Eileen Neacy is 52 but said she feels like a college freshman. Her secret isn’t a new fitness regimen, juice cleanse or fad diet.
It’s her neighborhood.
Neacy and her husband, Dave, moved to Charlotte’s Brightwalk from Chapel Hill in 2012.
“Everyone is starting new,” she said. “There are lots of young people and great energy.”
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Neighbors feel a sense of pride in their burgeoning community where the drug- and crime-riddled Double Oaks apartments once stood.
“We are still trying to figure out what it will be,” Neacy said. “Someone said to me two years ago at a neighbor get-together, ‘What do you think this place will be like in the future?’ And I remember saying, ‘It will be exactly what we decide it will be.’ ”
Brightwalk is a $125 million mixed-income urban village north of Brookshire Freeway between I-77 and Statesville Avenue that’s the result of a public-private partnership including Standard Pacific Homes, Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation, McColl Center for Art + Innovation, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, among others.
Brightwalk is the biggest venture the Housing Partnership has undertaken.
Double Oaks’ old barracks-like buildings are gone. In their place are single-family homes and townhomes built by Standard Pacific and reminiscent of Dilworth and affordable apartments developed by the housing partnership. Standard Pacific’s Charlotte office president, Steve Francis, said demand is strong.
The typical Brightwalk buyer is “highly educated, has a good-paying job and wants to be within a mile of uptown,” Francis said. Millennials have been especially responsive to Brightwalk, but buyers are at all stages of life.
Stefanie Young, 39, moved to Brightwalk from Fourth Ward a year-and-a-half ago. The director of technical solutions at the U.S. Green Building Council bought in the once-sketchy part of town because, she said, “Being near the urban core, while still having open space and in a sustainable community, was important to me.”
It takes courage to move to a neighborhood in the experimental phase. “Make no mistake: It was a bit uncertain,” Neacy said. “There were no houses, no street lights, lots of open fields, drug deals outside the front door. The housing market was crashed with no real sign of recovery. We had no idea what we were getting into.”
But being a pioneer has paid off. The first homebuyers have seen “strong appreciation,” said Julie Porter of the housing partnership.
When sales began in 2012, the starting point for a single-family home was in the $170,000s. Today, a home with the same floor plan would start in the $260,000s. Townhomes have gone from the $130,000 range to the $160,000 range.
Young said her favorite thing about her neighborhood is her neighbors.
“For being such a new community, residents really care about helping the neighborhood grow into a vital and safe area,” she said. “Coming into the neighborhood as all new residents – with many first-time homeowners – we all have a common bond that has brought us closer together.”
Rev. Darryl Gaston, a resident of neighboring Druid Hills, has lived in the Statesville Avenue corridor for nearly 50 years. He doesn’t live in Brightwalk, but he calls himself the neighborhood’s unofficial ambassador.
“For so long, we suffered the pain,” he said. “Now we’re bringing back hope.”
Hope can take many forms. At Brightwalk, it looks like people walking their dogs and jogging, a kid-filled playground and public art. The McColl Center developed an environmental art master plan for the neighborhood that McColl officials think can serve as a national model.
A $400,000 grant from ArtPlace America is helping create Brightwalk’s art and ecology campus. Four of seven installations have been placed so far.
The artists chosen were required to spend time in the community, get to know residents and consider them in the planning. Lisa Hoffman, McColl associate director, calls the process “co-construction.”
Sculptor Stacey Levy, whose undergraduate degree is in forestry, is restoring bird habitats through her “Fly Line.” What looks like a natural area is really a carefully cultivated sanctuary for avian neighbors.
Levy is restoring the tree canopy to create suitable nesting habitats. The soil has been remediated, and the area may as well have a sign that reads “Now Welcoming Pollinators.”
Eventually, the space will have sculptural bowls that make a hospitable environment for insects to lay eggs. Those eggs will in turn become food for baby birds.
Around the corner from “Fly Line” is “Scuppernong Commons,” a pocket park/grape arbor by Wowhaus, the husband/wife team of Ene Osteraas-Constable and Scott Constable. Picking grapes will be encouraged; McColl officials envision neighbors making scuppernong jelly.
The neighborhood kids’ favorite installation is likely to be Ruganzu Bruno’s “Adventure PlayScape.” Audrey Singer, McColl’s environmental program coordinator, said the Ugandan-based Bruno “embedded himself in the community” during the planning stages. The four sections of the installation represent the life cycle of a butterfly; partially buried old tires resemble a caterpillar.
The butterfly’s wings, planted recently, will eventually bloom and make the sculpture look alive. (At Brightwalk, the art is growing along with the neighborhood.) Bruno’s work is beside a playground with a slide and swing set. Singer said, “It’s inspiring to see kids run on top of the caterpillar’s back and ignore the traditional play structure.”
The latest public art installation was unveiled a few weeks ago. To fully appreciate Brandon Ballengee’s “Love Motels for Insects,” you need to see it at night. The “motel” combines large sculptural pieces covered in white awning with UV LED lights behind it. When the lights come on at night, it’s as if the neon “VACANCY” sign was lit. Beneficial nocturnal insects such as moths and grasshoppers are drawn in.
Because it brings bugs close together – like a singles bar – it’s easier for them to find each other, have a fleeting romance and produce more beneficial insects. Although the “Love Motel” is the insect equivalent of a roadside inn that rents rooms by the hour, it also promotes awareness of our ecosystem.
In fact, all of Brightwalk’s art serves to inspire and educate.
Not all outdoor space at Brightwalk is given over to art. Some of it exists purely for recreation. Anita Stroud Park, long a neighborhood landmark, is a seven-acre park under renovation. Plans include cycling and running trails, a restored natural stream, botanical ponds and wildflowers.
A bright future
Hope was returned to a place that was once overrun with vagrants, drug dealers and prostitutes.
“Driving down Statesville Avenue and passing a lot of industrial or vacant lots, you don’t expect to find this new, fresh, hidden little gem with tree-lined streets,” Young said. “It’s exciting to be part of a development that will bring … economic investment to a section of Charlotte that has historically been overlooked.”
Anyone looking for an exclusive community should look elsewhere, Gaston said. Brightwalk is a blended community, and neighbors like it that way. “We didn’t want to create a sense of us and them,” he said. “We’ve been intentional about involving everyone.”
“Gentrification can have a negative, as well as a positive, perception,” he said. “I think we’re on the right track with Brightwalk.”
At Brightwalk, the sense of hope includes everyone – homeowners and apartment renters. No one’s being left behind.
“It’s our job to ensure there’s an affordable component to Brightwalk,” said the housing partnership’s Porter.
“We have the opportunity to be the next NoDa or Plaza Midwood,” Young said. “But it needs to be done in a way that improves property values without displacing low-income families and small or existing businesses.”
Standard Pacific is building the Craftsman-style single-family homes, and two- and three-bedroom town homes.
Standard Pacific’s Steve Francis said the community of more than 250 homes is about halfway sold. Put another way, as Julie Porter of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership said, the community is in year eight of its 10-year development plan.