Charlotte’s newest hotspot for development is taking shape in an area that’s still largely industrial, on the fringes of booming uptown and South End – a part of town that few realize was one of the city’s original, hottest areas.
Now, a group of real estate professionals, urban planners and local property owners and businesses are trying to brand the Gold District as a unique neighborhood. It’s roughly bounded by Winnifred and Morehead streets, the railroad tracks to the west and Summit Avenue. It’s the area where gold mines opened starting in the 1820s, drawing people hoping to strike it rich, leading to the 1835 decision to open a branch of the U.S. Mint in Charlotte.
“It’s the beginning of what made Charlotte, Charlotte,” said Caren Wingate, a real estate broker who has helped lead a push to overhaul land use rules in the district.
“Everyone says Charlotte doesn’t have history,” said Steven Overcash, an architect and also one of the key Gold District backers. His offices are nearby on South Tryon Street. “It’s so rich.”
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A mass rezoning request filed last week would allow more shops, restaurants, residences and other businesses into the area, much of which is marked for industrial use. It would also ease requirements on parking and – hopefully – preserve some of the older buildings rather than tearing them down. Last year, Charlotte City Council approved a text amendment (a geeky zoning term) to the city’s code to get that process started, and they’ll vote on the mass rezoning petition in the coming months.
In the shadow of uptown towers and Bank of America Stadium, the area still feels much quieter than the faster-growing areas that surround it. Still, the neighborhood hasn’t been dormant. In recent years, businesses such as beer bar Craft, Unknown Brewing Co. and Korean-barbecue fusion restaurant Seoul Food have opened there. A new restaurant is headed to the former Mynt Restaurant and Lounge space as well.
But Overcash and Wingate want to see more. There are buildings in the Gold District from every decade from 1910 to the present, and they hope to encourage owners to reuse many of them for new businesses. They’re working to get more visible branding on the neighborhood, from gold-colored outside lighting to street sign toppers, gold-colored crosswalks to trees that turn gold in the fall, like gingkos. Rental rates for retail are far lower than in nearby areas – as low as half of the $35 per foot prevailing rate, Wingate said – which they hope will lure more locally owned businesses.
Picture Charlotte’s version of the famed Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego, Overcash said: A neighborhood where old buildings mix with new structures in a dense, walkable environment that draws people of all ages to shop, stroll and live.
“We don’t want it to be just bars and restaurants,” said Overcash.
They first became familiar with the area while scouting locations for a possible hotel about five years ago, and were intrigued by the possibilities.
“We thought wow, this is great and there’s nothing going on,” said Wingate. They decided to contact property owners and see about getting them on board with a plan to create a new district and form a merchants association for the area. Along the way, Overcash estimates they’ve had some 350 meetings with city planners, Charlotte Center City Partners, local building owners, shops and others. The effort has taken more time than either thought it would.
“This has gone from hobby to preoccupation,” said Wingate.
The area is part of the Historic South End district overseen by Charlotte Center City Partners, an organization to promote uptown and some surrounding areas that’s funded with a special tax assessment on properties inside its borders. Michael Smith, the group’s CEO, said having a sub-district in South End with more existing buildings will help preserve the area’s identity and local flavor.
“The beauty of this district is it was not part of the first wave,” said Smith. Many local businesses that were part of the first surge of interest in South End around the Blue Line light rail have since closed and seen their buildings sold, including Phat Burrito and Common Market.
“It’s going to retain the character,” Smith said of his hopes for the Gold District. “It’s hard when you get $2 billion worth of investment in a two-mile district...to do that. The best form of preservation is commerce.”
He pointed to the Gold District’s block structure (a grid of streets, walkable, not split by major thoroughfares like South Boulevard) and its position as a “bridge” to uptown, especially the booming Stonewall Street corridor.
“We’re going to have many subdistricts that are unique on their own and collectively create a great experience for a neighborhood,” said Smith.