Walk into Duke Energy’s new innovation center at Optimist Hall and you’ll find a sleek workspace filled with natural light pouring in through skylights carved into the rehabbed textile mill’s high ceilings.
Duke’s new space at Optimist Hall, a century-old former pantyhose factory at Parkwood Avenue and 16th Street that also includes a food hall, is a far cry from the energy company’s corporate headquarters uptown in the second-tallest building in Charlotte.
Duke’s expansion into the former mill space underscores a trend taking place in Charlotte, though: Historic mills and factories are refurbished and given new life, transforming into creative office space for several high-profile companies throughout the region.
Instead of using offices, Duke employees work side-by-side in an open workspace. Instead of meeting in conference rooms, workers huddle around white boards dotted with sticky notes for brainstorming.
Duke Energy’s 83,000-square-foot space opened last month and houses around 400 employees, many of whom work in technology and customer solutions. Many workers rotate in and out of the facility, depending on the project they’re working on.
Executives say Duke’s Optimist Hall space is intended to reflect the company’s culture: It has no physical barriers or silos separating employee workspaces. An open environment should enhance collaboration, executives said on a tour of the Optimist Hall offices Wednesday morning.
Employees from a range of departments — from nuclear engineering to human resources — will be housed in the new facility. But the bulk of them will be in tech, working on everything from artificial intelligence to programming drones to survey solar farms.
“This place creates conditions that allows our team to thrive,” said Brian Savoy, Duke’s senior vice president of business transformation and technology.
“We’re unleashing creativity in our teammates that has always been there, but sometimes the corporate environment doesn’t give light to that creativity.”
Other high-profile mixed-use redevelopments of old industrial sites are underway or were recently completed throughout the region.
In 2016, adjacent to First Ward Park, Google Fiber opened its local office in the Philip Carey Building warehouse, which was built in the early 20th century for a roofing material manufacturer. Developers recently renovated 110,000 square feet of the historic Merino Mill in Mooresville for office space and showrooms, preserving the facility’s exposed brick walls and large windows.
Ally Bank recently opened an “innovation studio” in Camp North End, a redevelopment in Druid Hills off Statesville Avenue.
The transformation of historic buildings into creative office space is happening around the world, too.
In 2016, a co-working space called Barcelona Tech City opened in a refurbished shipping warehouse in Spain for tenants such as tech startups, for instance. Massachusetts Institute of Technology is renovating an 1800s-era warehouse into collaborative work space for students, according to the university’s website.
Damon Hemmerdinger, co-president of New-York based ATCO Properties & Management, the Camp North End developer, said Charlotte is actually behind many other cities in redeveloping old industrial sites.
Charlotte has about 6.9 million square feet of office space under construction or planned in center city. Much of that is in upscale offices and in dense areas with rapidly rising rent and scarce parking, however. The city has less “nontraditional” space like rehabbed old buildings outside center city.
“I think some of that history in Charlotte of demolishing a lot of the older buildings will actually make it relatively hard to catch up,” he said.
The nearly 80-acre Camp North End location has been used as a Ford Factory, missile assembly site, munitions dump and warehouses. It’s also leased space to companies like video game publisher 704Games and screen printer MacFly Fresh Printing Co. Ally already moved into its space, in one of the completed phases of the development.
Hemmerdinger said three buildings currently being renovated are expected to open this year. He said the project is primarily office space, but will also house retail and restaurants.
“Most companies see their real estate as an expression of their brand, both for the public and especially for their employees,” he said. “Are you giving your employees a view from a tower, are you giving them cool space in an old building, are you giving them cool space in a building with history?”
For Duke Energy and others, housing employees in creative work spaces provides a competitive edge of sorts. That also helps when companies are competing with Silicon Valley firms for tech talent.
“When we think about the workforce of the future, we recognize that they thrive in an environment like this,” said Swati Daji, the company’s senior vice president of customer solutions and strategy.