If you spend much time in Charlotte’s shiny new center city, where historic plaques stand in for actual historic buildings, you probably agree with the stereotype that Charlotte is better at tearing old buildings down than saving them.
As a young, “New South” city in the midst of a building boom, Charlotte hasn’t dwelt on historic districts and old buildings like cities with stronger colonial-era roots, like Charleston. And as redevelopment sweeps neighborhoods such as Plaza Midwood and South End, some neighborhood advocates worry that Charlotte risks erasing even more of its history and character.
But that’s not always the case. Throughout the city, developers and small businesses are breathing new life into older, historic buildings for creative uses.
While renovating old buildings can come with challenges and headaches, it also brings benefits. Environmental advocates like to say the greenest buildings are those that already exist, because recycling structures spares the expense and carbon footprint of landfills and new material. Neighborhood advocates like preserving an area’s character. And businesses get a touch of grit and architectural style that doesn’t come with new construction – and without new construction’s price tag.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
You don’t want to whitewash and bulldoze everything.
Phil Buchy, Legion Brewing co-founder.
Here’s a look at four Charlotte buildings that are being creatively reused:
1. From music notes to brews
When Brodt Music closed in 2013, the sheet music store’s red brick building on Commonwealth Avenue sat vacant. But after an extensive renovation, the building will reopen later this year as Legion Brewing.
“People don’t build stuff like this anymore. And if they do, it’s astronomically expensive,” said Phil Buchy, Legion’s co-founder.
Working with Bluewater Design-Build, Legion has stripped off the drop ceiling from the building’s interior to expose the bow-shaped trusses that support the roof. Property records show the building was built in 1954.
The ceiling in the taproom is made of reclaimed wood, and the owners are keeping the original Brodt neon sign on the building’s roof. Buchy said they replaced the building’s roof and added sidewalks, a patio and planters for herbs where an asphalt parking lot used to face Commonwealth Avenue.
Brodt had an 80-year history selling music and instruments in Charlotte, and Buchy said he’s heard from long-term employees and Brodt heirs who are glad the building is being reused. The taproom will feature framed sheet music and Brodt photos in a nod to the history.
“You don’t want to whitewash and bulldoze everything,” said Buchy.
2. Former cotton mill will host beer, culinary creations
In west Charlotte, the Savona Mill has sat idle since the late 1990s, broken windows announcing the South Turner Avenue building’s decay. Now, Argos Real Estate Advisors plans to renovate the 180,000-square-foot structure and turn it into space for a marketing firm, a brewery, a culinary incubator kitchen and more.
Shook Kelley is helping put together a master plan to turn the area into a hub for creative offices, studios, residences and retailers. A nonprofit group of trolley lovers called Lakewood Trolley Inc. is working to get an old streetcar running from Cedar Street uptown to the mill, along a stretch of abandoned railway tracks.
“You can’t manufacture character,” said Argos President Greg Pappanastos. “There’s nothing you can do in new construction that replicates 100 years worth of patina.”
Blue Blaze Brewing will be the project’s first tenant, occupying an 8,000-square-foot space facing the adjacent greenway. The brewery is aiming to open in spring 2016. A design company has signed on for another 45,000 square feet, and a 10,000 square-foot incubator kitchen will offer space for aspiring chefs.
Parts of the mill date to 1915. While Blue Blaze will be located in a newer warehouse building, founder Craig Nunn said participating in a building reuse project jibed with the brand he’s seeking to create.
“It’s deeply a part of who we are, organizationally committed to breathe life into something,” he said. “We are who we are because of our history. For us, newer isn’t always better.”
3. Once making cookies, now home to codes, coworking and cuisine
Since opening in 1945, the factory at Louise Avenue and Otts Street made cookies and other snack foods for decades in Charlotte’s Belmont neighborhood. But after Kellogg closed the factory last year, Doug Bradley, president of Bradley Construction, bought the property with investors for about $2 million and decided to turn it into something new.
Bradley is seeking to rezone the property to allow the site to be used for a variety of new businesses, such as a restaurant, music venue, coffee shop or indoor soccer arena. Part of the property not covered by the rezoning request is being kept as a warehouse and leased to other tenants.
Two new tenants have already signed up: Advent Coworking is using about 5,000 square feet for shared office space, a podcast studio, art gallery and event venue. Codescape, a real-life puzzle and escape-themed game venue that involves solving mysteries and finding hidden passages, is opening on the second floor.
He said the building is solidly constructed on good bones, with a domed roof constructed with old-style bowstring-shaped trusses.
“People call them bomb shelters,” he said of sturdy older buildings. “A lot my history in construction is adaptive reuse and historical reuse. It has character you can’t reproduce.
“We hate to see them all torn down.”
4. Ford dealership to entrepreneurship
The three-story building at the corner of Fourth and South Poplar streets uptown has stood for 85 years – practically an eternity by uptown standards. Once a Ford dealership selling Model A cars, the 25,600-square-foot building was also a film studio at one point.
Chicago-based Level Office bought the building for $2.1 million earlier this year and renovated the structure. Level added modern touches, such as carbonized bamboo flooring, efficient heating and cooling systems and ultra-high-speed fiber Internet, while exposing beams and old ceilings that emphasized the historic elements. The company rents shared workspace and offices to individual entrepreneurs and small businesses.
Level held a grand opening for its Charlotte offices earlier this month. The building is more than 50 percent leased, and tenants have access to amenities such as local beers on tap, lounge areas and an espresso bar.
At the grand opening, Level founder Bill Bennett said old buildings have authenticity and character, elusive qualities that might make them more attractive to many millennials.
Renovating existing space is cheaper and more eco-friendly than tearing down and building a shiny new tower. And cheaper construction costs lead to lower rent, which makes them more competitive with established co-working firms such as Regus.