Development

Will higher design standards be required in Charlotte’s next booming area?

Sky House held its grand opening gathering and the groundbreaking for SkyHouse II last October. The property will have Gigapower Internet access from AT&T, as super-fast Internet becomes an increasingly important amenity for apartment developers.
Sky House held its grand opening gathering and the groundbreaking for SkyHouse II last October. The property will have Gigapower Internet access from AT&T, as super-fast Internet becomes an increasingly important amenity for apartment developers. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

As South End boomed over the last decade, apartment complexes sprung up on seemingly every block, and many of them look very similar: four- or five-story rectangles with parking on the ground floor, built with a vinyl-like facade.

Now, with the city’s North Tryon corridor poised for a boom of its own, some leaders are calling for higher design standards when new construction moves into the area.

“We need to raise our minimums, because minimums become the standard,” said Michael Smith, CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners, speaking Tuesday at a forum on the North Tryon area hosted by Northeastern University’s uptown campus. “As communities change and grow, we need to demand a little more.”

So what might higher design standards look like? Think mandates about how much street-level space must be “active,” with shops or patios instead of blank parking deck walls. A network of alleyways cutting up blocks and providing more pedestrian connectivity and street frontage could be required, Smith said.

New buildings might be required to have less “hardiplank,” a vinyl-like siding, as part of their facade. And, Smith said, there could be requirements for including more “workforce housing” in new construction.

With First Ward Park opening in December, the light rail extension coming in 2017 and the recent opening of the Skyhouse apartment tower, there is a lot of development momentum in the North Tryon area. (Smith said the corridor is “en fuego.”) But large undeveloped tracts remain, including acres of surface parking lots and Mecklenburg County buildings that the county plans to vacate.

Any higher design standards would likely be a hotly debated issue, and could require the city to establish a new overlay district. Smith said some of the publicly owned parcels could also have conditions attached to them as part of any sale to a developer. These could include requirements such as the building of an alley network or the inclusion of workforce housing.

“It would be highly contentious,” Smith said. “It would be a sea change.”

But he said not all developers would oppose the idea, and the buildings that resulted would create a better landscape, one more welcoming to pedestrians.

Smith said a visit by a group of out-of-town developers several years ago ended with them deciding not to put their money in South End. They were impressed with the amount of activity, but not with the city’s requirements for new buildings.

“We have no assurances about what will be built next door,” Smith said the developers told him.

Daniel Levine, who is developing First Ward Park on Seventh Street, said much of the construction in South End is “somewhat generic.”

“It’s all very nice, but I think we’ll look back and say, ‘Oh, that was built between 2013 and 2016,’” said Levine.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

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