At Tommy’s Pub on Central Avenue, you can pull a stool up to the bar, lean on the cracked armrest and order a Yuengling for $2.50 in a plastic cup from the bar’s single tap. Brats and sauerkraut are warming in a slow cooker, and there’s probably NASCAR or the Panthers on TV.
The blue collar bar has occupied the same Plaza Midwood spot since the 1950s, under multiple names, but it might not for much longer: A developer has applied to rezone the land and build a 97-unit apartment complex.
Next door, in the same building, Backstage Vintage is planning to move to downtown Monroe this summer. Down the street, American Beauty Garden Center is leaving its home on Central Avenue.
Over in NoDa, The Chop Shop faces closure or relocation, while the owners of Jackalope Jacks in Elizabeth are waiting to see if their landlord reaches a deal with apartment developers that could push them out.
All are small businesses dealing with the pressure of booming apartment construction in Charlotte’s older, close-in neighborhoods.
Developers are taking advantage of two trends: People want to live closer to Charlotte’s center in more urban neighborhoods, and young workers are more likely to rent than they were before the recession. New apartments in these close-in neighborhoods can meet that need, providing upscale housing for new residents.
While supporters point to positives such as more jobs and better use of vacant land, opponents bemoan the loss of neighborhood institutions. Some worry that the apartment surge risks displacing the quirky local businesses they say bring character to neighborhoods such as NoDa and Plaza Midwood.
The plan to build apartments where Tommy’s Pub currently sits has already aroused opposition. Neighbors in Plaza Midwood have started a protest petition and plan to pack a City Council hearing next month with more than 100 opponents of the rezoning.
“It’s like our local ‘Cheers,’” said Jenna Thompson, who lives nearby. The bar is a refuge for local musicians and “neighborhood orphans,” she said. Last year, she cooked a full Thanksgiving meal, took it to Tommy’s and celebrated the holiday there with friends. “It’s irreplaceable. … You’re tearing down one of the things that makes the neighborhood unique.”
Those building the apartments counter that their projects will increase property tax revenues for the city and give the thousands of people moving to Charlotte a place to live. Porter Jones is head of DPJ Residential, which is behind the project at Central and Westover avenues that would replace Tommy’s Pub.
Jones said the $15 million project will add property tax dollars to the city’s rolls at a time of tight budgets, by filling in a site that is about 90 percent vacant and bringing more residents. That should also be a boon for local businesses, he said. “Those residents are going to be consuming, shopping, buying,” said Jones.
Jones said he will create construction jobs, spend more than $100,000 cleaning up contaminated soil left over from a former gas station on the 1.9-acre tract, plant more trees on the site and fix and widen the sidewalk.
He also plans to include about 5,000 square feet of retail and office space in the new apartment complex, facing Central Avenue. That’s more than double the space in the current building.
“I’m not just tearing down retail and putting up apartments,” said Jones.
Phil Gussman, president of the Plaza Midwood Neighborhood Association, said residents generally favor development that improves the area, including DPJ’s project. The bar sits amid three vacant lots and next to a site with contaminated soil, Gussman pointed out.
“The sidewalk’s in bad shape. People don’t walk on it,” he said. “We need more places to be able to bike and walk.”
Tommy’s Pub manager Jamie Starks said Tommy’s Pub isn’t actively fighting the rezoning – the business wants to keep good relations with its landlord. Still, Starks worries about small businesses being displaced in favor of similar-looking blocks of apartment buildings.
“Everything unique and special in this town is getting ripped out,” said Starks. “Is that all you want? These apartments?”
The rezoning plan would also push out adjacent Backstage Vintage, which sells clothing from 1930s smoking jackets to authentic World War II uniforms to 1980s glam outfits. Owner Judith Craycraft said the store is moving to downtown Monroe in July, where they found a historic building with cheaper rent.
She’s been through it before: Craycraft relocated her shop from Asheville in 2011 after development in that city turned her building into upscale condos.
“Now we’ve got to trash it all and start again from scratch,” said Craycraft.
Jeannie Fennell, president of the adjacent Commonwealth-Morningside Neighborhood, said Jones has been responsive to neighbors and that he appears to be developing a high-quality project.
But she said the sheer volume of new apartment buildings in the area is “overwhelming.” Developers are building or planning more than 1,000 apartments in a 1-mile radius. She’s hopeful that local businesses will be able to lease the space in DPJ Residential’s new building, but worries about the area losing its character.
“Tommy’s Pub is one of those neighborhood places you have very few of in Charlotte,” said Fennell. “We’re losing the very things that bring people here, which is a little-bit-funky, diverse things.”
Favorite local bar and eatery faces uncertain future
Jackalope Jacks is an Elizabeth staple at the corner of East Seventh Street and North Caswell Road. But in the next two years, owner Rob Nixon isn’t sure the restaurant and bar will remain in Elizabeth.
A potential deal with Charlotte-based Faison Enterprises to demolish the property and build apartments is still on “the negotiating table,” he said. It will likely take another year or two until plans are finalized.
Faison President Tom Webb said, “We are in preliminary discussions on the property and have had discussions with the neighborhood.” Pamlico Capital, which owns the property, declined to comment.
“Do we want to see change? No, I’d like to be there 10 more years,” said Nixon, who has run Jackalope Jacks since 2001. “If I owned the property, I would happily redevelop the property.”
Developers favor “cookie-cutter” bars they can stick in mixed-use apartments, Nixon said.
“They’re all square, they’re all rectangular … the bar’s in one corner,” he said. “Once you eliminate that coziness of a neighborhood and you create four stories and three stories of townhouses and nice-looking apartments … you’re not going to have that neighborhood bar … that’s been there 60, 80 years. These newer bars just don’t have that same comfort and feeling.”
City Council member Patsy Kinsey, whose district includes Plaza Midwood and Elizabeth, said all of Charlotte’s “inner city neighborhoods are feeling the strain” of development.
“There are no easy answers,” she said. “Most developers choose a location because of the charm and the character. Most of the time, the developers are sensitive and they’re willing to work with neighbors. I think that’s probably the best answer.”
Others are more blunt.
“Elizabeth and other uptown neighborhoods have been and will continue to be threatened by bad development, meaning multifamily, multiuse projects that are too dense, too tall, too quick,” said Beth Haenni, past president of the Elizabeth Community Association. “Each year, Elizabeth loses a few historic homes, small businesses ... to the pressures of development.”
Chop Shop music venue getting chopped
NoDa is an old mill district named for its main corridor, North Davidson Street. It was revived as the center of the city’s arts scene, with galleries, music venues, tattoo places and independent restaurants. Jay Tilyard opened Chop Shop, a live concert venue, in NoDa five years ago, embracing the area’s “eclectic vibe.” Now, Chop Shop is being displaced, and he’s not surprised the area is changing.
“It’s no mind-blowing concept to me,” he said. “It’s just what happens – a piece of property becomes worth more, somebody buys it. I’d just say it’s growth and the ebb and flow of property.”
Charlotte-based Crescent Communities won approval from City Council last week to build up to 350 apartments on the site, as part of a development that also could include a grocer and boutique hotel. The land – also home to independent business Ultimate Gym – is next to the 36th Street station for the Lynx Blue Line light rail extension, driving up the value.
Crescent senior development manager Michael Tubridy said the company will provide 7,500 square feet of retail space, an outdoor plaza, and possibly a boutique hotel or grocery store. Crescent is looking to include bright colors, corrugated metal and bold graphic art on the building’s exterior – a departure from its more conventional apartments under construction in Dilworth and SouthPark.
“The piece of property we have there is not just an opportunity for us; it’s a responsibility,” said Tubridy.
Hollis Nixon, president of the NoDa neighborhood and business association, doesn’t think development jeopardizes NoDa’s artsy vibe.
“We’re trying to keep up with the change,” she said, “which is 100 percent inevitable. We’ve seen a lot of cool businesses go; we’ve seen a lot of cool businesses come in. I don’t think one particular development … will change the face of NoDa.”
Garden center, vegan restaurant struggling
At Central and Clement avenues, American Beauty Garden Center has a sign out front announcing that the store will move to Independence Boulevard this summer. The owners say a 246-unit apartment complex being built behind their store has made it impossible to do business there.
After buying the land last year, the garden center’s owners said Tribridge Residential removed the parking lot and loading docks behind their store to make way for construction, making it hard for customers to park and vendors to unload mulch, plants and other supplies.
Co-owner Pete Freeman said stores like theirs helped make Plaza Midwood attractive to developers.
“Eight years ago, they wouldn’t be building those apartments right next door to us. The area wouldn’t be anywhere you’d want to do that,” said Freeman. “They’re not showing any respect for the businesses that built the neighborhood up.”
Tribridge Vice President Yates Dunaway said that he couldn’t comment on specific issues but that the company is working with tenants affected by the construction.
“We take every reasonable precaution to minimize the disruption to tenants and neighbors,” Dunaway wrote in an email. “While we understand the frustration of being surrounded by construction activity, the construction is temporary. Ultimately, the impact should be positive for our tenants, as we will be bringing many new residents/shoppers into the area.”
Next door, vegan restaurant Fern and caterer Something Classic, owned by the same company, are also having trouble. They’re down to eight parking spaces for their six catering vans and any restaurant patrons.
Company President Jill Marcus said restaurant sales are down. Marcus is especially disappointed because she was at first happy about the possibility of hundreds of well-to-do potential patrons moving in behind her store, which has been there since 2000.
Now, she doesn’t know whether they’ll stay or relocate.
“We were here when it wasn’t a good neighborhood,” said Marcus. “Is this progress? I don’t know.”
Record high for apartment development
Developers are building more apartments in Charlotte than at any prior single point: Apartment-tracking firm Real Data reported in March that there were 10,463 apartment units under construction, with 10,000 more planned.
Most of the new construction underway consists of upscale apartment complexes in uptown or close-in neighborhoods, such as South End, SouthPark, NoDa and Elizabeth.
The added supply pushed up vacancy rates to 6.7 percent from 5.3 percent, and could push it up to 8 percent in the coming months, Real Data said. That’s still well below the 13.6 percent vacancy rate in 2010, meaning the market remains tight.
Average rent in the Charlotte market pushed up 0.5 percent from six months ago, to $938. Over the past year, rent is up 3.1 percent. But the increased supply of apartments could cause average rent growth to slow, Real Data said. Ely Portillo