Charlotte’s west side crafting its answer to South End’s booming growth

Leaders in the Historic West End hope to see more new development like Johnson C. Smith University’s Mosaic Village mixed-use project at 1601 West Trade St.
Leaders in the Historic West End hope to see more new development like Johnson C. Smith University’s Mosaic Village mixed-use project at 1601 West Trade St. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

The experts tell us that millennials and young professionals don’t want to drive out to far-flung suburbs anymore. They want to live close to the center of the action, where they can walk or bike or ride mass transit to their jobs, restaurants and parks.

The eyeball test here in Charlotte says they’re right. South End has exploded in the past decade or so, powered by an influx of young folks attracted by the Lynx Blue Line and the rapidly multiplying apartment complexes.

Now, leaders on the city’s west side are joined by pivotal new allies in their drive to build their answer to the South End’s success story. The Knight Foundation is supplying a three-year, $1.5 million grant that will allow Charlotte Center City partners to put its development and marketing expertise to work for the Historic West End.

It’s a smart and smartly-timed move by the Knight Foundation. The 1.5-mile first leg of Charlotte’s CityLynx Gold Line opens in mid-July, and by 2019 the expanded 4-mile line will link the historic neighborhoods of the West End to uptown and the Elizabeth neighborhood. We’ve spent years as a community arguing about whether or not the east-west streetcar is a good idea, and we’ll continue to do so, given the early campaign denunciations of it by Republican mayoral candidates.

But the city has already spent $37 million on the first leg, and has secured a $75 million federal grant to help build the next leg, stretching out to Johnson C. Smith University on one end and Hawthorne Lane on the other. Despite budget troubles, city council resisted calls to divert the $75 million in city dollars earmarked for the project.

So, the streetcar is happening. As long as it is, we should do everything in our power to make those public dollars successful. The Knight Foundation’s grant will be pivotal in helping build on grassroots work already underway by Johnson C. Smith University and the Northwest Corridor Council of Elders, a gathering of west side community leaders.

They’ve invited Center City Partners in to help create what JCSU President Ron Carter envisions will be a vibrant corridor of boutique shops and thriving, diverse neighborhoods fanning out along West Trade Street and Beatties Ford Road. As he put it: Charlotte’s version of New York’s Greenwich Village or Washington, D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood.

Center City Partners will use the money to hire a director to “quarterback” the the Historic West End project and to help craft a master plan for the revitalization effort. The group will also work on everything from business and retail recruitment to special events to landscaping and marketing – a key consideration given the history of negative and often overblown stereotypes about the area.

Some of that’s already changing. Drive down Rozzelle’s Ferry Road some afternoon and explore the Biddleville and Smallwood neighborhoods. Don’t be surprised if you spot young white joggers and moms pushing baby strollers along the streets of what you might have assumed was an all-black area.

But while the homebuying market shows a growing belief in the West End’s future, private business has been slower to follow. The grant, the streetcar and the close-in location make the West End “an incredible opportunity sitting before us,” Center City Partners President Michael Smith told the editorial board.

And as Carter pointed out, that Charlotte is becoming a majority-minority city. It hardly seems prudent to allow the West End, the epicenter of Charlotte’s black community, to lag while other parts of our growing city surge forward.

The Knight Foundation’s grant clearly is just a down-payment on an undertaking that will require far longer than three years. Hopefully, more hands will pitch in from the private, public and philanthropic sectors to help see the work through to fruition.

Eric Frazier