Lower South End is growing fast. Can sidewalks and streets keep up?

Pete Politis has decades of experience opening restaurants in Charlotte, and now he’s betting on the area just south of South End.

“It’s changed so much. Now it’s going up, up,” said Politis, 85, at Old Pineville Premium Pub, his family’s newest restaurant. It’s across from the Blue Line light rail just north of East Woodlawn Road, in an area that’s still scruffy, full of low-slung warehouses. But now it’s starting to boom, with a half-dozen breweries, bars, cideries and distilleries, and more in the works.

“We saw the growth from South End coming this way,” said Pete Politis’ grandson, also named Pete Politis.

The area roughly bounded by Clanton Road, Tryon Street, South Boulevard and Woodlawn Road doesn’t have a formal name yet – though some local businesses have taken to calling it “LoSo,” short for Lower South End. Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, Sugar Creek Brewing, Doc Porter’s Distillery, Great Wagon Road Distilling Company and GoodRoad Ciderworks have all moved there in the past few years, turning it into a de facto entertainment district.

Several new developments are in the works now:

▪ Queen Park Social will bring 18,000 square feet of bar and restaurant, outdoor seating, a live music stage, private rooms for events, 10-pin string bowling, life-sized board games and shuffleboard to a 1962 warehouse on Yancey Road. Under construction now, that’s set to open in the next few months.

▪ Pappas Properties’ long-stalled development at Scaleybark Station is starting soon, with 58 townhouses and 16,000 square feet of retail space in the first phase. A second phase is set to break ground later this year.

▪ And White Point Partners recently won approval to redevelop the Bowers Fibers facility at Yancey and Old Pineville roads into 75,000 square feet of offices, shops and restaurants. That project should start construction in May and open by the end of the year.

But as development chugs south, some local observers are concerned that a wave of big, block-sized apartments could overwhelm the area, duplicating the development patterns that have brought thousands of new residents to South End in the past decade but have also pushed out some local businesses.

And the area – built on an auto-friendly, post-World War II layout – largely lacks sidewalks. That means that even though the Scaleybark and Woodlawn light rail stations are each about 1/2 mile away, it’s tough to get to, or around, without a car. That poses some of the same challenges to pedestrian safety and access that have swirled around booming South Boulevard for years.

David Walters, an urban planner and professor emeritus at UNC Charlotte, warned that a surge of huge apartments could homogenize the emerging district. Businesses from a stonework factory to a CrossFit gym to factories making tools, fasteners and light fixtures mingle with the breweries and distilleries.

“Is that area going to remain a mixed-use area where people live and work and play?” said Walters. “When that’s flattened and all you get is apartments, you’re replacing production of wealth with consumption. It becomes a bedroom community – where you live and where you drink.”

Walters also said the area needs more sidewalks, smaller blocks and connecting streets to make it easier and safer for people to get around.

“It can be pretty dangerous walking around there,” said Walters.

The fight surrounding White Point’s redevelopment of the Bowers Fibers facility shows how much of a challenge that might be. Charlotte planning staff opposed the developers’ request to rezone the fiber plant because White Point didn’t include a connecting street through the 5.1-acre site. City policy for the area calls for building a denser grid of interconnected streets to help better distribute traffic and improve the area’s walkability.

Jay Levell, a partner at White Point, said putting in the road staff wanted through the site would have made it too expensive and difficult to preserve and reuse the buildings on the site.

“The impact it would have on this site specifically and reusing the buildings would have made it not feasible,” said Levell. City Council voted to approve the project despite staff’s objections. The project will include a foot and bicycle path through it to provide access.

Levell agreed the area needs more sidewalks and pedestrian-friendly streets.

“With the number of establishments there, you could have a really cool day walking between them,” said Levell. “But that infrastructure isn’t there yet.”

Walters said City Council’s decision not to require the new connecting street sets a bad precedent. Allowing a developer to build without putting in the public street required by the area plan means it’s less likely that the area will ever be transformed into the kind of truly pedestrian-friendly, walkable neighborhood envisioned.

“I was hugely disappointed with the City Council,” said Walters. “You build a connected area one street at a time. It’s a small connecting street in line with established city policy. If they won’t hold developers to that small thing, what does that say?”

Terry Shook, an architect and founder of Shook Kelley, was one of the driving forces behind establishing the name South End two decades ago. Now chairman of the Historic South End board for Center City Partners, he said the lower South End area should be wary of cookie-cutter development.

“The same concerns though that we’ve all had about South End or NoDa exist there,” said Shook.

Charlotte needs a comprehensive new zoning and development ordinance that requires better urban design standards for new buildings, Shook said.

“If we don't get this urban-friendly, street-friendly, pedestrian-friendly ordinance passed, we are still at the peril of the development world that wants to default to the lowest common denominator,” said Shook.

Planning staff and consultants are working on such a code, but it won’t be finished until 2019 at the earliest. By then, Shook predicted that explosive growth might have already reshaped the area.

“We look at places like LoSo and say ‘It’s a long way off,’” said Shook. “But this city is growing like a gasoline fire.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo