Charlotte City Council’s monthly zoning meeting took an unexpected turn Monday night, when a sign held by a resident opposed to a planned Topgolf sparked controversy.
A planned vote on the Topgolf entertainment venue, which has drawn strong opposition from some neighbors over traffic and other issues, has been delayed until July. But a half-dozen residents still came with signs urging City Council to turn down the planned Topgolf and up to 395 apartments, to be located on 65 acres of wooded land at Interstate 85 and West Mallard Creek Church Road.
Over the past several weeks, opponents of the plan have raised the possibility that there could be unmarked graves for slaves near Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church, next to the development. The developers hired Charlotte historian Dan Morrill to study the site, and say no graves would be disturbed, regardless of the outcome of the rezoning.
A sign referenced the issue bluntly Monday. Reading “SOS Save Our Slaves,” the sign was held by an audience member in the front row who appeared to be white, and it drew the ire of council member Al Austin, who is black.
“I’m not quite sure if you know how offensive that might be to those of us down here who are African-American. I get what you’re trying to say, but you’re the wrong person to have that sign up. Do you understand me?” Austin told the man, speaking from the dais. “Sir, that is the wrong message to send...I am quite offended.”
After Austin spoke, during a vote on another rezoning request, the sometimes-raucous council chamber settled into an uneasy silence.
“It got quiet in here,” Austin said.
Other signs held by neighbors featured less controversial slogans, such as “Save the slave cemetery” and “No Topgolf!”
Morrill is still studying the property, the developers said.
“After we receive Dan (Morrill)’s report we will need to define the boundaries of the cemetery so that it can be properly preserved and protected,” said Matt Browder, one of the developers. “Regardless of any zoning decision, the graves will not be disturbed.”
Gail Buff, one of the leaders of the neighbors’ opposition, sent City Council members an email to apologize later Monday night.
“This does NOT reflect the beliefs and attitude of our group and I want to extend my sincere apologies,” Buff said.
The possible slave cemetery is just one issue neighbors are citing in their fight against the mixed-use development. They’re also concerned about traffic, light and noise from Topgolf and the addition of apartments to what has previously been a single-family neighborhood.
The Mallard Creek Church Road location would be the golf entertainment venue’s second in Charlotte. Topgolf opened its first Charlotte venue June 9, across town at I-485 and West Arrowood Road.