CHARLOTTE – Cherry was founded in the late 1800s as Charlotte’s first workforce housing, a neighborhood for skilled and unskilled black laborers.
That’s the history, and history is key to the present and future of the city’s second-oldest traditionally black neighborhood as the city of Charlotte considers a rezoning petition for a major residential infill project.
The question is:
How affordable – and how black – will Cherry remain now that the nearby Midtown district is booming and private, for-profit residential developers seek out market-rate redevelopment opportunities where once only nonprofit and government affordable housing entities dared to tread?
The history, present and future of Cherry, located between the upstart Metropolitan mixed-use development and long-established Myers Park, are now all three simultaneously up in the air as battle lines are being drawn over a rezoning proposal scheduled to be decided by Charlotte City Council on April 28.
Charlotte-based StoneHunt Development LLC is only the most recent development company wanting to jump on a redevelopment bandwagon that’s on a post-recession roll along the streets of small, dilapidated older homes and weedy vacant lots that sit next door to new and under-construction homes costing upwards of $400,000.
But this development is different: StoneHunt wants to put in the largest market-rate single-family residential redevelopment project the 123-year-old neighborhood has seen to date, called The Grove at Cherry.
Longtime residents, quoting chapter and verse of their version of Cherry’s history, have been stirred to action.
The arguments made by the two sides at a March 17 Charlotte City Council public hearing boiled down to this:
The leader of the neighborhood protest said the history of the 5.7 acres in question includes agreements, and financial commitments, that future development will be primarily affordable. And, she said, the proposal does not fit with early small-area plans developed by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department.
A StoneHunt representative responded at the meeting that the project is in agreement with later small-area plans; that previous agreements about affordability were vacated when StoneHunt bought the land (plus about another 1.3 acres) in 2005 from the nonprofit Cherry Community Organization; and that about 10 percent of the Grove’s 43 dwelling units will be affordable, which he said is in keeping with a 2012 small-area plan.
The history of the land, past agreements concerning its development, and funding complexities have made a muddle of the city of Charlotte planning and zoning processes.
Planner Sonja Sanders’ staff report recommends the City Council OK the rezoning because it meets all the zoning ordinance’s requirements and applicable planning documents’ goals.
Sanders also reported that enough opponents to the Grove have submitted petitions in opposition that the rezoning would have to be approved by 75 percent of the City Council, but also that there has been difficulty in certifying that the signatures all came from people who live within a 100-foot radius of the acreage being rezoned.
But a motion on the staff’s recommendation that the rezoning be approved failed by a 2-5 vote of the Planning Commission’s zoning committee at a March 26 meeting at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center. Another vote, this one on a motion to recommend the City Council turn the rezoning down, passed 6-1.
A week before, at a City Council public hearing, several councilmembers were clearly perplexed by the proposal and potential restrictions on what they can consider in their votes.
While dozens of protesters sat in the gallery with “Cherry Says No” buttons on their shirts and blouses, two councilwomen, Democrats Patsy Kinsey and LaWana Mayfield, asked City Attorney Bob Hagemann to look into whether state and federal civil rights and housing legislation prevented the council from considering the affordability factor.
And they also asked City Manager Ron Carlee to look into assertions by both sides concerning whether federal money had been set aside for affordable housing in Cherry and the legality of agreements that were made when the land transferred to StoneHunt in 2005.
Although she admitted she was a little lost, Mayfield said that it looked to her like the neighborhood was facing two alternatives: gentrification, which might not be a bad thing if done properly, versus “bleaching.” She meant that Cherry could cease to be the oldest historically black neighborhood after Biddleville – which is just northwest of Uptown while Cherry is just southeast – because it might become predominantly white.
Census Bureau demographic statistics are not up-to-date enough to measure the racial makeup of Cherry after recent redevelopment efforts. But an early-evening visitor to Cherry last week saw as many white faces as black on the sidewalks and streets; and facilities in Cherry Park were being used exclusively by whites.
Three other developers have recently overcome neighborhood resistance to put up four to seven homes each on pockets of empty lots around the edges of Cherry. The houses range from 1,800 square feet to 4,700, and top out in price at nearly $500,000, depending on interior finishes.
But StoneHunt – a collaboration between architect Anthony Hunt and Stoney Sellars of TPM Technology and Management Consulting – wants to go much bigger than that: 39 upscale single-family homes and two buildings with affordable duplexes, for a total of 43 dwelling units that will occupy about three city blocks. Much of the land sits vacant but a few small and occupied multifamily buildings still stand. All of it is owned by StoneHunt.
And the houses would not be on the fringes; they’d be in the heart of the neighborhood. In fact, many of the homes would literally be on Cherry’s Main Street, and the rest on other prominent routes through the neighborhood such as Baxter, Luther and South Torrence streets.
The developer’s petition seeks to decrease the density in the conditional urban residential zoning that StoneHunt requested and won in 2007. That would allow the proposed 41 buildings to be constructed on land that is now zoned for 63 more affordable town houses, which the developer did not build.
According to a 1980s-vintage entry on the neighborhood written by local historian Thomas W. Hanchett for the encyclopedic Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission website, Cherry dates back to the late 19th century, when John and Mary Myers subdivided it from their family farm as a neighborhood for skilled and unskilled black laborers, many of whom lionized John Myers for his efforts on behalf of Charlotte’s black community.
After the Myerses carved the trolley suburbs of Elizabeth and Myers Park out of the farm in the early 20th century, for instance, Cherry became home to many of the domestic workers who cleaned houses and cooked meals in Myers Park.
As did many other historically black neighborhoods, Cherry began to decline after World War II with the formation of a black middle class whose members began to move out to other, mixed-race city neighborhoods.
But the part of the history that is most crucial for the Cherry residents protesting The Grove starts in the 1960s, when Mayor Stanford Brookshire’s urban-renewal push saw 1,480 housing structures demolished in Brooklyn, the city’s black downtown, displacing 1,007 residents and 215 businesses from a total of 263 acres.
Cherry, on the other hand, was able to dodge the bulldozers after President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty sought to soften the blows of urban redevelopment, and neighborhood leaders struck deals with city leaders.
“The people in Cherry are very proud of that,” said Sylvia Bittle Patton in an interview. Patton, an industrial and organizational psychologist and community activist, spoke for the protestors at the City Council public hearing.
Instead, Patton said, the Cherry Community Organization (CCO) was formed and, with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funding to buy land, “was able to survive urban renewal and continue to provide affordable housing to our residents.”
The federal, state and local dollars that went into Cherry means that the neighborhood ought to be kept affordable “in perpetuity,” Patton said. And that, she said, means that what StoneHunt wants to do is a betrayal of the private company’s former partnership with the CCO.
On top of the HUD grant obligations, she said, StoneHunt made promises when it bought nearly 7 acres of CCO’s holdings in 2005 and more promises when the community backed the developer’s successful request for rezoning two years later to build the 63 townhouses.
Patton said her group doesn’t care whether StoneHunt builds single-family or multifamily units, nor at what density they are developed, as long as they are put up for sale or lease at prices within the reach of households of four people making less than about $51,000, which is 80 percent of median household income for Mecklenburg County as calculated by HUD.
Contacted in person and on the phone for comment, Hunt referred all questions to his business partner. Sellars did not return calls or emails. Both men left the Government Center after the rezoning committee meeting without taking questions.
But in their written responses to questions and concerns expressed by the protesters, StoneHunt officials said their plan is consistent with Midtown-Morehead-Cherry Area Plan of 2012, which they say supersedes previous plans being quoted by the protest group.
They said any obligations of the CCO to HUD were not StoneHunt’s responsibilities after the 2005 purchase. And they said tenants were notified that StoneHunt planned to raze many of the housing units in the area in the past and offered relocation services, including furniture moving assistance and money for deposits on other rentals, and will do so again for anyone that would be displaced by The Grove project.
Middle ground does not seem likely, nor does City Council’s final vote on the matter look like it will be easy.
“This is a tough one,” said Planning Commission member Tracy Finch Dodson, the director of development for Charlotte Center City Partners who serves as chairwoman of the zoning committee.
City Council members who want to oppose the rezoning might have difficulty finding legal grounds to do so, depending on where the research into civil rights and fair housing laws leads Hagemann and Carlee.
“On the one hand, we’re tasked with sorting out some of the history and some of the factual assertions by both sides, the implications of the HUD grants,” Hagemann said. “We’re trying to reconstruct all that and figure out whether any of it has any bearing on the case.”
“The other part of it is a purely legal question,” Hagemann said.
Hagemann was referring to what he characterized as the city’s still-evolving understanding of what is and what is not permissible to consider in a land-use decision in light of a statute passed in 2009 by the N.C. General Assembly.
The law, SL 2009-533, is titled: “An act providing that it is a violation of the state’s Fair Housing Act to discriminate in land-use decisions or the permitting of development based on the fact that a development contains affordable housing units.”
That law, Patton argues, was intended to prevent people in established neighborhoods from influencing public officials to disapprove nearby development projects on the basis of its affordability. She said it does not apply to The Grove case.
But Hageman said he wasn’t so sure.
“The law says you cannot discriminate, including on the basis of affordability,” the city attorney said. “The wording of the law – it’s standard civil rights language – is important: ‘no case that is intended to discriminate or has the effect of discriminating.’ In this specific case, we’re looking at a 2009 N.C. statute, a law that has not been tested in court. So we’re making our way slowly and carefully here.”
For Planning Commission member Deborah Ryan, a professor of architecture and urban design who came to UNC Charlotte from a teaching position at Harvard, all the issues come down to figuring out what is appropriate in an ever-changing Charlotte and its neighborhoods.
Ryan, who speaks around the country on digital civic engagement and the use of the Internet in community planning processes, was the only member of the zoning committee to speak in favor of The Grove project.
“The question is: ‘If not this, what?’” Ryan asked rhetorically at the rezoning committee meeting. “And, ‘What makes something appropriate or inappropriate?’ We don’t build (the kind of) small houses (found in Cherry) anymore; we don’t do that in terms of what is marketable. Things change. So many things have to change with them.”
By way of illustration, Ryan told the committee that she bought her first house in Charlotte, in Elizabeth, for $80,000; that she felt rich after selling it a few years later for $125,000; but that she regrets letting it go so cheaply because it is worth $400,000 now.
“Neighborhoods evolve; you can’t pickle a neighborhood,” Ryan concluded. “Cherry is not pickled.”