Why so many of Charlotte’s new apartments look alike (and why some are calling for change)

If it strikes you that many of the new apartments under construction around Charlotte look similar, it’s not your imagination.

A remarkably similar design has popped up all over the city: four- or five-story wood-framed buildings wrapped around a parking deck.

It’s a relatively inexpensive type of construction, and developers say it meets a growing need. More millennials and downsizing baby boomers want to live in apartments close to uptown and other thriving neighborhoods. The faster they expand supply, developers say, the faster the soaring rents might start to come down.

But some critics see a bland wave of construction that often lacks essential elements to tie apartment buildings to the community, including shops or restaurants on the ground floor.

“They’re just going through the motions,” David Furman, a longtime Charlotte architect, said of the crop of new buildings. He’s a principal at Housing Studio, an architecture firm, and has designed tens of thousands of units of multifamily housing.

Riding a bike through South End, he points out features he says shouldn’t be allowed in new apartments.

Blocklong, blank walls. Exhaust fans from parking decks blowing on pedestrians. Empty leasing offices facing prime corners. Bedroom windows at ground level set directly against the sidewalk. A parking garage facing the Lynx Blue Line, which is supposed to be a vibrant pedestrian and bike corridor.

If architects and developers won’t voluntarily build apartments with better design, Furman said, the city should mandate it.

There is some variation in wood-framed apartment design, of course. Northwood Ravin and DPJ Residential are betting on smaller, less-dense designs with surface parking instead of large decks. And some of the four-story, block-sized projects do have retail and restaurants built into the ground floor, such as Camden Gallery in South End.

But the debate over design standards has gathered steam in recent weeks, as a growing chorus of urban designers have called for tighter standards. Planners, “new urbanism” advocates and established groups such as Charlotte Center City Partners have joined the push.

The city is planning a rewrite of zoning laws, which would be the most likely way to set higher design guidelines. But an overhauled code is likely at least four years away.

Higher standards, higher costs

Ken Szymanski, executive director of the Greater Charlotte Apartment Association, said Charlotte apartment designs are on par with those of other booming cities such as Nashville and Atlanta. He said mandates for higher design standards would raise costs for developers, pushing prices higher at a time when average rent recently passed $1,000 for the first time in Charlotte.

“Charlotte multifamily design is some of the best in the nation,” Szymanski said. He said any discussion of higher design requirements should include the question: “What’s the development cost, and how does it translate to rents?”

The popularity of mid-rise, wood-framed buildings stems from increased demand for urban projects that fill in small, expensive parcels, said Bruce Lindsey, Charlotte-based regional director for trade group WoodWorks.

“If the land costs more,” he said, “the structure has to cost less.”

It’s typically faster and simpler to finance and build new apartments as a single-use residential building – without a large amount of ground-floor retail or restaurants – than to build a complex, mixed-use development.

“The cost for higher architecture will be higher,” Szymanski said. Putting a restaurant into an apartment building on the ground floor can require different construction skills and more attention to fire code requirements. “Everybody likes quality, but not everywhere can be high-end.”

And while some criticize the designs, Szymanski pointed out that the new buildings are adding density and often filling in underused or vacant parcels close to the city’s center. Such land tends to be expensive, and developers want to put in as many units as possible to maximize their investment.

New regulations on apartment design would likely meet stiff resistance. Joe Padilla, executive director of the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, said the market should decide what designs are best for a building. If ground-floor retail doesn’t make sense in a given building, mandating more of it won’t make a project work, he said.

“It’s important to keep in mind the marketability of any of these projects,” Padilla said.

Szymanski said ground-floor retail only works in the densest corridors.

“Mandating it is usually a recipe for failure,” he said.

Furman contends that adding features such as ground-floor retail will increase buildings’ long-term value.

“When you follow good design principles and you make a place better – you create a corner coffee shop that becomes a great amenity for that building – it ultimately enhances the value of that asset,” he said. “Everybody wins, if you don’t get too focused on cranking out the asset.”

Center City Partners: Examine standards

The wave of similar four- and five-story designs has stirred concerns about “sterilizing” vibrant neighborhoods such as Plaza Midwood, Dilworth, South End and NoDa. The concern goes beyond the buildings’ often-beige exteriors: Urban designers worry that buildings cut off from the street, without ground-floor retail and pedestrian-friendly features, will hurt the walkable communities that city planners envision.

Charlotte Center City Partners, an influential group created to promote development in and around uptown, has called for “raising the bar” on new construction in booming areas such as South End, North Tryon and the Blue Line light-rail extension.

Michael Smith, the group’s CEO, said it’s time to look at what standards are needed to ensure high-quality developments are built.

“We’re at a point where we need to do the analysis,” Smith said Friday.

He recalled an episode several years ago when Center City Partners brought in developers from Washington, D.C., and San Francisco to help craft a new South End vision. Smith said when the developers praised South End’s boom, he invited them to come and build.

“They said ‘Absolutely not,’ ” Smith said. Surprised, he asked why. Their response: The city’s zoning code did not guarantee that any future projects built next door to their potential sites would be high-quality.

With the boom happening now and an overhauled zoning code still years away, Smith said city leaders need to look at requirements that can be put in place sooner.

“We need to evaluate that and see if there’s something we can do in the interim while the entire code is being rewritten,” Smith said.

Tobe Holmes, director of the group’s Historic South End organization, said at a board meeting this month that he’s started to hear more discontent with the wave of apartments in South End.

“The last couple years, I’ve started to hear some disapproval,” Holmes said. Some projects “don’t necessarily contribute to street-level safety or the walkable neighborhood.”

Murray Whisnant, a longtime Charlotte architect who designs residential buildings, said he understands why developers, who have big money at risk, want simple, dependable designs. But he thinks the uniformity underscores a deterioration in design standards.

“Nobody says ‘We really want something quality here, something different,’ ” he said.

“To me, the bottom line is that nobody cares.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo