All around the Druid Hills home his grandmother bought more than 60 years ago, Darryl Gaston can see a neighborhood in transition.
A New York company is redeveloping a huge collection of warehouses and former factory buildings on Statesville Avenue into funky office space, restaurants and apartments. The Blue Line light rail extension will start running by March. Heist is opening a high-end brewery and butcher shop. Thousands of new apartments are coming, and investors have scattered “We Buy Houses” signs around the neighborhood.
Gaston, president of the Druid Hills Neighborhood Association, is hoping that wave of change doesn’t sweep away the community he knows. It’s a story being played out across the city, as development reshapes longstanding neighborhoods.
“I believe in preserving the fabric and integrity of this corridor,” said Gaston. But he’s concerned about what will happen as property values keep rising and the 18 or so rental houses on his block – which cost $700 to $800 a month – go up in value. Across the eight neighborhoods in the North End, roughly those around and between Statesville Avenue and North Davidson Street, about half of the 9,000 residents rent their homes.
“After those houses get to a certain price point, the landlord will sell those houses,” he said. “And the individuals who live there will be displaced. Where will they go?”
But Gaston, 56, and many of his neighbors don’t see the coming changes as all negative. He knows change is continuous: When his grandmother bought the house decades ago, white residents were moving out of the area just north of uptown and black residents were moving in.
Now Gaston and his neighbors want to take advantage of the resources and investments they expect will follow the newcomers, such as sidewalks, better street lighting and access to grocery stores and shops that they now have to leave their neighborhoods to reach. The Double Oaks Family Aquatic Center, a county-run neighborhood pool with $1 admission and swim lessons, opened last month, an example of the kind of shiny new facility that wasn’t available before.
“Resources follow white people,” Winston Robinson put it bluntly. He’s vice president of the Lockwood Neighborhood Association, where he moved from Wilmore. “Who wouldn’t welcome more resources? Who wouldn’t want to be able to shop where they live?”
At a community meeting last week at the Greenville Community Center, Charlotte city officials unveiled more plans for what they’re calling the North End Smart District. Rob Phocas, the city’s sustainability director, said the idea is to give residents more resources to improve their houses, health and communities, and to involve them in the process.
“The city sometimes has done things to neighborhoods, rather than with them,” said Phocas. The program is funded with a $150,000 grant from the Funders’ Network, which includes matching funds from the Knight Foundation and OrthoCarolina.
Details are still a bit fuzzy, but ideas floated at the meeting include mobile produce vendors to bring in healthy food, more community gardens, energy efficiency and “smart home” devices installed in local homes and a technology center to teach local residents job skills.
Charlotte hasn’t always had a good track record with predominantly black neighborhoods and displacement. In the 1960s and 70s, the Brooklyn neighborhood in Second Ward was demolished in the name of urban renewal to make way for a sea of bland government buildings. More recently, the redevelopment of the Cherry neighborhood with homes that sell for well over $600,000 has sparked cries of gentrification from longtime residents.
“We have an opportunity to do better than we’ve done,” Gaston said of the North End. “Let’s try to get this right.”
He and other community leaders are taking steps to help residents avoid getting pushed out. Over the next few months, they’re holding seminars for their neighbors about topics such as avoiding foreclosure, keeping properties up to code and saving regularly to pay property taxes.
Another message: If owners are selling, don’t give up property too cheaply to investors, who have scattered “We buy houses” signs along thoroughfares such as Statesville Avenue.
“Don’t sell your grandma’s house for a little bit of money, because they’ll turn around and sell it for a lot,” Gaston said he’s warning people.
Property records of recent house sales show how quickly values can jump. When a house on Edison Street fell into foreclosure in 2013, an investment company bought it for $23,000. In 2015, the company sold it to an individual owner for $73,000. Earlier this year, that owner sold it to another for $138,000.
Nearby, in Lockwood, a couple sold their house in 2015 for $83,000 to an investment company. A year later, that company sold the property to another firm for $185,000.
Despite the surge of investment, there are still challenges facing the North End, which includes the Optimist Park, Lockwood, Graham Heights, Druid Hills, Greenville, Park at Oaklawn, Brightwalk and Genesis Park neighborhoods. Numbers from the 2014 Census estimates illustrate some:
But Gaston is hopeful that those problems can be fixed – without pushing out the people here now.
“I don’t want to see Druid Hills become an area where people don’t talk to each other,” said Gaston, gesturing down Edison Street. “There’s a real sense of community here.”