By Caroline Kraft (B.Arch candidate) | This column reviews proposed improvements to the North Davidson corridor in Charlotte, North Carolina. The author laments the pace of development, which endangers the extinction of local character along the strip.
The urban development of Charlotte’s North Davidson neighborhood has been in the works for some time now. New apartments, retail, and other venues can be an exciting thing for a neighborhood bordering the hustle and bustle of uptown Charlotte, but it can also mean destruction of historic buildings and the loss of a quirky neighborhood’s unique character. North Davidson has met its match; big developers are coming in, plowing down historic buildings, and leaving local artists and business owners displaced.
The North Davidson neighborhood of Charlotte, commonly known as ‘NoDa’ was originally a mill community before being deemed the ‘arts district’ in the early 1990s. NoDa is home to some of Charlotte’s oldest buildings and a long history of industrial businesses. These buildings are now housing the studios and galleries of local artists, small restaurants and bars, tattoo shops, and local boutiques. NoDa is an eccentric neighborhood with a growing demand of young professionals and artists desiring to live there. This desire brings with it the sprawl of urban development, but this new development is taking away NoDa’s beloved character in much of the community’s eyes.
The arts district identity of NoDa may be short lived due to new development. The once clustered galleries and artists leasing spaces in the old historic warehouses are now dwindling. This neighborhood designated as the arts district is actually lacking in the number arts establishments compared to other cities. Typical artist neighborhoods tend to have young adults with bachelors degrees, urban housing and amenities, public parks, more sidewalks, they are more walkable, bicycle friendly, and very connected to the urban transit. NoDa fits these qualities quite well but locals are worried the abundance of urban development is pushing out the resident artists. Artists want to be among other artists and local NoDa artists and gallery owners say that NoDa is declining in the number of artists.
The city of Charlotte is growing and building more apartments than any other time in the past; specifically planning to build 750 in NoDa, among various other places. This growth is following the new trend toward urban sites where sayings like; “place-building”, “walkability”, and “transit-oriented” are prominent. Small businesses such as the numerous ones in NoDa have to deal with this pressure of the booming apartment construction. New mixed-use buildings are pushing out local businesses in the historic districts of Charlotte. The surge of new development is risking a shift in the quirky local businesses that bring character to communities like NoDa.
The NoDa Vision Committee had big plans for this shift of urban development in their NoDa Vision Plan, released in August of 2010. The Vision Plan covered it all, from traffic, to the light rail, to preserving the historic and unique nature of NoDa. The plans had been set to have the Lynx Blue Line light rail extend from Uptown Charlotte all the way to the campus of UNC Charlotte; this would include a stop right in the heart of NoDa near the intersection of North Davidson Street and East 36th Street. Situated at this intersection is the historic Newco Fiber Mill, which was once being leased to local artists, musicians, and other people of the NoDa community. The warehouse was known as ‘the docklands’ to all the locals, due to the terraced concrete courtyard of loading docks and paths, once used to pack trucks and freight trains. The warehouse transformed to an affordable workspace for artists; becoming the home of five bands, two screen printers, a jeweler, a dark room studio, a club for vintage motorcycle enthusiasts, a dance studio, the Chop Shop, Ultimate Gym, and even a practice space for the Charlotte Roller Derby Girls. The NoDa Vision Plan wanted to preserve this building and its’ character by transforming it to be the new face and front door of NoDa. It would become a public space along the light rail, with an open arcade connection to the light rail station of NoDa, a pedestrian plaza, and remain the home of local businesses. However, the urban development and apartment building growth had other plans.
In early 2014, the wrecking ball hit the Newco Fiber Mill and its local business tenants; the destruction of the historic warehouse plowed way for the light rail to come through and zoning committees to start eyeing the seven acres along the new urban transit. The only survivors of the destruction were the two businesses at the end of the U-shaped warehouse, the Chop Shop music venue and the Ultimate Gym. The Newco Fiber Mill became another causality of the urban sprawl. The Chop Shop and Ultimate Gym also feared for their businesses, as they knew their lease agreement held contingencies on the light rail coming along in the future. The Chop Shop and Ultimate Gym met their demise when developers, Crescent Communities purchased the seven acres along the track in early 2015.
Zoning meetings were held and plans were drawn as Crescent Communities took advantage of this ideal NoDa site along the future light rail. Before plans could be finalized and construction started the site had to be rezoned from industrial use to commercial development. On March 3, 2015, the NoDa Neighborhood Association held a meeting where the residents voted to support the rezoning by a 33 to 2 vote. Though the members of the community were worried about the future building, they supported the rezoning anyway out of fear of the unknown. Crescent Communities won the petition for rezoning and stepped in with their plans for a mixed-use development with street level retail and 750 apartment units. Crescent began facing angry neighbors speaking out against the development in petitions and online forums. However, no one showed up to protest the development at a City Council hearing concerning the project. Crescent wants to make an effort to integrate the local arts community into the building and is also working to get local businesses to anchor the retail portion of the development. An employee of Crescent stated, “When you start something like that, it requires more. You can’t just take what you did in South Park and put it in NoDa.” referring to his take on avoiding angering the community. The community is still concerned about the development but has responded well to Crescent’s efforts on an open line of communication. The executive developers said they hope to create a “bold, modern urban space” and bring in “innovative public art that hopes to capture the NoDa creative spirit.”
On July 31, 2015, Crescent Communities released their plans for the NoDa Station mixed-use development. Among the apartment units will be 6,000 square feet of street level retail and flexible outdoor spaces for food trucks, markets and outdoor events. The construction plans to begin late this year and plans to have the availability of the first units to coincide with the opening of the light rail’s 36th Street Station in early 2017. NoDa is going through some extreme changes, some which could be for the good, but these changes also have their consequences. As the neighborhood grows it is losing some of the qualities that give NoDa its’ historic and artistic identity.
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