Major study will bridge gap to neighborhood’s future

Between 1998 and 2007, South End went from being home to a makeshift trolley to becoming the hub of a $463 million light-rail line. Now local and national experts must tackle the issue of where the neighborhood goes next.

Charlotte Center City Partners, the promotional and economic-development agency that oversees the district, wants to have a plan in place by spring to address growth goals for the next five to 10 years. Moving ahead on a study of key corridors and initiatives such as adding parks, pedestrian-friendly streets and basic services such as a grocery store reflects neighborhood demand.

“We have heard from our constituents in the South End for a number of years that they would like to take a look at the long-term planning of South End,” says Michael Smith, Center City Partners president. The agency will fund the estimated $30,000 cost for a two-day workshop next week involving 40 experts. The group includes national consultants, local developers and planners, and city and county government departments such as park and recreation, economic development and transportation.

Taking this step also satisfies a recent sore spot for Center City Partners: ensuring smooth cooperation between the uptown agency and the adjacent South End tax district it assumed control of in 2004.

Last year, several members of City Council discussed removing or reducing the special-tax district because of questions over whether South End receives enough benefit from the alliance.

“A number of us were concerned,” says Michael Barnes, the Democrat who led a budget committee review of Center City Partners and other quasi-governmental agencies last year. “We asked them to be much more inclusive, and they have been.”

Center City Partners kept South End in its district, along with the $578,000 the neighborhood contributed to the agency. In the current fiscal year, South End is projected to generate $551,000 toward Center City Partners’ $4 million budget.

To simplify the process, the workshops are focusing on four corridors: South Boulevard, South Tryon Street, the Camden Road/light-rail area and a burgeoning residential area along Mint Street and Summit Avenue.

“One of the things that is a unique challenge is that we don’t have a central core,” says Chuck Barger, owner of the Common Market deli, which opened its South End location in 2009. “It’s hard in the beginning because you don’t have anything to focus around, but when it grows, it’s going to be great. Having these consultants come in is a brilliant idea.”

The former industrial neighborhood became a hub for design firms and boutique furniture stores as part of a revival started 20 years ago.

Part of the discussion next week will hinge on job creation.

“This is a great employment center,” says Smith, the Center City Partners president. “It’s niche, but it’s on our transit line. It’s got great work-force housing. This neighborhood has incredible bones.”

With the arrival of light rail in 2007, South End saw interest in the area soar. Housing, mostly in the form of apartments, has increased by 58% during the past four years, says Ted Boyd, director of Historic South End, a subsidiary of Center City Partners. At least seven residential projects are under consideration, he says. About 3,000 people live in South End.

Capitalizing on the population growth and luring more businesses presents significant challenges. Business owners and residents tout the prime location near uptown, more affordable rents and the eclectic flavor of South End. But they lament a slew of problems that will require public and private funding as well as extensive planning. Doug Stephan, a principal at Vision Ventures, describes the lack of uniformity and quality of curbs, sidewalks, landscaping and on-street parking as “an eyesore.” Addressing those issues, he and others say, will require new regulations for property owners to encourage better upkeep.

More residents moving in makes the need for parks and scattered green spaces all the more obvious. Uptown has battled similar problems for decades, but recent approval for Romare Bearden Park and a park planned in First Ward reflect an increased willingness to rectify the problem. In South End, such conversations have yet to begin.

A neighborhood workshop last month included 60 residents and business owners, among other stakeholders. Next week, discussions among developers and other experts will be led by Terry Shook, whose firm, Shook Kelley, is based in South End and played a large role in its revival during the mid- to late 1990s. Shook’s firm has worked on planning and promoting districts and neighborhoods across the country.

To bring in fresh perspectives, Shook called on friends in the industry to participate.

They include Anthony Greenburg, vice president of The JBG Cos., a firm noted for its transit-oriented retail and residential projects along Washington’s Metro line, and Michael Dieden, president of Creative Housing Associates, a California firm known for similar developments, including the Mission Meridian Village in Pasadena. Neither firm plans to work on projects here, which means Greenburg and Dieden can offer unbiased insights, Shook says.

Planning for the future must preserve the street life that brought people to South End from the beginning, he adds. “We have to be able to deliver in addition to the housing tied to transit, from restaurants to bars to small retail. Every building can’t have retail in the bottom. So where do we want to gather?”

For all the talk of transit-oriented development, or tying the neighborhood growth to the light-rail line, many believe it is the next phase of growth that will determine whether the concept is embraced.

Examples abound.

A walking and jogging path, known as the rail trail, gets some use, but many of the buildings it passes don’t include the bars and restaurants that could add to the flavor of the area. Many buildings lack ground-floor shops and restaurants and, in other cases, the population remains too small to warrant some of the services residents want. Carving out room for defined uses is crucial to make sure the development is appropriate as the economy recovers and as South End grows, experts say.

“Eventually you will have the population to tip the scales,” says Greg Pappanastos, president of Argos Real Estate Advisors. “If you don’t make room for a grocery store or parks and recreation, you wind up with a moderately successful district rather than a wildly successful district.”


A look at the three phases of South End study:

•Neighborhood Workshop: Held on Dec. 7 with business owners, residents and other stakeholders. The 60 attendees discussed what makes South End attractive and what it still lacks. Green space, pedestrian-friendly streets, more business recruiting and incentives to expand were among the suggestions.

•Experts Workshop: A series of tours and panel discussions are on tap next week, with contributions from planners and developers as well as government officials. Sessions close with a discussion of findings Jan. 12 at the Charlotte Trolley Powerhouse Museum.

•Public Presentation: The full study will be discussed with the public in March, with recommendations and goals for growth over the next five to 10 years.