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Plan calls for revitalizing Charlotte’s struggling northwest area

DIGGING IN: Officials use shovels to fling dirt into the air April 15, 2011, to mark the groundbreaking for Mosaic Village, a $16 million mixed-use development that will include retail, apartments for college students and parking near Johnson C. Smith University, and the opening of the Arts Factory, the university’s first classroom outside of the campus gates. Photo by Tara Ramsey

When state Sen. Malcolm Graham looks at Charlotte’s northwest corridor, he sees the intersection near Johnson C. Smith University as the “Trade and Tryon” of that area.

To Charlotte City Councilman James Mitchell, the area could become a “Little Georgetown,” similar to the one in northwest Washington, D.C., that’s anchored by Georgetown University.

But it remains to be seen whether those visions will come to pass.

An effort is under way to give the struggling area a facelift, with hopes that it will change not only the corridor’s appearance but also negative perceptions about the area near what was once known as the “five-points” intersection.

Dirt flew April 15 as a group of about 10, including some elected officials such as Graham, of Charlotte, used shovels as part of a groundbreaking ceremony to kick off the corridor’s revitalization.

If everything goes as planned, the corridor’s main intersection of West Fifth and Trade streets and Beatties Ford Road will be anchored by the university and a proposed Smith Square, which would become the front door to the university and feature a park and a new conference area at the school. University officials are still in the planning stages for Smith Square.

On the opposite corner, developers plan to transform a gas station into a bookstore and print shop for the university.

Just a few blocks away on West Trade Street, another group of developers, Charlotte-based Griffin Bros., is beginning construction on a mixed-use development that will include retail, apartments for college students and parking. That $16 million project, Mosaic Village, is expected to be complete in time for students to move in before classes begin in the fall of 2012.

But first Griffin Bros. must bridge a $4 million funding gap. The developers hope to do so with money from the city’s business corridor revitalization program. The city’s economic development committee is expected to review the funding request so that the City Council can vote on it in May.

Next to Mosaic Village, students are already hanging art and taking classes in the Arts Factory, the university’s first classroom outside of the campus gates. The Arts Factory opened this year.

There’s also a plan to dress up the nearby West Trade Street/Interstate 77 underpass with lights. That project will use funding from the city and the university, although the city is waiting for the state to OK the spending.

Perceptions of crime

The facelift will change the way the area looks, but it is not known what it will do about crime concerns.

Some, such as Mike Griffin, a developer with Griffin Bros., which also developed the Arts Factory, say there’s a perception that crime is bad in the northwest corridor.

“In my opinion it’s just a perception,” he said. “In reality, there was never any significant crime.”

But it’s not an area without violence.

In November, one person was taken to the hospital after an argument led to gunfire in a parking lot off Beatties Ford Road across from Johnson C. Smith University.

And American School Search gives the university a C- for safety, saying on its website that it “appears to be a relatively unsafe school.”

Also, a Gallup poll funded by the university and completed in December shows that less crime is near the top of the list of things that residents want.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Capt. Bruce Bellamy, head of CMPD’s Metro Division, said there have been 13 crimes reported this year as of Thursday morning for the quarter-mile radius of the five-points intersection near the university. That’s down from 16 crimes by the same time last year, he said.

Nine of the 13 were property crimes, while other four were a residential burglary, an aggravated assault with a gun, a strong-arm robbery and a rape, he said, adding that those are reports of, not confirmed, crimes.

“Crime is not bad” in the area, he said, adding, “I think people are surprised sometimes to hear some of those (low) crime stats.”

Griffin, who grew up in the northwest corridor, said he’s always had to fight back negative perceptions about the area. Griffin Bros. has eight tire stores, the first of which opened on West Trade Street 50 years ago. He remembers giving people directions to his family store 20 years ago and trying to coax them to travel through the Interstate 77 underpass.

But once a customer came to the family’s store, they could come back, no longer deterred by fear of the area, he said.

Gus Pitsonis, owner of the Chicken King restaurant at 1740 W. Trade St., said crime has not been a problem for his business. In 30 years, the business has only had one instance of crime, he said: a broken window.

Undeterred

Despite the challenges, Griffin plans to move ahead with the projects he has planned for the area.

He said he has watched as community leaders have transformed neighborhoods like Seversville in the northwest corridor into successful neighborhoods by working together and with police.

“That’s motivating us to take more of a risk when we see those things,” he said.

The dark, uninviting I-77 underpass is at the top of the list of components of the area that need changing. With the help of $75,000 from the university, and up to $125,000 from the city’s Arts and Science Council, it will be outfitted with bright, colorful lights that are supposed to mark the underpass as a landmark and entrance to the northwest corridor. Community leaders hope to have the lights on by the 2011 holiday season.

On April 11, the City Council voted unanimously to request approval from the state transportation department to use the $125,000 for the project. It is not clear when the state will rule on the request.

The talk of the lights and other planned projects has begun generating buzz, making some hopeful even, about the future of the area.

Mitch Martin, a Charlotte resident whose mother lives off West Fifth Street, said he thinks the area can be turned around. He points to the newly constructed Family Dollar next door to the Chicken King restaurant, where he was standing April 14, just a block away from the site where ground has been broken on Mosaic Village.

“It’s a good area,” Martin said. “There’s nothing that needs to be overcome.”

One thing he’s hoping for out of the corridor’s revitalization: a grocery store.

Ruffling feathers

But inside the Chicken King restaurant, Pitsonis is worried that the revitalization might hurt his restaurant.

Pitsonis and his family have owned the restaurant at this location for 30 years.

Pitsonis said he has heard rumors that his building might be sold as part of the revitalization of the corridor.

He said he has called the city and the university in hopes of learning about plans for his building, which he rents. He hasn’t heard back from either group or his landlord.

For now, he hopes he is safe. He has a two-year lease to fulfill.

“We like the area,” he said while taking a break from filling food orders.

Tara Ramsey can be reached at tara.ramsey@mecktimes.com.

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