Do neighborhood names matter? Ask Villa Heights, NoDa – and now MoRA

Montford Park, MoRA , FreeMoreWest: These are a few of the new neighborhood names local residents, businesses and developers are trying to establish for fast-growing areas of town that don’t already have a catchy nickname.

And long-named neighborhoods in the path of development are also trying to reassert their identities, such as Villa Heights, now struggling not to be swallowed up by booming NoDa.

The name game is one symptom of rapid growth in a city that’s adding thousands of new residents a year, as development blurs long-established lines and reshapes neighborhoods across Charlotte.

For developers, branding an area can offer a powerful marketing lure to draw renters, homebuyers and businesses. Getting someone to rent an apartment – especially a new resident who doesn’t know Charlotte – is a lot easier if you can pitch the location as part of a hip neighborhood like NoDa or Elizabeth rather than a random street address.

The prototypical example in Charlotte people point to is the runaway success of “Historic South End,” which has added thousands of apartments, a slew of breweries and a reputation as a millennial magnet. Before the initial developers who started repurposing old buildings gave the area a name, it was viewed as a tired, shabby former mill and industrial district.

“It was a place without a name and a place without a real identity,” said Bill McCoy, professor emeritus at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. “The new monicker helped a lot.”

“These places want to be known as newly hip places,” said McCoy. “It’s primarily a marketing thing.”

Montford Park: Neighbors weigh in

Other areas are trying to capture a bit of that same success. In some cases, developers have taken the lead and brought together neighbors to help decide what the area should be called. That’s how the area around Montford Drive and Park Road Shopping Center got the new name “Montford Park.”

Grubb Properties, which is headquartered on Park Road, plans to redevelop part of its office site into a mixed-use development with apartments and retail. The company, which develops apartments under the Link brand, tries to place its developments in readily recognizable neighborhoods, such as Greenville’s West End.

“We try to anchor them in those neighborhoods,” said CEO Clay Grubb, who called his firm “address junkies.” But on Park Road, sandwiched between well-known areas, they faced a dilemma: The area didn’t have a settled name or identity, despite a surge of 1,600 apartments planned for Park Road. “We couldn’t quite call this Myers Park. We couldn’t quite call this Madison Park.”

So Grubb launched a series of meetings and a survey to come up with a new name for the neighborhood. They settled on “Montford Park,” a combination of the Montford Drive and Park Road Shopping Center descriptions that people were generally using to describe the area. They’ve formed a neighborhood association for Montford Park, and plan to continue promoting the name until an identity gels.

MoRA : Hoping for a new image

A similar dynamic is at work on Monroe Road, near Idlewild Road, where developer Roy Goode’s plans to turn a former apartment complex into a new mixed-use development with new residences, shops, offices and restaurants provided the impetus for a new neighborhood name. A group was formed, called the Monroe Road Advocates, made up of local businesses, residents and Goode. They settled on MoRA as a new shorthand for the area, formerly a collection of disparate subdivisions.

“It’s as though the community who already live in the Monroe Road area were waiting for this to arrive,” said MoRA board chair Kathy Hill. Since organizing, they’ve held neighborhood parties that have drawn hundreds and built a website. “It’s going to change the image of the area.”

The group has been helped by a $10,761 grant from Charlotte’s Neighborhood & Business Services office, which offers neighborhoods matching grants to help with beautification and community-building.

As part of the Meridian Place development by Goode, more businesses are coming to the area, such as Hawthorne’s Pizza. That’s one of the main hopes behind MoRA , that a new name and image will draw more businesses for local residents.

“We don’t have enough of those stories yet,” said Hill, who thinks the area’s new reputation will attract more.

Plaza Midwood: Name’s not that old

Neighborhoods in Charlotte have long redefined themselves. Even Plaza Midwood, which to relative newcomers like myself seems like one of the city’s most established enclaves, only dates to 1973. That’s when neighbors organized a new group to fight a proposal to run a new road through the area.

“People knew the street called The Plaza and remembered the Midwood subdivision,” said Tom Hanchett, a longtime Charlotte historian formerly of the Levine Museum of the New South. “So it became Plaza Midwood.”

“Neighborhood identities change as development patterns change,” said Hanchett. “You wish things were fixed, but they’re not.”

Villa Heights: We’re not NoDa

In Villa Heights, a close-in neighborhood east of North Davidson Street and south of Matheson Avenue, residents are working to make sure its identity isn’t totally overshadowed by NoDa, the artsy district just to the north. Villa Heights, like its surrounding neighborhoods, dates back more than 100 years, to mills and the houses built nearby for workers.

Reasserting an independent identity is a struggle made more difficult by casual references to the whole area along North Davidson as “NoDa.” For example, Amelie’s NoDa is technically in Villa Heights, while NoDa Brewing’s original location and Centerstage @NoDa, across the street, are in the Optimist Park neighborhood.

“It’s only fair for the people who’ve been here for a long time to recognize the neighborhood,” said Jill Vande Woude, president of the Villa Heights Community Organization. The Blue Line light rail extension, set to open next summer, and an influx of newcomers buying, renovating or demolishing houses are ushering in rapid changes to what was a predominantly African-American enclave.

“Things are changing, and we’re trying to capture the history,” said Vande Woude. “A lot of people consider this whole area NoDa.”

With the help of a $12,267 grant from the city, the Villa Heights Community Organization designed a new logo and installed about 40 signs around the neighborhood’s borders and main streets. The goal is to let people know where they are – and that it’s not the more well-known NoDa.

“A lot of people in the neighborhood didn’t know where they were,” said Kate Frear, chair of the community organization’s land use committee. She was surprised when she moved to Villa Heights from NoDa a few years ago that she couldn’t participate in NoDa’s community organization anymore – because she wasn’t technically in the neighborhood anymore.

With so many neighborhood identity pushes around the city, McCoy said it will take time to see which naming efforts have a lasting impact and which will fizzle out.

“It’s going to be a struggle for some of these,” said McCoy, “but it’s a way of reshaping reality.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo