Are the pieces finally in place for ‘North End’ boom?

Sky House held its grand opening gathering Thursday night in uptown Charlotte. SkyHouse II is breaking ground on the north side of uptown this week, and there is more development in the works, including a major redevelopment site on the market a mile north of uptown. Is the "North End" going to become the new South End?
Sky House held its grand opening gathering Thursday night in uptown Charlotte. SkyHouse II is breaking ground on the north side of uptown this week, and there is more development in the works, including a major redevelopment site on the market a mile north of uptown. Is the "North End" going to become the new South End?

High above North Church Street, developers and new residents drank craft beers and took in the view of Charlotte’s skyline Thursday night to celebrate the opening of the SkyHouse apartment tower.

Work is underway on an identical, second 24-story SkyHouse tower next door. Together, the two apartment towers will total 672 units and draw about 1,000 residents to the former site of a run-down motel that was demolished in December.

Along with other nearby projects – the pending renovation of the Carolina Theatre, the opening of First Ward Park, the coming Blue Line Extension, more apartments and a corporate headquarters at the N.C. Music Factory – uptown boosters and real estate professionals hope this signals a coming boom for the city’s north side on a scale comparable to South End.

“We’ve had more activity in the past six months than we’ve really ever had,” said John Nichols III, who is marketing two properties on North Tryon Street at 11th and 12th streets for sale. “Finally, there’s just activity everywhere.”

Future plans call for growth on an even larger scale. SkyHouse’s developers, including Grubb Properties, are seeking a full-sized grocer for the apartments, which would be the area’s first.

Levine Properties has said it plans to build more apartments, two hotels and an office tower around First Ward Park. And Mecklenburg County’s plan to move 500 employees out of the Hal Marshall Center on North Tryon Street by March could open another tract to redevelopment.

And less than a mile north of uptown, the former Rite Aid distribution center is for sale, between North Graham Street and Statesville Avenue. JLL is marketing the 37-acre site as a major redevelopment opportunity for a developer poised to capitalize as growth in South End reaches capacity. The area could accommodate a mixed-use, walkable village. At Statesville and Woodward avenues, a spokesman said developer Vision Ventures is working on plans for the adjacent industrial parcel.

Challenges remain

But challenges still face the area. Social services agencies like the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte and the Urban Ministry Center draw a concentration of homeless individuals to North Tryon Street near Interstate 277, which neighboring businesses worry may deter visitors. Surface parking lots dot much of the area. And last month, six people were wounded in a shooting at the N.C. Music Factory after a fight broke out during what police said was a robbery attempt.

And the very success of South End and Stonewall Street, which have attracted office towers, thousands of new apartments, and a planned Whole Foods means the “North End” has a formidable competing district just down Tryon Street.

This isn’t the first time there’s been excitement about a potential boom on the north side of uptown. “North End ready to take off?” a 2008 headline in the Observer asked readers.

“North End could be like South End. Being that close to uptown, it has all kinds of potential,” a city official said at the time.

Other efforts to spark the boom preceded that. The county started seeking buyers for the Hal Marshall Center in 2000. Former Observer development reporter Doug Smith held a contest to replace “North Tryon Corridor” as the area’s name in 1999, but “North End” was the catchiest readers came up with. Other discarded ideas included The North Edge, North Ward, NorthTown, NorTry, and Spugalootz.

Michael Smith, CEO of Center City Partners, believes this time is different. The critical mass of projects underway is enough now to power a wave of development, he said. Along with Foundation for the Carolinas, Center City Partners is working to complete a “vision” for the northern part of uptown that will lay out a development plan. That’s expected to be complete by the end of the year.

“What’s great about where we are right now is there is some momentum,” said Smith. “I really believe this is a peerless opportunity for Charlotte. It’s going to span 15 to 20 years, multiple economic cycles.”

Smith acknowledged there are still problems. North End hasn’t yet seen the huge boom of apartments bringing thousands of residents and businesses that led to South End’s explosion. But he doesn’t think they’ll derail development.

“I think there’s enough momentum on North Tryon Street that it’s easy to see past the vagrancy and the surface lots and the lack of populace,” said Smith.

At North Tryon and Sixth streets, the Carolina Theatre has stood vacant for decades. The theater opened in 1927 and closed in 1978. Since then, it has sat mostly vacant. In 2013, the nonprofit Foundation for the Carolinas entered into a contract with the city of Charlotte to renovate and revive the theater into a civic gathering space with offices above. The theater will be joined to the foundation’s adjacent headquarters.

Foundation executive vice president Laura Smith said the group plans to start construction in mid-2016. Technical work, such as drilling to test the soil under the Carolina Theatre has already begun.

The group has raised more than $27 million from private donors, $4.2 million from the county and $3.7 million worth of real estate from the city for the renovation. The Foundation is still raising more funds from private sources to reach its $35 million goal.

The Foundation’s board is still considering proposals from developers to incorporate a high-end hotel into the project. A hotel would help offset the theater’s operating costs, as it is expected to run a deficit.

Smith said the theater renovation will be a “catalytic piece” for the North End’s reemergence.

“We’re about to blow the doors off,” she said. But Smith also had another prediction for the area, after decades of waiting for North End to take off: “It will take longer than we all think.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo