The coming Pearl District already has a tenant — Charlotte’s first four-year med school

With the final beams in place on an academic building, construction on Charlotte’s first four-year medical school is nearly completed — along with the first phase of The Pearl district project.

While a ceremony took place in December to celebrate “topping off” the construction of two buildings, more work is expected for the $1.5 billion innovative district and the new Wake Forest University School of Medicine-Charlotte.

Atrium Health and Wexford Science & Technology have partnered to build The Pearl, a project that broke ground in 2023. With the partners receiving help from the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, the mixed-use development includes retail, offices, apartments and academic spaces. The plan includes a parking structure and an outdoor plaza.

Affordable housing also will be a part of the 20-acre project located at the intersection of Baxter and McDowell streets in uptown Charlotte.

“We have a lot of cool irons in the fire,” said Hillary Crittendon, district strategy and operations director for the project. Construction efforts were led by Whiting-Turner Contracting Company, R.J. Leeper Construction and Wexford.

The project’s first phase includes the medical school and a research tower. Charlotte is one of the largest cities in the U.S. without a medical school. It will be the second campus for the Winston-Salem-based school.

The medicine school will anchor the Howard R. Levine Center for Education in the center of The Pearl. Levine’s foundation provided a $25 million gift to name the 14-story building.

The same education building also will house the university’s School of Business, the new Wake Forest School for Professional Studies and the Carolinas College of Health Science, which will provide nursing and other professional training.

The site also will be the headquarters for Advocate Health, the parent company of Atrium Health, Crittendon said.

The second 10-story medical school building will be one of four research facilities in the district’s master plan. The primary occupant will be IRCAD, a surgical training center. The France-based company, also a subsidiary of Atrium Health, is building its North American-headquarters at the Pearl.

“We’ve already had a lot of success attracting the really top echelon of medical device technology and imaging companies from around the world to come and partner with us through IRCAD,” she said.

STEM plans

On the seventh floor of the first research building, plans are underway to have a STEM lab for middle school students. It will function and look like a researcher’s lab, Crittendon said. Atrium has been working with administrators and principals at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to form the program.

“It’s really meant to bolster education and drive excitement and interest in some of our young learners,” she said.

Atrium also is partnering with Smart Girls HQ, a program to promote STEM career education with a focus on female learners, and Philadelphia-based science center FirstHand for the middle school lab.

More community outreach

The Pearl is being built in the former Brooklyn neighborhood. It was home to Charlotte’s largest Black community with businesses, schools and churches before urban renewal took hold in the late 1960s and decimated it. Pearl Street Park, the first African American park in Charlotte, is a remaining landmark.

The first phase also includes plans for additional public spaces.

“The idea is to bring people together and sort of create this new neighborhood around The Pearl,” she said.

Some spots include a cafe in the academic building along with a full service restaurant and coffee shop. A 250-seat auditorium is also in a connector space between the two buildings.

The outdoor plaza area was designed for gathering like yoga classes, music events or for small businesses to set up for special occasions. Hardscape areas are also available for art sculptures. In the upcoming months, developers will be looking for local artists.

Brooklyn’s history will also be featured on a walking trail through art and architecture.

“We will continue to work with the community and our design team to bring that vision to life,” she said.

What’s next?

Phase one is on track to open in June 2025, Crittendon said. Medical students also are scheduled to start classes that same year.

The next phase of development would likely be a conference center with a hotel, according to Crittendon. A timeline for completion has not been set and a company has not been chosen.

“When you think about what IRCAD represents and the ability to attract businesses and surgeons to Charlotte, the presence of a hotel right on campus is a really critical element,” she said.

The Pearl is expected to create more than 11,500 jobs in Charlotte over the next 13 years, according to Atrium Health.