One spring Sunday in 1799, Conrad Reed went fishing in Little Meadow Creek and took a liking to a 17-pound, wedge-shaped object jutting from the water. He lugged it home, where the shiny rock doubled as a doorstop.
Several years passed until someone identified the slab’s gilded sheen, making Conrad Reed the first person to discover gold in the fledgling United States.
A race for the mother lode commenced. Within 40 years, mine shafts dotted the Piedmont, including sites near present-day uptown. The area was flooded with foreign workers, creating a gold rush that brought regional trade and banking to the area. Charlotte, once dubbed a “trifling place” by George Washington, hosted a branch of the U.S. Mint to press the locally mined gold into coins. The Federal Reserve later followed suit with a local branch, helping pave the way for banking in the Queen City.
The rest, as they say, is history—including the eventual abandonment of the mines, now covered by 17 blocks of heavily treaded blacktop bordered by West Summit Avenue and South Church, Graham and Morehead streets.
But the days of yore still impact the present, boosting prospects for mixed-use development in the South End neighborhood some are calling the Gold District.
The current journey began a couple of years ago when architect Stephen Overcash and real estate broker Caren Wingate of Wingate Advisory Group scouted the 79-acre property for a client looking to build a hotel. Overcash, a partner at Overcash Demmitt Architects on South Tryon Street, thought to himself, “Why is an area this close to uptown industrial?” The two set about learning the district’s history, which prompted ideas about revitalization.
“Many tenants don’t know they are sitting on a gold mine. And that’s not a metaphor,” Wingate said.
Historical tourism could come into play as the neighborhood evolves, she said.
Possibilities include an interactive museum to inform visitors about the Charlotte Mint and the strong influence that gold mining and commerce, as well as the railroad, had on the Queen City. The museum might share a block with a theater or boutique hotel in the steampunk style reminiscent of the district’s industrial roots.
“This is a place where heavy lifting and forward thinking have woven an exciting tapestry of opportunity,” Wingate said. “We are working to preserve and continue that tradition.”
Getting mixed-use development to pan out has been labor intensive. The pair started the process by approaching the 100 or so property owners in the area, who all agreed to request a change to overlay zoning from the primarily industrial-zoned area. Some 200 meetings have been held over the past couple of years, and all businesses have been asked to submit information on the types of projects they’d like to see.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department has been receptive to the idea, Overcash said.
Last year he and Wingate, together with zoning guru Walter Fields, BooneOakley President David Oakley, Wells Fargo Securities Bond Trader John Witherington and Michael Sullivan, a real estate broker with The Nichols Co., formed the nonprofit Gold District of Charlotte, with a mission to “reinvigorate the energy of the area where anybody can come and mine their own gold.”
For that to happen, the area’s zoning requirements have to be amended. Fields, founder of the locally based consulting firm Walter Fields Group Inc., has led the effort to develop a unique overlay plan because “you can’t impose suburban standards on urban landform.”
Last month, he filed an amendment to the existing zoning ordinance to create the new district. “By modifying the existing standards with an overlay, the property owners will have more flexibility without having to go through a rezoning,” Fields said. A public hearing is scheduled for September, with a Charlotte City Council vote on the petition for an overlay district slated for October.
Although Fields declines to sift into the chances of approval, local backing for the Gold District might augur well.
“This is a grassroots effort,” Fields said. “I think we have broad support from the property owners and nearby communities for this district.”
Overcash said potential investors have bandied about ideas for the Gold District that include an indoor recreational facility for professional teams and amateur clubs near Bank of America Stadium. It would be “a great place to start a fan parade on the way to the big field,” becoming “a gathering spot for car-free tailgaters.” In addition to youth sport tournaments, the facility could also function as a community center with meeting and exhibit space.
It’s important that the neighborhood drive development organically, Wingate said, adding that all of the district’s architecturally significant structures would be preserved. New buildings could feature retail on the street level, with residential or commercial space above. She and Overcash imagine the area having Gold Rush trolley service that moves passengers from uptown to abundant retail shops, residences, creative lofts, offices, green spaces, restaurants, and entertainment venues. Soft gold lighting would illuminate the streets at night.
“It’s screaming for redevelopment,” Overcash said, describing the current landscape of metal buildings, supply stores and parking lots. “The area has always been predominantly industrial. We envision a very rich mix of uses to support the Wilmore and South End areas.”