In Plaza Midwood, there’s talk of protecting older buildings and local businesses

Looking west up to 1500 block of Central Ave.
Looking west up to 1500 block of Central Ave. The Charlotte Observer

If you want to see what a money flood looks like, drive down Central Avenue.

In Plaza Midwood, an older, inner ring suburb with one of Charlotte’s true walkable business districts, change is happening fast. More than a thousand apartments are under construction or planned for a one-mile stretch of Central. Some local businesses are under pressure, seeing their buildings sold or parking and access interrupted by construction.

That flood of growth is what drew more than 50 people to Snug Harbor in Plaza Midwood on Wednesday night to talk about options for protecting the character and flavor of their neighborhood. The meeting was organized by Plaza Midwood Shows Up, which formed after a developer announced plans to tear down local dive bar Tommy’s Pub and build apartments on the lot.

The theme of the night: “Can Plaza Midwood survive?”

Now, getting more than 50 people together to talk about zoning laws and historic district overlays is impressive under any circumstance. But it stands out in Charlotte, a city that has a reputation for being better at tearing down old buildings than renovating and reusing them.

Mary Newsom, associate director of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, gave a presentation outlining the basics of historic designations and other methods residents can use to preserve an area.

“Cities change, always,” said Newsom. “It’s not always for the worse...The Charlotte ethic is growth is good.”

But, she added: “Things are being lost.”

Older buildings are important for local businesses. They offer cheaper rent, give a neighborhood its distinctive look and feel and offer a more permanent sense of place. New buildings, while they can help an area exorcise blight, are generally more expensive to rent space in, drawing chain stores. And they often lack the architectural flair of older buildings.

“Cities need old buildings,” said Newsom.

There are a few options for people who want to preserve an area, none of them perfect, quick or cheap:

▪ Designate a building as a historic landmark. This doesn’t guarantee a building won’t be torn down, but it offers tax breaks and can delay demolition by up to a year.

▪ Establish a historic district zoning overlay for an area. This also doesn’t guarantee buildings won’t be torn down, but can delay demolitions and preserve the current appearance of buildings in a wider area. In Charlotte, historic overlay districts have so far only been established for residential areas, not commercial corridors like central Plaza Midwood (with the exception of a small part of East Boulevard).

▪ Own the building. Hey, if you own it, nobody else can tear it down to build apartments. But this is, obviously, an expensive proposition.

No one solved the problem of how to balance growth and preserve cherished buildings and local businesses Wednesday night. But this much was clear: People are paying attention to this topic as Charlotte’s growth explosion continues, and many want to see a change.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo