West Side story: Commercial development has bypassed area, but streetcar could bring changes

By: Payton Guion, staff writer//October 21, 2013//

West Side story: Commercial development has bypassed area, but streetcar could bring changes

By: Payton Guion, staff writer//October 21, 2013//

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The Freedom Drive corridor has seen little of the redevelopment that’s occurring across Charlotte. The main reason, sources say, is the demographics of the area. Photo by Payton Guion.

CHARLOTTE – Mike Griffin said he can remember a time in the city’s history when the West Side was a destination.

Griffin, a native Charlottean and owner of locally based development company Griffin Brothers, said his family used to do most of their shopping west of the Central Business District.

But over the years, commercial activity in other areas of the city – and very little development in this part of town – has killed the reputation of the West Side, specifically the Freedom Drive corridor between Interstates 77 and 85, as a destination for shoppers or developers.

Griffin said the corridor has fallen off since he spent time there as a kid, but he wouldn’t rule out a return for the West Side, even if it’s later rather than soon. Griffin may end up being part of the revitalization too, as he works primarily west of Uptown, but he doesn’t have any projects on Freedom Drive.

“It’s deteriorated and I think it’s already hit bottom,” Griffin said. “But I don’t think it’s going to keep going down. At some point we have to start redeveloping corridors. We’ve developed our county out; there’s not that much raw land left.

“There’s going to be a period of redevelopment. People still see it as risky as development, but it’s so darn convenient.”

A number of factors have provided a smokescreen over the convenience of the area in the eyes of developers and commercial real estate firms. Everything from the demographics to safety concerns to the seemingly endless row of deserted big-box retail stores on Freedom Drive have created disdain from the development community.

William Graves, associate professor of economics and geography in the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at UNC Charlotte, said the demographics of the area coupled with the high crime rate more than anything else have made developers weary.

“Demographics are one of the most important things developers look at because it’s one of the first things the financing guys are going to look at,” Graves said, adding that financiers are unlikely to invest in a dangerous area. And in terms of poor demographics and high crime, Freedom Drive isn’t a victim of poor perception, only harsh reality.

According to the American Community Survey, which divided the north and south sides of Freedom Drive into four sections, the median income in the corridor between 2006 and 2010 was $29,160.75. The median income over the same time in Mecklenburg County was $61,973.

In those four neighborhoods, 28.36 percent of adults didn’t have a high school diploma, according to the community survey. Only 12.2 percent of adults lacked a diploma county wide, the survey said.

Income figures don’t always show which areas will be high-crime or low-crime, as there are many safe working class neighborhoods in Charlotte, but Freedom Drive has a crime rate much higher than average in the county.

John Culbertson, partner at Charlotte-based Cardinal Real Estate Advisors, said it’s rare to see development in unsafe areas.

“You and I both know why there hasn’t been much development (along Freedom Drive),” he said of the area’s high crime rate. “It’s the same reason there isn’t much development in Harlem,” a neighborhood in New York City that historically has been associated with a high poverty and crime rates.

According to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department numbers from 2011, which is the latest full year that figures were available, the Freedom Drive corridor had 17,025.5 property crimes per 100,000 people. The county average was 4,435.57 property crimes per 100,000 people. Property crime includes burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft.

In 2011, violent crimes were also high in the corridor, with CMPD reporting 2,273 violent crimes per 100,000 people. The county average was 514.52 violent crimes per 100,000 people, according to CMPD. Violent crime includes murder, rape and aggravated assault.

But despite the corridor’s lower-than-average income and well-above-average crime rates, its proximity to uptown can’t be denied. And if the latest trends in apartment development and public transportation are to stay, it’s clear that people want to live close to the city.

Development has started to encroach on the Freedom Drive corridor. Coming west down Morehead Street, in an area known as FreeMore, are multifamily projects, restaurants, bars and retail shops. A single-family subdivision and an apartment project have been planned for Bryant Park, across Freedom on West Morehead Street. Graves said this is exactly the type of development needed to start a revitalization project.

“Generally, you’ll see some pioneering activity and in this area Pinkys fits that bill to a tee,” Graves said about the popular restaurant at the intersection of Freedom and Morehead. “Restaurant and bar activity tends to lead things. Then comes residential redevelopment, and we’re seeing that in Wesley Heights and even past that.

“That’s where things get fuzzier. If you look at the South End model, office space would come next, but I don’t know where it would go on Freedom. They have all those empty big boxes and retail is going away from the big boxes. It’s hard to say where (development) will go or when it will start.”

Graves said revitalization is expected along Freedom Drive, but it won’t be immediate. He said he thinks South End will likely see the next expansion of urban development, especially around Scaleybark and New Bern because of their public transportation options with the light rail running through the neighborhood.

The connection with public transportation is no coincidence. Griffin said he wouldn’t expect any substantial development along Freedom Drive until the West Side has more public transportation options. Fortunately for Griffin and West Side residents, the city of Charlotte has planned to bring public transportation in the form of the oft-criticized streetcar project.

The second phase of the CityLynx Gold Line, which has yet to even be funded, wouldn’t run along Freedom Drive. The streetcar line would head west on Trade Street from Uptown and would terminate at French Street, near Johnson C. Smith University. But Griffin said no investment comes to the West Side – which is needed for a Freedom Drive redevelopment – without the public investment in the streetcar.

“Freedom won’t see an immediate impact of the streetcar, but it will have an impact,” he said. “For redevelopment opportunities to take off, they need to be ignited. And the streetcar would provide that.”

The second phase of the Gold Line missed out on the 2013 round of federal grants, which are crucial to its future. But city officials are confident the project will still receive funding in the coming years. If the city has one thing for this project, it’s time. The first phase of the streetcar was funded in 2010 and has yet to start running.

If and when the streetcar rolls through the West Side, Griffin said he’s optimistic about the future in the area that has changed so much since he came shopping with his family as a kid.

“No one has been willing to put money into (that corridor),” he said. “But when the city shows they’re willing to put $30 million worth of steel in the streets, (developers) are more willing to build their million-dollar project.”

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