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Home / News / Going south? Some worry about the 
suburban direction in which 
South End is headed

Going south? Some worry about the 
suburban direction in which 
South End is headed

South End – Charlotte’s first designated transit-oriented district – is at a crossroads.

Will it maintain its burgeoning urban environment, or will encroaching suburban development caused by a weakened economy turn it into another bedroom community for uptown?

Less than 10 years ago, the area – a no-man’s land until it was dubbed South End by real estate developer Tony Pressley in 1994 – was conceived as a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, high-density area that encouraged people to minimize their reliance on cars.

The Lynx Blue light-rail line that is the heart of the South End, which runs in tandem along the line from Uptown to Scaleybark Station, provides the major source of transportation. Zoning ordinances that encourage transit-oriented development focus, for example, on the maximum amount of parking spaces allowed, rather than a minimum required, as in most suburban zoning. Higher densities, which meant higher buildings, are also allowed.

The approach – with help from a booming real estate market – worked, some say.

“Without the Blue line and TOD zoning, we would not have seen the amount of development we have seen along South Boulevard,” said developer George Maloomian, president of Cambridge Properties. “It’s also where we have seen the highest velocity of multifamily absorption.”

According to Charlotte Center City Partners, there has been $450 million of private development in South End since November 2007. Residential units increased by 58 percent to 2,855 units in four years, and there are now about 3,100 people living there. It is home to more than 860 businesses, and in the past eight years tax values climbed by 57 percent.

South End is a municipal services district, where businesses have agreed to be assessed a separate tax that “fosters the kind of development the collective group wants to see,” said Greg Pappanastos, owner of Argos Real Estate Advisors. CCP, which has a separate advisory board for the South End, serves as district administrator.

When the Great Recession hit, development came to a halt. But now that apartment construction is experiencing a boom, there are concerns that the young and carefully crafted urban environment might become more suburban in nature. That, in turn, has long-term implications.

According to CCP, there are eight apartment projects in various stages of development that could add about 1,600 to 1,800 units to South End in the next few years. Construction has begun on Fountains at New Bern Station, a 208-unit high-end community being developed by Charlotte-based Proffitt Dixon Partners, and on an additional 220 units at 1225 South Church by Mid-America Apartment Communities.

Work is expected to begin soon on Woodfield Silos, a 280-unit complex being built by Virginia-based Woodfield Investments, as well as on the 153-unit, two-building Park and Kingston Apartments. Marsh Properties, Merrifield Patrick Vermillion and Jud Little, all based in Charlotte, are the developers.

But Pappanastos, who has lived and worked in the area for 12 years, has some reservations about what’s happening.

“Because land prices have come down, developers are using a suburban development model,” he said. “Lower densities make it hard to develop retail. That flips the zoning matrix on its head.”

The still-anemic economy is a major contributor to this trend.

“It’s difficult to fund mixed-use developments, and it’s exceedingly difficult to lease retail. The only thing getting funded is multifamily,” said Mary Hopper, former chairwoman of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission and a long-time neighborhood activist in Dilworth, which abuts South End.

More and more, the multifamily projects getting funding feature surface parking lots rather than decks, a TOD hallmark. That means less space for residences, a less-pedestrian-friendly streetscape and an area that, while it might not actually encourage car use, does nothing to discourage it.

“It’s a lot cheaper to build surface lots than parking structures with several levels, and it’s lot easier to get it financed,” said Kent Main, a planning coordinator with CMPC.

In addition to lower density and more parking lots, the lack of variety of uses could put the city’s long-term plan for the area in jeopardy.

“Renters don’t have the patience of single-family home owners,” Pappanastos said. “They want amenities now. If you don’t balance the two … it can flip on you and compromise the area. If you don’t plan ahead and foster mixed-use development, you’ll lose it. Then how can you create long-term value for property owners?”

Because of those concerns, Pappanastos was among some South End stakeholders who asked CCP to sponsor a workshop process “to create clarity with more input from stakeholders.”

CCP hopes it will culminate in a plan that could ultimately augment the South End transit station area plan, a South End development blueprint used by the Charlotte City Council as a policy guideline for rezoning decisions.

A community workshop was held in December, followed by a professional design charette in early January. CCP, with assistance from the CMPC, is preparing a document to be presented to the public March 29. The process will cost about $30,000.

“TOD has been very successful and is a good thing,” said Tracy Dodson, director of economic development for CCP. “Now it’s time to look at it again, to take the South End from good to great.”

Pappanastos said now is a “critical point.”

“These new apartments being built won’t go away,” he said. “Readjustments need to be made now.”

Many agree that plans for the area need to be revisited.

“The vision for the area seems to be lost,” Hopper said. “Projects have been plopped down as money has become available, so it’s not being done holistically or with any concern about how it’s all stitched together.”

But, she added, “That’s really tricky to do.”

Currently, CMPC allows developers to ask for a TOD zoning variance in designated areas along the transit line. Since TOD was introduced in 2005, 80 such rezonings have been approved by the City Council.

“TOD set forth a vision for the city and gave developers confidence that the city would support and encourage higher density,” Maloomian said. “It created homogenous development patterns.”

The newer developments – although still technically TOD – are going for lower densities than they were originally zoned for and less than anticipated by the station area plan, Main said.

“They are more like the basic garden apartments you see in the suburbs.”

No one is sure how to address these issues at this point. One solution used elsewhere to tackle the lack of retail is what Pappanastos calls “convertible residential” in which the first floor a multifamily building is designed to commercial standards so it can one day be converted to a retail use when the market returns.

But Charlotte tends to use the carrot approach rather than the stick of regulations to foster the kind of development it wishes to see.

“We have always used the power of suggestion” rather than design requirements, Main said. “But that flexibility can work against you at some point.”

Pappanastos said a unique opportunity might be lost.

“The light-rail line is South End’s waterfront,” he said. “Although the book is still being written, more developers are turning their back on it. The area has already lost a sense of what its soul is. I don’t want to see it lose any more of its grit.”

Hopper agreed, lamenting that South End has “lost its funkiness” as well as its attractiveness to pedestrians.

Meanwhile, Dilworth activists are also keeping an eye on what is happening on their border.

“I doubt the wisdom of the development community’s perspective unless it is filtered through good neighborhood lenses,” said Sara Spencer, a Dilworth resident and former Charlotte councilwoman.

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