Does apartment influx risk ‘sterilizing’ Charlotte?

An artist's rendering shows apartments by DPJ Residential planned for Central Avenue.
An artist's rendering shows apartments by DPJ Residential planned for Central Avenue.

One of the most common questions people ask me about the apartment complexes popping up across Charlotte at a record pace: “Why do they all look the same?”

For most, it’s a curiosity. Most of the new complexes are four- or five-story mid-rise buildings, rectangles that often feature beige siding with a splash of color for an accent mark. But some are worried that the influx of similar developments is “sterilizing” Charlotte, wiping out character and replacing it with uniformity.

Their worries go beyond aesthetics. Newer buildings have higher rent than the older buildings they often replace, which can squeeze out longtime residents and neighborhood businesses. Those anxieties were on display at a Civic by Design forum last week at the Levine Museum of the New South, with representatives from South End, Plaza Midwood, Commonwealth Morningside, NoDa and other close-in neighborhoods that are bearing the brunt of apartment development.

As the apartment boom picks up even more speed, such issues are getting more attention. In one of the most high-profile rezoning fights, dozens of Plaza Midwood residents turned out last month at a Charlotte City Council meeting to oppose a plan that would replace decades-old Tommy’s Pub with a new apartment complex.

Advocates of development point to the jobs construction brings, the housing apartments provide for Charlotte’s influx of residents and the revitalization of older, sometimes rundown parcels with new buildings.

Jenna Thompson is one of the staunchest opponents of the Tommy’s Pub rezoning request, and she helped organize opponents to speak at a City Council hearing in May. City Council is set to vote Monday on the rezoning request, and though Thompson doesn’t expect to win, she said she wants to create a broader movement opposed to the rapid development. She said the city risks gentrifying out many residents and ruining the character of older neighborhoods.

Thompson, a self-described “rabble-rouser,” has created a group called Plaza Midwood Shows Up, and launched a website to organize. Thompson said she wants to pressure City Council members to more fully consider the consequences of their zoning decisions.

“Charlotte communities have been inundated with multifamily housing at a rate which is unsustainable if the distinct characters of our neighborhoods are to be preserved,” reads the Plaza Midwood Shows Up description. “The cost of such unbridled residential development is not only the potential loss of small, local businesses like Tommy’s Pub and Backstage Vintage Apparel, but the potential loss of the very residents who built the neighborhoods and make them unique.”

Although opponents of the boom acknowledge some redevelopment is inevitable in a growing city such as Charlotte, they say the city shouldn’t be so hasty to replace older buildings. Some studies have found a correlation between neighborhood vitality, economic mobility and a mix of old and new structures.

A study last year by the National Trust for Historic Preservation looked at the age of buildings across Seattle, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

“Established neighborhoods with a mix of older, smaller buildings perform better than districts with larger, newer structures when tested against a range of economic, social, and environmental outcome measures,” the study concluded.

On the Plaza Midwood Shows Up website, letters from residents and business owners asking City Council to carefully consider redevelopment plans are posted.

“The current rush to saturate Plaza Midwood with apartment buildings which show little or no regard for the history or character of the neighborhood, often in exchange for older, historically insignificant yet nostalgically important buildings housing small businesses, should be slowed to consider how they change our landscape,” wrote Andy and Lesa Kastanas, owners of Soul Gastrolounge and Diamond Restaurant.

“I support infill development,” reads another, by NoDa resident Daniel Jackson. But he adds: “If these developments make no attempt to conform to the historic and creative character of these neighborhoods, they destroy all that many people worked tirelessly and invested heavily in an effort to resurrect.”

It’s unclear how much activists such as Thompson can influence development beyond fighting specific rezoning requests. Unlike smaller cities such as Rock Hill, which put a temporary moratorium on new apartments earlier this year, Charlotte doesn’t seem to have any appetite for stopping development in its tracks.

A bill passed last week by the North Carolina General Assembly will now bar local governments from setting design standards for new housing, which some worry will risk more bland, cookie-cutter developments. And the legislature is considering a bill that would get rid of protest petitions, which adjoining property owners can use to fight to block or force changes in a new development.

Charlotte City Council member Patsy Kinsey, who represents areas including Plaza Midwood and NoDa, said at the forum that she follows neighborhood representatives’ recommendations when deciding how to vote on rezoning requests. The Plaza Midwood Neighborhood Association has supported DPJ Residential’s plans to build on the Tommy’s Pub property, which is mostly vacant.

“I really rely on the neighborhoods,” she said.

Portillo: 704-358-5041;

Twitter: @ESPortillo

Apartment boom facts

▪ There are more apartments being built in Charlotte than at any one time before. According to market-tracking firm Real Data, more than 10,400 units are under construction, with more than 10,300 planned.

▪ Many of the apartments under construction are in four- or five-story mid-rise buildings being constructed in close-in neighborhoods, such as Plaza Midwood and South End.

▪ Charlotte’s average rent is $938 a month, up 3.1 percent from last year, according to Real Data.

Ely Portillo