Neighborhoods wrestling with increased density: How much building is too much?

As denser developments bring hundreds of new apartments, shops and offices to established neighborhoods, residents and Charlotte City Council are struggling with the question of how much is too much.

Are four-story buildings with hundreds of apartments appropriate for areas like Elizabeth, Cotswold and the Park Road corridor? Some residents have been pushing back against development proposals at recent City Council meetings, and the tension is evident.

On the one hand, advocates of urban living point out, developments that bring increased density make public transit more feasible, use less land than single-family suburbs and can encourage the walkable, bicycle-friendly, mixed-use lifestyle that many want to see. On the other, local residents in a neighborhood like Elizabeth worry that a big new apartment building will bring traffic and change the character of the neighborhood, attracting more apartments and fewer houses.

Council member Patsy Kinsey, a Democrat who lives in and represents Elizabeth, drew applause from a crowd of neighbors Monday night when she explained her opposition to a proposed new four-story, 123-unit apartment building at Seventh and Caswell streets.

“It’s way too high,” she said of the 60-foot building, which would be built on a site that’s currently home to Jackalope Jacks and other local eateries. Development company Faison is seeking permission to build 20 feet taller than the area’s 40-foot height limit. “It’s too intense... It’s too long... I’m sorry, I can’t go for that. It’s not right. That’s too many (apartments).”

Kinsey voiced a fundamental concern of the Elizabeth Community Association – which opposes the project because they’re worried it will bring congestion and doesn’t have enough parking spaces – that the development will change the area.

“I’m nowhere near happy with this project,” said Kinsey. “I think it’s got a long ways to go to fit into the character of the Elizabeth neighborhood... If we let this one be built, it’ll be all up and down Seventh Street.”

Some supporters of the project and observers were caught off guard by the strong opposition, especially because a 91-unit apartment building is under construction across Seventh street that City Council approved in 2014. That project is a similar density, and doesn’t include ground-floor retail.

The proposed building at Seventh and Caswell would include up to 15,000 square feet of ground-floor shops and restaurants, as well as ground-floor office space. Encouraging non-residential, truly mixed-use developments has been a goal of the city, and council members have expressed frustration about other large apartments not including ground-floor retail.

Faison and its development team have also held numerous meetings with the community and gone through 21 different design iterations. The proposal calls for a largely brick facade, with a triangular, Flatiron Building-like corner at Seventh and Caswell. One developer who’s not involved with the project emailed me after the hearing to express his surprise at the opposition: “Wow! That is the best-looking apartment building in Charlotte with a ton of retail!”

But it’s clear there’s a disconnect, at least with some members of council. Claire Fallon, a Democrat, expressed her dislike during the Elizabeth hearing Monday.

“Can we find some architects in this town that don’t build a factory or a barracks?” she asked. “There’s architecture that’s beautiful. Can’t we find it?... The city’s coming to look like everything’s built so in 20 years you can tear it down and build something else.”

John Carmichael, a lawyer representing the developers, said the architects have worked “extremely hard” on the design. But they couldn’t reach an agreement with the community association, which wanted to see either a less dense building or more parking included.

“This project way exceeds the density envisioned by the small area plan,” said neighbor Pam Patterson. “It opens the door to future bad and worse development.”

City Council is set to vote on the project next month at its zoning meeting. They’re also considering another project on Randolph Road in Cotswold that drew similar objections from neighbors. That plan, by development firm Greystar, would build 180 senior housing units on the site of the Masonic temple on Randolph Road.

“We are strongly opposed to the density and scale of this project,” said Richard Gibson, presenting neighbors’ concerns Monday. “This would be completely out of character for our neighborhood ... This is a massive project.”

His comments also drew loud applause.

An executive with the development company pointed out that Greystar has agreed to move the buildings to 125 feet back from the property line with neighbors and screen their views with landscape plantings and trees. The age-restricted housing would meet a growing need for people 55 and older, and the proposal would generate less traffic than a similar residential development that could be built on the site because the older residents would drive less, especially during rush hour.

Staff is recommending that City Council vote in favor of both proposals, which would add denser developments to major corridors. But some members clearly have reservations about the idea of changing the fabric of some of these areas.

Those concerns might not be enough to sink the developments, however. Along Park Road, about 1,600 apartments are under construction or proposed on the stretch between Woodlawn Road and Selwyn Avenue. Council approved 360 more on Monday night. Another proposal that’s pending would redevelop the aging Melrose apartments into a much larger development with 264 new apartments.

Neighbors there have expressed many of the same concerns: too dense, too high, just too big for the area. But as council member Greg Phipps, a Democrat, said Monday, most developments in Charlotte get approved.

“As a council, around this dais, we’ve already shown a propensity to approve projects regardless of the traffic impact,” he said.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo