South End is changing, it’s hard to ignore. Wherever you go, apartments, bars, breweries and restaurants seem to be popping up everywhere. But change is nothing new for South End.
Change started with a gold mine in 1825, changed when cotton and textiles took over the corridor, and changed again when Gaines Brown moved his business to the downtrodden area and established it as a creative juggernaut. Then the light rail came, and it transformed the area again.
We have seen billions of dollars of residential, commercial and retail development along the Blue Line since it opened in 2008.
All this breakneck growth has been great, but there are a few things that keep it from becoming a premier urban neighborhood.
Connectivity and pedestrian friendliness
Many new South End residents are active, want to socialize, run errands and live life without needing a car. While this type of lifestyle is possible in South End, there is a lot standing in the average pedestrians way.
Take walking to the grocery store: While there are thousands of residences within a 5-10-minute walk, there are residences that can see Publix, but have no way to walk there thanks to the lack of crossing between Remount and Tremont.
People are finding creative ways to cross the tracks (see picture below).
To have a symbiotic, cohesive neighborhood, people need to be able to easily go from one place to another.
The pedestrian experience isn’t just about connectivity and sidewalks — architecture and planning plays a large role. Many recent developments (Junction 1504, for instance) have taken a “gated” and “resort-like” approach to multi-family. They are essentially exclusive clubs that do a lot for the community within, but very little for the community outside.
These complexes offer buzzword features like dog grooming stations, salt-water pools, cabanas, and “luxury amenities,” but what are they doing to inspire interaction among their neighboring properties?
Handsome, well-designed, human scale, street frontages with storefronts, patios and wide sidewalks are needed to make the pedestrian experience possible. Would you rather walk by 200 cars behind a decorative gate on a dimly lit sidewalk or past 25 people dining outside of a newly opened restaurant or cafe?
Nurturing an identity and growing as an urban neighborhood
The neighborhood’s roots are in industry, and there have been lots of steps taken toward revitalizing the warehouses and mills that once defined the area. Atherton Mill and the Design Center of the Carolinas have done remarkable jobs repurposing historic buildings into innovative spaces for the surrounding neighborhood to utilize. (Eden’s plans for Atherton are out of this world.)
These two examples embrace what they are — repurposed industrial buildings — and it shows in their architecture. I’m not saying that every building should be masonry top to bottom with warehouse-style, loft windows, but there need to be guidelines.
The city is working on rewriting its zoning codes, but I worry that by the time this happens there won’t be much land left to develop the proper way.
Right now South End is more a collection of buildings than an integrated neighborhood. The Rail Trail — a linear park bisecting the entire neighborhood — helps, tying everything together in an interesting manner.
The Gold District (between Morehead and Summit Ave.) is a blank slate: great buildings with character, mostly-grid streets and a lot of empty space. Mint Street is just begging to become the signature street of South End.We need more money, and more people working to make these two projects come to fruition.
There’s still more work to be done. we need a cohesive vision for the neighborhood, as a whole, to follow.
Photos: Jeff Willhelm/Charlotte Observer; John D. Simmons/Charlotte Observer; Diedra Laird/Charlotte Observer; Charlotte Observer file.