10.8 square miles of mostly older neighborhoods. Streets, rooftops and other hard surfaces cover 37 percent of the ground. When it rains, much of the water rushes toward the creek instead of soaking into earth.
In a 100-year flood, which has a 1 percent chance of happening in any year, an epic 181 million gallons of water an hour would surge under the Charlottetown bridge. That's enough to fill Bank of America stadium in just five hours, calculates county engineer Robert Billings.
A statewide audit by the N.C. Division of Water Quality last year found that one in four similar stream projects failed regulatory standards. A 2003 restoration of Little Sugar in Freedom Park later needed more than $450,000 in repairs. But the recently completed leg between Morehead and Seventh streets has so far held up well, county engineers said.
Mecklenburg has completed or plans 32 other stream restorations countywide. Little Sugar has been the most expensive of them because flood-prone buildings were removed for four of its nine stages.
The county paid $17.3 million to buy and raze 11 buildings for the stage completed last year between Carolinas Medical Center and Central Piedmont Community College. The last portion of the creek-side greenway, from Elizabeth to Charlottetowne avenues, will be dedicated April 20.
The stream work and greenway, which includes stonework-trimmed parks, pedestrian bridges and plazas, were budgeted at $43 million but are expected to come in under budget. The project included some private spending, including Metropolitan developer Pappas Properties' costs to remove a two-level parking deck over the creek.
Engineers tore out the rest of the creek's asphalt caps. Steep, eroding banks became gentle slopes planted with native shrubs and trees. Meanders and water features were positioned to showcase the sight of graceful curves and the sound of gurgling riffles.
Hemmed in by development, Little Sugar has lost much of its original floodplain where high water once spread. The creek's reengineered contours slow down the
rushing water, but hard rain can still fill the creek to the top of its banks.
In time, the trees will sink roots and stabilize stream banks, their shade cooling the water. Wetland plants lining the creek will suck up pollutants in stormwater. Wildlife will reclaim long-lost territory.
"It's a drop-in-the-bucket approach - you can't fill a bucket without putting in the first drop," said Shawn Wilkerson, president of Charlotte's Wildlands Engineering, which worked on the restoration. "We spent hundreds of years messing it up, and it's going to take years to make it better."
Government budgets have also yet to recover from a recession that shrank tax revenues, spending and the ability to pay for such projects.
State and federal grants withered. A new Republican majority in the N.C. legislature has attacked what it sees as wasteful spending.
Mecklenburg voters approved land bonds in 1999 that were used to buy the Little Sugar property, but rejected similar bonds in 2005. As the county went on a recession-inspired "debt diet," none of the $250 million in park bonds approved in 2008 and less than half the $35 million in 2007 land bonds have been issued.
N.C. Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg, who championed Little Sugar as a county commissioner a decade ago, said starting the project now "would be a lot harder sell."
But she's convinced the result was worth the expense.
"What we wanted was a sense of place that invigorated the community as opposed to what was there, which was not holding up well," she said. "That sense of place will have a benefit to Charlotte as a whole. You don't need a whole lot of these projects, but you do need one really good one."
Longtime county commissioner Bill James said the county overpaid for land for the stream restoration and greenway to help politically well-connected developers.
He likens the project to a proposed uptown baseball stadium for which the county has pledged $8 million in infrastructure improvements. The city is considering a request for $11 million to help finance the deal.
"My problem is, the taxpayer never comes first in these deals. The deals always benefit the few and the well connected," James said. "I think they could have done (the project) without giving away the store."
In Raleigh, "people are very interested in where the money's going and how it's being used," said Richard Rogers, director of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund. The state fund has paid $4.7 million for Little Sugar stormwater and greenway projects since 1998.
Legislators last year pared the $100-million-a-year appropriation the fund is authorized by statute to $11 million, while expanding its mandate to include developing new drinking-water supplies.
"The problem we have in communicating is that folks don't really value water," Rogers said. "It's nice to look at it, but they don't sense the need for the benefits of higher quality. Most times, people look at it as more of an aesthetic and not a valued resource."
The sweet life
Dozens of people walked and biked the Little Sugar greenway on a warm afternoon recently.
Tom and Lois Ottman, out for a walk, regularly drive in from their home near Mint Hill just to enjoy the path.
"It's like a wildlife refuge in the middle of the city," he said. "What's cool about this is that it gives me a sense of civic pride, with the (Democratic) convention coming. It gives the city character."
Mecklenburg residents cherish trails and greenways above all park amenities, a 2008 survey found.
As work on Little Sugar winds down, crews are just beginning to create uptown's $11 million Romare Bearden Park. Like the creek-side greenway, it was first proposed more than a decade ago.
Park officials say such future projects will need strong public support, long-term benefits and the ability to serve multiple purposes, such as transportation and green space.
"It may be a little while before we have another Little Sugar or Bearden Park, but I think it will happen because there is an appetite for quality public space," said Gwen Cook, a greenway planner who worked on the Little Sugar project.
Environmental officials say it could be years before cleaner water flows south.
Water monitoring in Little Sugar shows little change in turbidity and oxygen levels near uptown. The state still lists the entire 20 miles in Mecklenburg as impaired.
Habitat has improved. A dozen species of fish can now be found in the creek near Morehead Street.
"We've seen fish coming back fairly soon, but it's hard to predict - it's nature," said Rusty Rozzelle, the county's water quality chief.
Want to go?
The second annual Kings Drive Art Walk will be held April 28-29 at the Sugar Creek Greenway along Kings Drive, between East Morehead Street and the Pearle Street bridge. The event, which features arts, crafts, music and entertainment, will run from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on the 28th and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the 29th. For details, call 704-338-1060.