From the front door of South End Trading Co., one of three furniture shops he owns in the neighborhood, Rodney Hines can look across New Bern Avenue and see the homes of hundreds of new neighbors – and customers.
Some of them live at Fountains South End, which towers four stories above the intersection of New Bern and South Boulevard, stretching a block west to Hines’ business at Griffith Street. Not that Hines minds. He moved another of his shops to South End five years ago, when he saw the growth on the way.
And after a brutal recession, his bet is paying off. His sales have risen sharply in the past year or so, even more since Fountains South End opened in August.
“I’m thrilled,” Hines said. “I knew that once the economy came back, people would start building over here again.”
Driving through South End these days is like touring one giant building site, with eight apartment and mixed-use complexes under construction and two more on the way. When the current projects are complete, they’ll add more than 1,700 apartment units to the corridor. Three others, including Fountains, have opened in the past year.
The Lynx light-rail line is the engine behind much of the construction. The recovery of the homebuilding industry is behind the timing.
The impact of light rail
The Lynx line opened in 2007. Charlotte transit planners had predicted up to $1.46 billion in economic impact along the line, which runs 10 miles along South Boulevard from uptown to Interstate 485.
But the recession halted homebuilding not long after it started running, and it’s been only in the past year or two that the expected growth has blossomed. The line has led to about $1.6 billion in overall development along the South Boulevard corridor since the project’s announcement in 2003, said Michael Smith, president and CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners.
Proffitt Dixon Partners, the Charlotte real estate development firm that built the Fountains complex, saw the potential for high-end apartments just off the New Bern Lynx stop.
Fountains – with one-, two- and three-bedroom units renting from $950 to $1,900 – has filled 204 of its 208 units since opening at the end of May, said Proffitt Dixon managing partner Stuart Proffitt.
There’s another reason why apartment complex developers are drawn to South End, Proffitt said. “It’s because South End has large parcels of land under few owners because of the industrial history of the area. You need large parcels to develop on that scale, and there aren’t a whole lot of areas in Charlotte that have them,” he said.
“We knew, being right on the light-rail station, that we could deliver a product that combined with access to employment and entertainment with light rail and a short drive to uptown to appeal to our target market.”
The boom in residential development is expected to double the neighborhood’s population of about 3,200 by the end of 2015, Smith said. And the population growth is driving business growth: A 55,000-square-foot Publix supermarket is under construction on a 4-acre lot at 2300 South Blvd.
Raising development bar
Center City Partners began promoting South End in 2004, when it was still an old industrial area just beginning to host new retailers and restaurants.
The next step for the area is an adjustment to the city code to enforce design and building standards specific to South End. The group is working with neighborhood leaders and city planners on that effort.
“We want to raise the development bar to a higher standard so we get projects that reflect the character of this neighborhood,” Smith said. “People are coming here because they see something special, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask them to invest.”
New homes don’t just mean new businesses. They mean additional public investment, such as Center City Partners’ plan for a greenway-like public park, the “Rail Trail,” to run 3.3 miles along the Lynx line and connect South End and other neighborhoods to uptown.
Ideally, Smith said, that would accompany pedestrian walkways and other amenities to make it easier for people to cross South Boulevard on foot to Dilworth and other neighborhoods.
The challenge, as in any growing area, is to manage the growth so it doesn’t obliterate what made the area appealing to begin with.
Leah Vissers, a 25-year-old who works at Common Market South End, lived in South End in 2010 and 2011 before she moved in with a boyfriend who lives in a complex on Independence Boulevard. She misses her old neighborhood.
“It was kind of like a city within a city,” Vissers said. “I liked not seeing chain stores everywhere, and there were a lot of local shops, as opposed to places you can find anywhere you go. Also, I was able to walk and bike anywhere I wanted.”
But she still sees the growth around her as she travels to and from work. “Everyone wants to live by the light rail,” she said. “It’s surprising how fast it’s been developed.”
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