Oct 28, 2015 - Things to Do

Big beige rectangles: What’s wrong with design in Charlotte and why it needs to change



Apartments. Is there a more exhausted topic in Charlotte? It feels like every week some new apartment complex is getting announced in the city. As reported on the Agenda, and elsewhere, developers are fairly confident Charlotte’s continued growth will support the influx in units, and I don’t disagree.

I am not concerned with the number of units, but the structures they are being housed in. Yes, this is an article on apartments but it is a totally different perspective.

Among the many apartment complexes around town, some get it right and some get it oh, so wrong. In order to understand what’s wrong let’s take a look at what’s right. To do that let’s explore some apartment complexes being built in cities that understand urbanism and nail the basics: retail, thoughtful design and pedestrian presence.


This is a complex in Denver, Colorado. Seems pretty modern right? Seems like something that could potentially be in Charlotte? For the most part yes, it has your standard amenities: salt water pool, dog washing station, bike storage, yadda yadda, all the basics. Where it differs from Charlotte is in its unique design, and that it’s colorful, it has a great street level presence that activates the pedestrian environment.


Look at the floor to ceiling glass on the ground floor, look at the fact you cant see the parking garage and cars on the main streets, look at the unique design elements that aren’t just a blank wall. These are all example of what make an urban apartment complex great.

Our next example is in the urban mecca of Portland, Oregon. This one nails it on virtually every level. The variety of design elements at play here (combining brick, wood and painted siding) is absolutely fantastic. Notice how you can’t see the parking for the complex itself? That’s intentional, as we want to move away from cars, instead utilizing our own 2 feet as well as transportation options like a streetcar.


Another way this complex absolutely kills it is that ground floor retail. Making the most of it’s location this complex recognizes its proximity to a streetcar stop and adapts to the environment providing a place where both passing pedestrians and residents can go to hang out.

Now that we have some context, let’s dive into an example (there aren’t many) around town that actually hits these basic concepts and delivers a quality final product.


This is personal favorite, Camden Gallery. Going at the corner of Camden and West, this complex does right what so many others do wrong. The developers recognized the environment it’s in (a growing stroll district) and have graced us with a ton of street level retail along the base and main streets. Right now a Blaze Pizza, a running shop and a jean shop all have signed leases. Great mix of retail, love it.

Furthermore, they set back the garage entrance so that you don’t get that atrocious “cars behind bars” look (looking at you 1100 South). But Jason, what is cars behind bars? Well, cars behind bars is a new favorite term of mine used to describe when parking is right at street level but blocked off by faux design elements meant to conceal the garage but winds up looking like a jail for cars and turning off any pedestrian activation that may have been.

The other thing I love about this complex is that there is no overuse of Charlotte Beige! There are a ton of colors here as well as excellent exterior design features that really stand this project out from so many others that are just blank boring walls.


Let’s move on to some examples of complexes that do some things right but then completely fall flat elsewhere.

Circa Uptown (also known as Woodfield-Graham or “one of the ballpark complexes”) is the complex going up at MLK and Graham. Where this one excels is in its use of color and interesting design features. It’s nice to see a deep maroon in an apartment complex as well as it gets points for not using too much Charlotte Beige.

Now where this complex misses the mark is on its ground floor. For starters, no retail! Third Ward is easily the hottest area of uptown right now with pedestrians galore with many more on the way. Why the developers couldn’t take a chance and put some retail in the ground floor is beyond me. We have some cars behind bars going on here as well but it’s not as egregious an offense as some others.

There still needs to be some landscaping in place but the biggest issue with this complex is it does nothing to be a part of the environment around it, but rather focus on the residents that will be inside.


1100 South is the massive complex at South Blvd and Carson along the light rail in South End. Similarly to Circa Uptown, where this complex excels is its use of unusual colors and not having a lot of Charlotte Beige (Loft 135 nearing completion at Church and Morehead is another example of interesting color use).

It also has some really some cool design features, like floor to ceiling glass units at the corner of South and Carson and pop-out units that allow it to stand out.

Where this one fails miserably (more than most) is its street level presence. South Boulevard is the main artery into what is arguably the most popular area of Charlotte not called uptown. So what does this complex do? Place the best example of cars behind bars I have ever seen and do nothing to activate the environment around it.

Furthermore, this complex has spots it could have utilized for retail but instead chose to make them resident spaces (that I doubt will be used much). This is another example of a developer choosing to be exclusive with its complex rather than inclusive. With its prime spot on the light rail and South Boulevard, there was a huge opportunity to really have retail surrounding the entire ground floor and involve the sidewalk around it.

When we look to our examples of good complexes, what do they all have in common? They all understand their environment and look to bring in people other than residents through retail and public space. 1100 fails big time here.


So we have seen the good, and seen the okay, but what’s bad you may ask? The list is absolutely endless of complexes that have failed with design, failed with pedestrian activation and failed at providing anything more than being a place to house bodies.

Rather than list them out let’s take a look at two examples of ones that really miss the mark.

The Mint is a standout offender. This is the other “ballpark complex” at Trade and Graham, prime-time real estate. I will give it points for having a retail spot at Graham and 4th but it isn’t nearly enough to make up for the rest.

It may be a long ways out but eventually the Gateway Station will happen. Gateway Station is a planned major transit hub at Trade and Graham that will be bringing people to the city through rail and bus. What is the first thing they’re going to see when arriving in Charlotte? A characterless apartment complex with a ground floor view populated by blank beige walls, cars behind bars and not a semblance of personality.

Not only that, they left the electrical boxes exposed along Graham Street, ugh. My call to future residents is when you move in; please complain (at the very least) about those exposed electrical boxes. Developers are open to change when enough tenants ask for it.

This is an unfortunate example of a developer who otherwise has some really great work in their portfolio that just missed the opportunity. There was a chance here to design something that really enhances the environment (prime Third Ward), but instead creates an uninviting look of beige walls. All hope is not lost however, developers look to improve all the time, so as mentioned above if enough tenants (once they move in) ask for better, we can drive real change.

At the very least please cover up those darn electrical boxes.

Presley Uptown (formerly Fountains Uptown) is the complex under construction at Stonewall and McDowell. While it excels in some areas (the fountain on Stonewall will be cool) it absolutely drops the ball when looking into the future. Stonewall is in the midst of a massive resurgence with a variety of projects that will turn the street into a major HUB of the city. Instead of capitalizing on this the developers chose to keep everything exclusive to residents and disregard the environment around it.

No retail, blank walls and tons of Charlotte beige leave much to be desired with this one. Hundreds of thousands of people travel on 277 each day and will see this complex. There is nothing to be said about the 277 facing side. There could be splashes of color, perhaps a mural, or even some protruding design features, but what we are left with is just a standard color painted on a blank wall of a building.

So what is the root of this problem?

My first inclination was to blame the developers and architects. It is up to them to design something meaningful, spend the money to create something unique and provide a true asset to the community, and they continuously drop the ball. However, after reading farther into it, I would place the fair share of the blame on the city and ourselves.

The city reviews these projects and lets them pass through to construction phase. If there were any set design standards in place the developers couldn’t get away with designing and building the cheapest possible option. Developers are generally (not all of them but it’s obviously the ultimate goal, and I don’t blame them) just in it to make a buck, throw up a product as fast as possible, market it with flashy, “modern” design and say stuff like we have a dog washing station and a salt water pool to get people in the units. The city has the opportunity to step in a say, “No, you need retail on the ground floor” or “No, you need to add some color” but they don’t.

It’s also a product of the environment in which they are building. If we look back at our examples of Portland, Denver and Washington D.C., all of them have set urban standards and a well-developed urban environment. You couldn’t get away with building a complex like The Mint in one of those cities just because of it’s established culture alone. Charlotte is still so new to the urbanite scene and still figuring out exactly what it means to be a big city with an urban attitude.

Lastly, a lot of the blame is on us.

We move into these places with no care to what it does to the environment around it. We are in such a “me, me, me” culture that we look at what these complexes do for me rather than what it does for the surrounding area and me. I don’t expect this to change overnight obviously, but we have to look past the standard things like a “theater room” that no one uses or whatever crazy things these developers think of. We have to think about how this complex will better my life by living here, but also how it will better the city.

An example was pointed out to me that really resonated with me. In ancient times, massive squares and public civic places were built so that citizens could come together and interact as a society. This is a stark contrast to some of these apartment complexes that we are getting that aim to keep everything within its walls and for only those who will pay to experience it.

I want to make myself clear: I don’t only blame the developers. How can I? There are so many other factors that go into play with these projects it’s not one person or groups fault. I honestly don’t think the developers even think about it sometimes, they don’t think they’re doing anything particularly bad.

We can all come together to drive change and look ahead to continue to improve.

Side Note 1: Gateway Apartments is also a horrible offender. Boring design, no retail, no area activation, boo. The developer wanted to create a design that stood out and had “sex appeal” being right off the highway….news flash, mission failed.

Side Note 2: My buddy Clayton is at it again with hilarious Charlotte Beige gear, check it out.


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