A decade ago, few would have thought a middle-class neighborhood could thrive where the old Double Oaks housing complex once stood off Statesville Avenue.
But the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, which redeveloped the property just north of uptown, says homes in the new Brightwalk subdivision are selling as fast as homebuilder Standard Pacific can construct them.
“It was risky,” said Julie Porter, president of the partnership, “But this is evidence that it can work.”
More upscale developments could follow Brightwalk to the mostly industrial, traditionally low-income sector just north of the Brookshire Freeway.
A panel of urban planning experts the city of Charlotte called in from as far away as London recommended Friday that local leaders launch a long-term push to turn the area into a hip, artsy new sector – “the North End.”
The 5.6-square-mile area, which fans out along North Tryon and North Graham streets and Statesville Avenue, doesn’t attract nearly as much attention from real estate developers as more established close-in areas such as Dilworth or South End.
But after spending the week in Charlotte studying it and talking to locals, the panelists said its large parcels of vacant or underdeveloped land represent a huge opportunity for the city.
They envision its future as a technology corridor filled with young software and Internet firms, advertising studios and other creative-minded companies.
They see new restaurants, offices and housing, as well as a network of parks and plazas. They sketched out the beginnings of redevelopment projects that would turn the area’s old industrial buildings into the kind of “funky” urban environment the millennial generation craves.
They acknowledged their recommendations, which included burying Interstate 277 to better tie uptown to the new North End, won’t be easily accomplished.
Panel chair Glenda Hood, a former mayor of Orlando, Fla., urged city officials to start building a broad coalition, including landowners and developers.
“The task for you is to capture the imaginations of these leaders and ask them to the table,” she said, addressing a Government Center crowd that included City Manager Ron Carlee and his top staff.
“It’s going to demand a lot of patience. … It’s going to take decades, frankly.”
The city should create a North End Redevelopment Authority to oversee rezoning and pull together financing for projects, the panel suggested.
“It has to be an independent body with the teeth, with the authority to make these decisions and make them quickly,” Hood said.
City officials, who joined a private development group as lead co-sponsors of the $125,000 study, pledged to weigh the recommendations.
“I think they came up with new ideas that hadn’t been part of the (city’s) vision before,” Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble said. “We’ll have to work through those and determine which ones are feasible. … There are many things we would implement, but there may be things that we won’t.”
The redevelopment area stretches from the NoDa neighborhood in the east to Genesis Park and Druid Hills on the west. One panelist said redevelopment on such a massive scale could bring gentrification.
“The most important things that will happen there are the unintended consequences,” said Roger Williams, a community-development consultant from Potomac, Md.
“As we change the area, the people will feel pressure. They will feel forced out. They will feel they’re not part of the change. The question is how do we get them to feel a part of the change?”
Another question: Will private real estate developers actually come? Panelists said many locals weren’t familiar with the area, and suggested a “branding” campaign might be necessary.
Zane Segal, a real estate developer from Houston, said he’s seen similar urban areas take off in his city.
“We heard from some of the (Charlotte) developers that it really is going to take a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality,” he said. “But I would say if you want to make money, this is a good place to make a proactive investment.”
The private developers who helped co-sponsor the study already did. Vision Ventures and Mount Vernon Asset Management said their team has bought about 90 acres there, including the Hercules Industrial Park, a former World War II Army base. They want to turn it into more than 400,000 square feet of office space.
They said they bought in the area after watching land prices escalate in South End, where they had done earlier projects.
“We asked ourselves what would be the next potential redevelopment zone for the city,” said Tony Kuhn, a director with Vision Ventures. “It was a deliberate choice on what the path of progress looks like in Charlotte.”
Among the panel’s recommendations and observations:
• Bury Interstate 277. It’s an idea that has come up before as a means of reconnecting uptown to neighborhoods just outside the 277 loop. It would cost millions; nothing has ever been done. The panel said it would be worth it, citing examples from other cities.
• The panel recommended keeping the aging Amtrak station where it is on North Tryon as an anchor for redevelopment. They envision a network of connected plazas and small parks connecting it to the Graham Street corridor.
The city had been envisioning moving the station to Third Ward as part of the long-planned but slow-moving Gateway Station project.
• Several panelists suggested the plan also could be complicated by the presence of two major agencies serving the homeless – the Salvation Army’s Center of Hope and the Urban Ministry Center. But others said supportive housing services and job training could help.
“It seems like a lot,” said panelist Stephen Whitehouse, a New York City-based landscape architect and urban planner. “But this is not any type of great acceleration or expansion from the type of growth you’ve seen.”