Bank of America to Build New Office Tower in Charlotte

Nov. 10--A planned Ritz-Carlton hotel in uptown is getting some company.

Bank of America on Thursday said it will build a 32-story office tower next door to accommodate a burgeoning Charlotte work force. The $450 million project, across the street from the bank's headquarters, will include a glass-enclosed atrium and retail shops.

The move further anchors the nation's No. 2 bank by assets to its hometown and is a sign of the company's rapid growth, Chief Executive Ken Lewis said at a Founders Hall news conference. Some in the city have worried the bank could one day leave the nation's No. 2 banking center for the dominant financial hub, New York.

"Speaking for my tenure, this will be the headquarters, and it will not be in New York," said Lewis, 59, now in his sixth year as top boss. The project, he added, makes it "much harder for the next CEO to move the headquarters."

The tower and hotel add another element to a booming part of uptown that includes the Charlotte Bobcats Arena and the planned EpiCentre condominium/entertainment complex. The building also will boost uptown's scarce supply of office space.

Construction had begun on the luxury hotel this summer but stalled last month, spurring speculation that a bigger project was in the works. The redesigned hotel will be 17 stories -- two floors higher -- but have the same 150 rooms.

Wrapped in a glass skin, the office tower at College and Fifth streets will meet special environmental certifications, similar to the skyscraper the bank is building in New York. Floors will be bathed in natural light and work stations will have individual climate control, saving on energy costs.

Bank of America said it will occupy nearly half of the 750,000 square feet of space with 1,200 employees -- some new hires, others from the existing work force. The hotel will open in 2009, the office building in 2010.

The bank currently has 14,000 of its 200,000 employees in uptown -- 15,000 in the greater metro area. Charlotte rival Wachovia is the city's biggest employer with more than 20,000.

The office tower is Bank of America's first in Charlotte since the 46-story Hearst Tower opened in 2002. In 2000, a developer announced plans for an office building, hotel and retail space on the property, but it never materialized as the economy fizzled.

Wachovia is constructing another tower down South Tryon Street as part of a sprawling arts and condominium complex. That building will be 48 stories, two floors higher than announced in June, a spokeswoman said Thursday. The change hasn't affected the overall height.

Bank of America began rethinking the Ritz project this spring as it planned for future space needs, said Barbara Desoer, the bank's technology, service and fulfillment executive. Desoer, who also presides over the bank's office space, would not project future employment here, but said it's going up.

As the company expands in other U.S. cities and internationally, the bank will need more support staff in its headquarters, she said. The bank hasn't determined what work groups will occupy the new building.

The bank recently added extra space in south Charlotte, too, leasing a building in Ballantyne and taking an option to lease another. But Desoer said plans for the offices hadn't been determined. The bank already has a satellite location in Ballantyne and is opening one in Huntersville.

Besides room for bank employees, the new tower will have a glass-enclosed atrium and "winter garden" that can host special events as well as an expanded skyway connected to Founders Hall. Retail shops are planned, but occupants haven't been determined.

The tower will have 700 parking spaces. The building could grow in height depending on how parking floors are configured, Desoer said.

Expensive construction projects sometimes irritate shareholders or employees who would rather see the bank's money used on dividends or raises. Desoer said the building will be covered by excess capital and was needed because of the company's growth.

Centex Construction will be the general contractor and Perkins + Will the architect. Bob Hambright, chief executive of Centex Construction's Charlotte-based Southeast division, said work would likely begin in the next 30 days with probing and drilling of the site. More visible work would begin early next year.

Five tower cranes will eventually rise over a congested property that is hemmed by a parking garage on one side and city streets on the other three. Hambright will be able to keep a close eye on the project: He lives in an uptown condominium complex.

Banks Boosting City's Office Space

At 32 floors, Bank of America's planned new office tower would be the city's fifth tallest in stories. The neighboring Bank of America Corporate Center is the tallest at 60 stories.

Uptown office construction has been overshadowed recently by residential condos. Eight high-rise projects -- two of which will reach 50 stories -- are under way or announced.

Demand for office space is increasing in large part now because of expansion at the city's two big banking headquarters.

"The growth of the two largest players spurs additional growth from all the people who do business with Bank of America and Wachovia," said real estate analyst Melanie Sizemore of Carolinas Real Data.

Her third-quarter survey shows vacant space uptown has shrunk consistently over the past year from 6.6 percent to an extremely tight 4.7 percent.

Bank of America's 32-story tower, Wachovia's 48-story complex, the EpiCentre mixed-use development and a NASCAR office tower will increase space available for lease to about 1.5 million square feet.

That sounds like a lot, but Sizemore said, the buildings will have staggered openings over three or four years, easing fears of an office space glut.

In the short term, the center city space crunch could get worse. "The relief will come with the first new one to cross the finish line," Sizemore said.

DOUG SMITH

<<Charlotte Observer, The (NC) (KRT) -- 11/13/06>>

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