Developers look to Wilkinson Boulevard, west Charlotte for next boom

Rob Pressley stands on the roof of his offices on Wilkinson Boulevard, with a view of the Wilkinson Boulevard corridor and the skyline in the background. Pressley is the head of MECA, a development company that is betting on Wilkinson Boulevard being the next South Boulevard.
Rob Pressley stands on the roof of his offices on Wilkinson Boulevard, with a view of the Wilkinson Boulevard corridor and the skyline in the background. Pressley is the head of MECA, a development company that is betting on Wilkinson Boulevard being the next South Boulevard.

Could west Charlotte be the city’s new South End?

That’s what some real estate developers think, as they turn their attention from the booming South Boulevard corridor to an intriguing part of the city that is close to uptown but can feel worlds away. The area reminds Rob Pressley, president of Coldwell Banker Commercial MECA, of South End in the early 1990s: Disused industrial buildings, a bad reputation and lots of opportunity.

He worked with his father Tony Pressley’s firm MECA to redevelop key South End landmarks such as Atherton Mill and the Design Center. Pressley and his brother Andy have relocated their real estate and development businesses from South End to Wilkinson Boulevard, into the renovated General Dyestuff building at Remount Road.

Pressley’s firm is starting an effort to catalog all of the property owners and businesses along Wilkinson Boulevard. He plans to identify nodes development can coalesce around, and organize a group of local stakeholders to lobby for investments and improvements in the area.

“We’re trying to understand all the people who own property up and down there,” said Pressley. He hopes to convene a meeting in the spring. “We’re in the discovery and fact-finding phase of our long-range plan, which is to attempt to unite business owners and property owners throughout the corridor.”

Dez MacSorley, senior principal of Design Resource Group, moved with her company to the same building on Wilkinson in late 2007.

“We’re like urban pioneers,” she said. She has been planning to push for a new “overlay district” for the Wilkinson corridor that would mandate more pedestrian-friendly design, more attractive buildings and allow more mixes of uses, such as residential.

“This is something we need to get going for Wilkinson,” she said. “I’ve always felt like Wilkinson Boulevard is this weird anomaly, in that it’s a major corridor to the airport through downtown and the whole corridor is primarily older, industrial-zoned tracts.”

Multiple efforts are already afoot to spur development west of uptown. In the Seversville and Biddleville area near Johnson C. Smith University, Charlotte Center City Partners just launched what it’s calling Historic West End. The group has hired a staffer to plan for development around the coming streetcar extension linking the school to uptown.

And on West Morehead Street, development has crept in fast. Citisculpt is planning an office building at West Morehead and Interstate 77, apartments from Southern Apartment Group are slated for a site nearby and Rhino Market opened a trendy deli, beer and wine shop. Nearby, on Freedom Drive, DPJ Residential is constructing a 77-unit boutique apartment building called Asbury Flats. Ryan Homes is building a new community called Bryant Park with townhouses and single-family homes off West Morehead.

Andrew Matroni decided to move his business, Queen City Catering, from East Boulevard to Calvert Street off West Morehead Street when he needed to expand. He looked in areas such as South End, but Matroni said the west side of town offered him the chance to help define a neighborhood rather than be defined by it.

“I like the character of the neighborhood,” said Matroni. “You might see a building here that’s brand new, you might see a building that’s being renovated.”

Perception problem

The areas running along Wilkinson Boulevard have some obvious pluses, especially the fact that the corridor is anchored on either side by a busy airport and a thriving uptown.

“They have a great deal of potential for redevelopment and to make this corridor something that looks like a major corridor to a beautiful urban core in a major urban city,” said MacSorley.

Still, barbed wire fences, a junkyard, industrial properties, and old retail buildings dot much of the landscape. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools operates a large school bus lot across from Ashley Road that a spokeswoman said the district has no plans to move.

But the area’s biggest challenge might be perception –it’s viewed by many as a high-crime, unsafe place.

Glenn Chambers’ firm US Global Ventures has owned the site of a former steel plant known as “Little Pittsburgh” on Wilkinson at Ashley Road since the early 1990s. He said he remembers what people told him when he moved to Charlotte three decades ago: “You ride fast down Wilkinson Boulevard wherever you’re going.”

The steel plant has been torn down, and Chambers sold part of the property for a future Mecklenburg County ABC store and a QuikTrip gas station. He’s hopeful the area is turning a corner, but said more public and private investment is needed.

“It’s going to take a concerted effort,” said Chambers. “The potential is incredible. The current state is below par.”

This isn’t the first time developers have eyed west Charlotte and the Wilkinson corridor, with its cheap land and easy access to uptown. A 2008 story in the Observer by my predecessor Doug Smith highlighted the possibilities, and Pressley and his partners had already bought the General Dyestuff building to renovate.

Merrifield Partners (now MPV Properties) was building a $250 million mixed-use project on the former Radiator Specialty Co.’s 40 acre site between West Morehead and Wilkinson. The plan was for 1 million square feet of buildings and up 2,000 residences.

The recession stalled much of that momentum. Pressley didn’t end up moving until this fall, and MPV’s project is still mostly empty fields. The firm built an office building that the Charlotte School of Law leased until it relocated uptown. Now, Mecklenburg County has purchased the building and is renovating it to make space for hundreds of workers.

MPV partner George Macon said the company doesn’t have any plans for the site right now, but is hopeful.

“We feel we’re in the path of progress,” he said.

Pressley said momentum is back as Charlotte booms. The General Dyestuff building, which he and his partners own, is almost fully occupied, and he said he knows of two nearby properties that are under negotiations to be sold.

Is a new name needed?

One possibility Pressley said he’s exploring is renaming part of Wilkinson Boulevard to help free the area from negative preconceptions.

“The perception and reality are not one and the same,” said Pressley. “How about Airport Parkway?”

Pressley acknowledges it would be an uphill battle: Everyone from the U.S. Postal Service to the state to the city would have to get on board. But he thinks it’s an idea worth lobbying for.

Chambers said Wilkinson Boulevard serves as a major gateway for travelers arriving at the airport and heading uptown. For that reason alone, he said the area deserves a facelift.

“It's just not the best representation for the city,” he said.

Goodwill Industries is building a $20 million campus on Wilkinson Boulevard and Boyer Street, near the airport. Set to open in spring 2016, Goodwill is planning to move its headquarters there from Freedom Drive, as well as include community space, a medical clinic, credit union, office space, job training and two retail stores.

“There are some good things happening,” said Goodwill CEO Michael Elder.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo