Mixed-use demand still a bright spot

With its pastel storefronts, the Town of Ayrsley feels like an upscale seaside village.

Residents of the development can head to the bank, a restaurant or the day spa, only yards from their front doors. Once inside the town – just an open field 10 years ago – a resident might not need to leave.

That's the idea behind the 180-acre mixed-use project in southwest Charlotte. With gas prices increasing, the phenomenon has gathered momentum as more area residents want to live near where they work, shop and play.

Developers have responded with new projects, large and small. Requests for mixed-use rezoning have risen sharply, according to a review of Mecklenburg County planning documents since 1997. That year, there were four requests. Last year, 26. The planning commission approved 206 in that time, and more than half of those were from 2004 to 2007.

Some of the projects, which take years to complete, are just now coming online.

Smart-growth advocates for years have preached a gospel of clustering homes, retail and offices to fight urban sprawl and pollution. Charlotte consumers, who want to drive less, are now demanding it.

“There's an immediate crisis feeling about the price of gas, but there's also a different living preference now,” said Laura Harmon, economic development program manager for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission. “Those of us who might be baby boomers didn't have those options. But now the millennials and so forth are wanting to live differently.”

Mixed-use became a Mecklenburg County zoning option in 1992. It describes developments or parts of town where residences, retail shops, offices and other attractions, such as museums or hiking trails, are intermingled. It's meant to contrast the old suburb-and-shopping center model.

The first Charlotte-area project, about 15 years old, was Phillips Place near SouthPark. It married high-end living and retail. Birkdale Village, in Huntersville, is another one.

Some areas, such as uptown, already are mixed use by their nature. And even though the developments only make up a small portion of available housing, interest has remained strong despite the downturn in real estate sales, developers say.

For example, 58 of the 60 studio and loft spaces for sale at the new Metropolitan mixed-use development south of uptown are already sold, said J. Brian Roth, vice president of marketing for Pappas Properties, which is building the project.

To be sure, traditional Charlotte suburbs remain the dominant style of neighborhood and make up most of the households in the metro area. But a mixed-use revolution is underway, helping absorb the area's growing transplant population. It's also changing the complexion of Charlotte, which for decades has grown outward, consistently adding monolithic suburbs and enclosed shopping centers to its geographic waistline.

As the city has expanded, those older malls – once on the urban fringes – are now prime urban locations ripe for redevelopment, said Michael Beyard, a senior fellow with the Urban Land Institute, which studies development trends. Developers are recasting those sites as new mixed-use projects to make more money, he said.

Mecklenburg County planning officials don't keep a centralized tally of completed mixed-use developments. Project plans are considered on a case-by-case basis by the planning commission. Local government does actively promote mixed-use development along its dedicated mass transit corridors, such as in South End along the new light-rail line.

Charlotte is at the forefront of a national trend because of its educated population and steady stream of outside professionals demanding an urban style of living, Beyard said.

Those include Brock Fankhauser, a 34-year-old developer of senior living communities.

He purchased a million-dollar condo at Metropolitan, a 13-acre development that sits alongside the Little Sugar Creek Greenway. When completed, the project between Kings Drive and Kenilworth Avenue will have five levels of residences above a grocery store and other shops, including upscale restaurants and a health club.

Fankhauser grew up in an Ohio suburb and became interested in mixed-use living after his parents moved to a historic neighborhood near downtown Columbus. “They can walk to everything. That got our palates and our taste for this type of living excited.”

He and wife Nicole plan to raise a family in their new condo, which is still being finished. It has a 2,000-square-foot terrace and a view of the uptown skyline. “The terrace is a place to play catch and ride one of those little four-wheel toys,” he said. “We were looking at Myers Park and Eastover for a tear-down, and those yards are basically (the same size as the terrace).”

Families like the Fankhausers are part of a new breed of homebuyers, said Steve Harris, owner of Harris Development Group, which builds mixed-use developments across the country, including a project at 1200 South Blvd. on the light-rail line.

“It goes way beyond gas. It's women, single people and empty nesters. They're very much interested in safety and walkability,” he said.

Some critics say the projects make sense but are expensive and unavailable to middle- and lower-class homeowners.

Roth, of Pappas Properties, said the mixed-use philosophy is the same at any price. He pointed out that Pappas is planning a blue-collar-style project at the Scaleybark stop of the light rail. It would offer a mix of affordable residences and retail, he said.

In the extreme, developers are building new mixed-use villages, like Ayrsley, on fallow ground miles from urban cores.

The Ayrsley developers are about halfway finished with the project, which is planned to have 5 million square feet of buildings and 4,500 residents living in 1,600 properties – nearly the population of Cherryville, the Gaston County city about 40 miles west of Charlotte.

Ki Sung, a 63-year-old tailor, lives with his wife in a condo above his Ayrsley alteration shop called Sew Up by Sung. He used to drive 150 miles a day between his home and his old shop. So he sold it all and relocated to the complex.

He's lost money, and business is slow, he said this month as he walked from a cluster of mailboxes to his storefront. He hopes it'll catch on as the project moves forward and more residents move in.

For Lisa Weston, who owns Azura medical spa, business has been strong.

She and husband Steven Weston are considering buying one of the new homes inside Ayrsley so they can live and work within a few hundred yards. Her husband, a vascular surgeon, sees patients at Weston Medsurg Center at the same spa location.

“We were the first in here, and it's taken awhile. But business is booming now,” she said.

The couple with six children live in a home on Lake Wylie, but they might give it up for the convenience of Ayrsley, she said. Her husband is often on call, and the drive to the Charlotte hospital would be closer, she said.

The move wouldn't be about saving gas: “It's more about the quality of life.”