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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership and McColl Center receive $400,000 grant

Houses won’t be the only things under construction in the Brightwalk Community at Historic Double Oaks this fall.

The McColl Center for Visual Art and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership have received a $400,000 grant from ArtPlace America to create an art and ecology campus at Brightwalk over the next two years. The money will be used to bring in up to 11 environmental artists from around the world to build installations in the mixed-income village near Statesville Avenue, a mile north of uptown Charlotte.

The project is one of 54 to receive money this year from ArtPlace America, a collaboration of foundations, banks and agencies supporting “creative placemaking.”

Artists will be chosen or commissioned for a three-month term. In 2009, the McColl Center expanded its urban-residency program to include an environmental branch, hoping to plug environmental artists into opportunities that could improve ecological problems in Charlotte.

“It’s about advancing artists, it’s about advancing community, and this is just another way we do it,” said Lisa Hoffman, the center’s director of environmental art and community engagement.

What is environmental art? Function is a big part of it.

“Environmental art doesn’t present the same way that traditional public art does,” Hoffman said. “The idea is that it will mitigate an environmental problem that is happening at a particular site.”

This kind of installation could be a project in alternative energy, habitat or stream restoration, water control or structures to prevent pollution.

“It can really span the gamut,” Hoffman said, “and that’s the interesting thing that each artist brings – they have an innovative approach to solving an environmental problem that probably wasn’t conceived of in this way before by a developer or landscape architect.”

Creating a destination

An art and ecology campus is just the latest effort in the Brightwalk neighborhood. The housing partnership closed on the 98-acre property in 2007 and relocated families living in the Double Oaks apartments so they could replace 500 barrack-style units with about 800 apartments, townhouses and houses in the $125 million public-private project. The new units hold energy efficiency, sustainability and environmentally friendly materials at their conceptual core.

Built for African-American families at the end of World War II, Double Oaks deteriorated into an unsafe neighborhood. The makeover is part of the Statesville Avenue Corridor Plan, the partnership’s long-term initiative to revitalize neighborhoods between Interstate 77, Interstate 85, Brookshire Freeway, Graham Street and uptown.

A consultant suggested the partnership join with McColl Center to help build not only a sustainable village, but also one that is culturally vibrant.

“We always knew that all of the green space around Double Oaks would be a plus,” said David Howard, partnership vice president. “But it hadn’t seen a lot of investment. Now, it’s not just a destination for people who want to live in a nice community, it’s a destination for international visitors who are interested in environmental art.”

And a destination for those who create environmental art, too. McColl’s artists will work with residents to identify issues they want to see addressed – environmental concerns as well as working to create safe and inviting outdoor space.

The community will be engaged further than the ideas phase: Residents will be invited to help with the installation, care and maintenance of their artistic investment, and artists will mentor students from universities who are pursuing art, engineering, ecology or design.

Attracting butterflies

A few months before receiving the ArtPlace grant, the McColl Center deployed an artist to create Brightwalk’s first environmental installation.

Elizabeth Conner, from Vashon, Wash., spent January-March constructing a wet garden to alleviate problems with stormwater in Anita Stroud Park. The park includes a picnic shelter surrounded by a circular walkway leading to a footbridge across a stream. The walkway flooded during significant rain, blocking the path, collecting sediment and attracting mosquitoes.

Conner’s installation redirects the stormwater and uses it to sustain a garden of native plants, easing the drainage problem and attracting birds and butterflies. The garden serves as an observation point for stream restoration and an indigenous habitat.

About 25 residents helped install the garden. The same number attended a dedication.

“It was a day about stewardship,” Conner said. “This is a place where these communities can intersect, people can engage each other casually or they can gather more intentionally. The desire is for community members to take care of those spaces.”

In addition to the wet garden, Conner painted the bridge abutments yellow to attract attention to pedestrian connections with adjacent neighborhoods, an integral value in Brightwalk’s conception.

“One of the main goals is to make sure there is a careful integration of this new community with the older, established communities,” Hoffman said, “and environmental art is another vehicle to help with that. There’s actually a high level of positive community activity that’s happening on its own, and we’re looking to connect the environmental art and that level of engagement to the already growing and evolving community.”

This article is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.
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