Does office influx risk South End’s funky vibe?

Beacon Partners is building 1616 Center, a five-story office building on Camden Road, next to local landmark Price’s Chicken Coop. “South End’s got it all. The one thing that hasn’t been there quite as much yet is office,” said Charlie Swanson of Beacon Partners.
Beacon Partners is building 1616 Center, a five-story office building on Camden Road, next to local landmark Price’s Chicken Coop. “South End’s got it all. The one thing that hasn’t been there quite as much yet is office,” said Charlie Swanson of Beacon Partners.

South End might be trading its last pair of grungy jeans and T-shirt for khakis and a button-down, as the neighborhood prepares to absorb an influx of high-end office space.

The latest announcement – that Dimensional Fund Advisors will build a 250,000-square-foot office at Camden Road and Tryon Street – caused a particularly acute burst of anxiety. The development will displace the Common Market, several other salons and shops, and the lot where more than a dozen food trucks and hundreds of eaters gather weekly for Food Truck Friday.

“How do you have growth but keep the character of the neighborhood when that means tearing buildings down?” said Krissy Oechslin, a representative of the South End Neighborhood Association.

Some say that’s just the way it goes: Grungy areas become cool, cool areas become expensive, and the artsy folks move on to another, cheaper area in need of some rehab. Adding office space, which has been scarce in South End, will bring more daytime workers and could help lure more businesses in addition to the huge apartment blocks dominating South End now.

It’s like a feeding frenzy. The water starts to boil, and everything gets active.

Gaines Brown, owner of the Food Truck Friday and Common Market site

“It’s absolutely right that creative people move to the next area. That’s how cities grow and develop,” said David Walters, an urban planner and professor emeritus at UNC Charlotte. “If all the cool, trendy people stay in South End, the rest of the city is screwed.”

Others worry that Charlotte – which already has a reputation for tearing down old buildings and wiping out historic areas – risks homogenizing one of its few funky bastions.

“Every world-class city I’ve been to has a lot of cool, old buildings in it,” said Blake Barnes, co-owner of the Common Market, the eclectic food, beer and wine shop that’s become a neighborhood hangout. “We’re just eradicating it.”

He’s met with the developers of Dimensional Fund Advisors’ new building, who have said the Common Market might be able to reopen in the building once it’s complete. But Barnes said the neighborhood is changing and, with rent likely to be higher, that might not be feasible.

“It’s completely going to change the vibe over there,” said Barnes. He fears the food trucks and unique businesses will give way to Starbucks and Quizno’s.

Dimensional Fund Advisors and developer Cousins Properties have to rezone the property, which will require a public hearing in front of the Charlotte City Council. Construction could start by late next year if the project is approved.

Remembering deserted streets

Nestled just south of uptown between Wilmore on the west and Dilworth and Sedgefield on the east, South End is a former industrial area that was once a strip of largely empty warehouses and mills. Blight had crept in during the 1960s and 1970s, as businesses moved away to Dilworth or farther out from the city’s core.

Cheap real estate led people such as Gaines Brown to buy buildings and open art galleries and businesses. Brown, an industrial designer and business owner, bought what’s now the site of the Common Market and Food Truck Friday in 1983. He’s spent years nurturing a local scene in South End.

“The creatives have the vision to see through the cobwebs and rust and see some character there,” said Brown.

One of the first major challenges was convincing people that it was safe to visit. Brown remembers vagrants sleeping in doorways and deserted streets when he first bought the property. Along with a group of neighborhood leaders and business owners, Brown started hosting gallery crawls and outdoor concerts as ways to draw people to the area.

Welcome to ‘South End’ – Close-in area seeks new ID

Charlotte Observer headline, 1994, on story about efforts to rebrand what was then called the South Boulevard Corridor

The name “South End” is younger than many of its millennial inhabitants.

In 1994, a group of South Boulevard merchants teamed up with Dilworth neighborhood association leaders to rebrand what was then known as the “South Boulevard Corridor.” They came up with the area’s logo, a nod to the industrial past featuring a factory and smokestack, and installed signs around the area introducing Charlotte to South End.

“Welcome to ‘South End’ – Close-in area seeks new ID” read the headline for an Observer story by Doug Smith about the push to create an identity for the area.

Two years later, Brown and other business owners helped organize a short demonstration trolley line that ran from Atherton Mill to Stonewall Street, preceding the Blue Line. As the area turned around and more businesses opened, it got a huge boost when the Blue Line light rail opened in 2007. That’s when the apartment boom started in earnest; South End had secured the title of one of the city’s hottest neighborhoods.

In 2009, an estimated 3,400 people lived in South End, according to Charlotte Center City Partners. By the end of this year, that number is expected to reach 7,600 residents – more than doubling in just six years.

Breweries followed close on the heels of the apartments. South End now has a half-dozen breweries, a cidery and a pair of distilleries.

“It’s like a feeding frenzy,” said Brown. “The water starts to boil, and everything gets active.”

Why build offices?

The same things that made South End attractive for apartment developers now make it attractive to companies searching for office space.

Many companies hoping to draw young workers want to locate closer to hip environments, where millennials can walk to a brewery after work and bike home. The Blue Line offers the flexibility for many to get to work without a car. And though South End has sprouted apartments and breweries in abundance, it doesn’t have as much office space.

There are 1.6 million square feet of office space in South End, according to Charlotte Center City Partners. That’s a fraction of the 22.9 million square feet of office space in uptown. In fact, there’s almost as much vacant office space in uptown as there is total office space in South End.

Among the office projects in the works:

▪ Beacon Partners is building 1616 Center, a five-story office building on Camden Road, next to local landmark Price’s Chicken Coop. “South End’s got it all. The one thing that hasn’t been there quite as much yet is office,” said Charlie Swanson of Beacon Partners.

The 70,000-square-foot building, set to open later this year, is the largest under construction in South End. Combined with the 250,000 square foot Dimensional Fund Advisors building, the projects would increase the amount of office space in South End by about 20 percent.

▪ Beacon Partners also recently purchased a 3.4-acre site on South Tryon Street between Winona and Bland streets for $10.1 million. The site is currently occupied by industrial distributor HD Supply, and Swanson said Beacon is studying the site for future development, such as more apartments or office space.

▪ A couple miles south, Pappas Properties is trying to start development on the long-delayed Scaleybark center, a mixed-use development adjacent to the light rail at South Bouleveard and Clanton Road. In addition to apartments, restaurants and a hotel, the Scaleybark center would include up to 450,000 square feet of office space. That would potentially be enough for a corporate headquarters, though there’s no start date for the project.

3,400 Estimated population of South End in 2009

7,600 Estimated population of South End by the end of 2015

The changes seem to be accelerating. On the heels of news about the Common Market and South End, Tremont Music Hall, on West Tremont Avenue, announced this week that it will close in December after two decades. The live music venue’s owner said its landlord is selling the lot for development, though details aren’t available yet.

Barnes, the Common Market co-owner, said he expects to see a similar pattern to what happened in NoDa, a former mill district that became home to the city’s art gallery scene. Now, rising property values, the Blue Line Extension and a wave of new development have pushed many of the pioneers out.

“It’s going to happen like North Davidson,” said Barnes. “Everything’s going to push the price so high.”

Walters, the urban planner at UNCC, said he expects the city’s hip vanguard, the “shock troops,” will find a new area – possibly in west Charlotte, where eateries like Rhino Market and Pinky’s have moved in – and help turn it around. There’s already talk of moving Food Truck Friday to a new location, perhaps close to its current home.

As for the future of South End, Walters said it’s not surprising to see office development following the apartments. And once more people are working in South End, as opposed to living in apartments and out of the neighborhood during most of the day, he expects more businesses and retailers to open there.

“Once there’s a substantial office component, then there’s round-the-clock activity,” said Walters. “That’s why office development is actually a good thing.”

Oechslin said it’s important for residents to get involved and let developers and politicians know what they want to see built – much as the South End pioneers did in the 1980s. That can be tough in an area like South End, where many people are short-term residents renting apartments.

“Growth is inevitable, and it’s not a bad thing,” she said. “It can be a good thing, but we want to make sure we don’t rid of everything unique.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

South End: Brewery district

In the past five years, South End has become an epicenter of the craft beer – and cider and liquor – scene in Charlotte. The local producers include:

▪ Sycamore Brewing: 2161 Hawkins St.

▪ Wooden Robot Brewery: 1440 S. Tryon St., #110.

▪ Triple C Brewing: 2900 Griffith St.

▪ Lenny Boy Brewing: 2224 Hawkins St.

▪ Unknown Brewing: 1327 S. Mint St.

▪ Olde Mecklenburg Brewery: 4150 Yancey Road.

▪ Sugar Creek Brewing: 215 Southside Drive.

▪ Red Clay Hard Cider: 245 Clanton Road.

▪ Great Wagon Road Distilling Co., 227 Southside Drive.

▪ Doc Porter’s Craft Distillery, 232 E. Peterson Drive.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer