Development

A new nonprofit has emerged to help preserve Charlotte history. Will it be enough?

Preserve Mecklenburg bought an option to purchase the Victor Shaw House, a historic property on Mecklenburg Avenue, after the owner applied for demolition. The group has found a prospective buyer and hopes to save the house.
Preserve Mecklenburg bought an option to purchase the Victor Shaw House, a historic property on Mecklenburg Avenue, after the owner applied for demolition. The group has found a prospective buyer and hopes to save the house. Courtesy of Dan Morrill

The brick house in the 2400 block of Mecklenburg Avenue is easy to miss, tucked away from the street and partially hidden by trees.

The colonial revival-style Victor Shaw House, named for the former Charlotte mayor, is a symbol of Plaza Midwood’s rise to prominence in the 20th century.

Local business and political elites moved into the grand homes on Mecklenburg and Belvedere Avenues in the late 1920s and 1930s. The brick house, built in 1928, was one of the first in the subdivision beside the newly constructed Charlotte Country Club.

That history was nearly lost.

Last year, the property’s owner filed paperwork for the home to be demolished. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission delayed the demolition by a year, but that delay would have expired at the end of this year. Thanks to the efforts of a new nonprofit, Preserve Mecklenburg, the historic landmark avoided the wrecking ball.

It’s one of several projects that the group, formed in April, has undertaken as it works to help preserve historic sites and combat Charlotte’s reputation of tearing down its history.

The organization is a long time coming for Charlotte. Cities like Wilmington, Asheville and Charleston have local nonprofit groups that have worked for decades to safeguard the structures of their past.

Its members say it has advantages over the county-funded Landmarks Commission. The group doesn’t need to wait for approvals from local officials. And its scope isn’t limited to buildings that are designated historic landmarks.

“Charlotte has been lagging far behind in private support for a preservation group,” said Dan Morrill, co-founder of the group and director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. “We’re trying to rectify that situation.”

Sensitive development

Preserve Mecklenburg’s primary focus is to secure options to purchase historic buildings, which would give it the exclusive right to buy a property. Then, the group finds a buyer interested in preserving the home and puts in deed restrictions to ensure the historic structure is preserved.

That’s critical, because Charlotte’s growth also creates pressure to develop historic properties. Countless buildings have been torn down to make way for planned developments, from the Hotel Charlotte to the Coffee Cup restaurant.

But Morrill said the group’s goal is to work with developers to make preservation projects economically viable.

“No developer is going to do anything if they can’t make a profit,” Morrill said. “You’ve got to find ways to accommodate development and be sensitive to it for the historic resource.”

In June, Preserve Mecklenburg secured an exclusive option to purchase the Shaw House for $1, which ensures no one else can purchase the property while the group markets and finds a buyer who agrees to put preservation clauses in the deed.

The group has identified and is working with a prospective buyer to develop a site plan. The house will be preserved, but it’s likely that additional structures will be built on the lot, Morrill said.

Morrill said fees to purchase options vary, but it’s a more viable opportunity for a group like Preserve Mecklenburg that does not yet have funds to purchase and resell properties.

The group has also helped with negotiations between the owner and prospective buyer of the historic Edgewood Farmhouse, a 20-acre antebellum property in Huntersville. The site is designated as a landmark by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, and is on the National Parks Service’s National Register of Historic Places.

Preserve Mecklenburg will place deed restrictions on the property to preserve the house while still allowing for development on some of the land.

And the group helped market the Excelsior Club to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which placed the landmark on its list of the 11 most endangered historic properties in the country. The club was central to Charlotte’s African American community for decades before closing in 2016.

excelsior.jpg
The historic Excelsior Club, which shut down in 2016, was listed for sale in April. Courtesy of New River Brokerage

Morrill said the group’s board includes developers and real estate agents who can coordinate these projects.

Preserve Mecklenburg wants to complete its initial projects before starting major fundraising efforts so potential donors can see the capability of the group, Morrill said. He hopes the group can get corporate sponsors and eventually secure enough funds to buy and resell properties with deed restrictions.

More flexibility

Morrill said that nonprofits have greater flexibility than a government agency like the Historic Landmarks Commission.

Unlike Morrill’s group, the Historic Landmarks Commission, which has a $3 million revolving fund, must get approval from the county commissioners to purchase a property or secure an option to purchase.

In October, Mecklenburg County commissioners rejected spending $4,000 on the exclusive option to buy the Excelsior Club, which would have given them a year to find a buyer or purchase the property. The commissioners found the asking price of $350,000 to be too high when combined with the more than half a million dollars needed to repair it, former commissioner Bill James told The Charlotte Observer at the time.

Tyler Mulligan, a professor at the UNC School of Government, said nonprofits can often move quicker than public commissions. But, he said, that can also be a drawback.

A nonprofit does not have the same level of accountability to the public,” he said.

And the landmarks commission can only work with properties that are designated historic landmarks. Morrill said his group will focus on everything from homes to industrial buildings to farm estates, regardless of historic landmark status.

Lagging behind

While this type of nonprofit organization is unusual for Charlotte, other cities have had such groups for decades, including places as large as Charleston and Greensboro, and as small as Salisbury.

Still, nonprofits have their limits too, said Ted Alexander, the western regional director of the statewide organization Preserve North Carolina. Local nonprofit groups often don’t have as much funding or full-time staff as government agencies, he said.

The Charlotte landmarks commission’s budget has been larger than that of similar agencies in other cities over the years, Alexander said.

That’s part of the reason it’s taken so long for a nonprofit group to start up in Charlotte, Morrill said.

But he said the city has also had a tendency to overlook its history compared to places like Charleston.

“Think about the great cities — they all have a sense of continuity, and Charlotte strikes many as sort of instant mashed potatoes,” Morrill said. “It’s remade, it’s redone and that’s the reality.”


Correction

A previous version of this story misstated the landmark status of the Edgewood Farmhouse. It is designated as a landmark by both the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission and on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Danielle Chemtob covers economic growth and development for the Observer. She’s a 2018 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill and a California transplant.

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