Aug 9, 2020 - News

With an influx of new development, does Plaza Midwood risk losing its identity?

Plaza Midwood

Plaza Midwood

Andy Kastanas sometimes looks around the Plaza Midwood neighborhood that surrounds the two restaurants his family owns, wondering if he’s seen this before. The ice cream shop’s gone. Closed, too, is the popular thrift store across the street, as is the drive-thru burger joint around the corner.

It reminds him of the experience he had 20 years ago in Uptown.

Years before he opened Soul Gastrolounge, then later KiKi Bistronome, with his wife Lesa, Kastanas was part of a crew that made Uptown Charlotte nightlife cool.

Kastanas operated a handful of popular Uptown bars and clubs on and around North College, including Cosmo’s Cafe, Alley Cat, The Forum, and Mythos. Eventually, other nightlife destinations cropped up nearby, like the Irish bar Connolly’s, as well as the Epicentre. Uptown started to become a destination.

Over time, Kastanas and his partners closed up their bars. For Kastanas, the vibe had begun to die around North College with the emergence of other new hotspots.

Now, he’s worried the same will happen in Plaza Midwood with the onset of new development.

From the construction of new apartments to the opening of national chains to the influx of young transplants, Plaza Midwood, known for its artsy vibe and charm, is one of Charlotte’s most rapidly evolving neighborhoods. But all of the churn makes some wonder: Will the area’s longstanding businesses endure?

Central Square in Plaza Midwood
Central Square in Plaza Midwood

“I love this freakin’ neighborhood, but it doesn’t feel like it’s gonna be this neighborhood anymore,” says Jacqueline White, who has operated Open Door Studios for 15 years in Plaza Midwood.

White was told in January that she had to be out of her spot at Central Square by November. She’d already started looking for a new space when the pandemic hit, mandating the shutdown of the studio that normally holds ballet, jazz, and modern dance classes for kids and adults.

Recently, White signed a new a new lease in Eastway Crossing. A 2.5-mile drive up Central, the shopping center has become somewhat of a haven for relocated Plaza Midwood businesses. It’s now home to the longtime Plaza Midwood Dairy Queen, Tommy’s Pub, and Armada Skate Shop. She plans to move there this fall.

Back in Plaza Midwood, next to White’s studio is where Yoga One operated. When Yoga One closed this summer, owner Sally Gambrell Bridgeford cited both the pandemic and “the expiration of our lease on the Central Avenue location because of redevelopment.”

And a little farther up off Central, singer-songwriter Hope Nicholls has run the boutique Boris + Natasha for more than two decades.

Nicholls is moving her shop in January to a new spot next to Tip Top Market on The Plaza.

The decision behind the move, she says, stems from a need for for sustainable rent and more diverse neighbors — two traits that first drew her to Plaza Midwood years ago.

“I am disillusioned by the lack of protection for historic business districts in Charlotte, and by the city-wide lack of support for small businesses like mine, which rejuvenate and build neighborhoods up, only to be priced out by developers,” Nicholls says.

A few years from now, Plaza Midwood will look much different than it does now. Here are just a few projects underway in the neighborhood now:

  • Sinacori Builders is under contract to buy the former home of Peculiar Rabbit on Pecan Avenue, plus the next-door building that houses Jackalope Jack’s. The businesses’ owner, Rob Nixon, says he hopes to rent space on the ground floor of the new owners’ development. The deal should close in early 2021, and the project will include either apartments or condos.
  • Crosland Southeast is redeveloping the 12-acre Central Square property, which is surrounded by Pecan Avenue, Central Avenue, train tracks, and Independence Boulevard. The big parking lot with the notorious NO PUBLIC PARKING sign will turn into apartments, green space, offices, and retail buildings.
  • Nearby, Asana Partners is redeveloping the building at 1508 and 1510 Central Avenue that used to house an antiques store and other small businesses. Crews are dividing the 7,100 building into three spaces. One will be for a restaurant, the other two for other retail tenants.
  • The old post office across from Harris Teeter is being renovated and expanded into four stories, with room eventually for new office and retail tenants.
  • The family-run group that built the Franklin Hotel in Chapel Hill is planning an independent hotel on Central where Kickstand Burger Bar used to be.
  • The Midwood Corners property, home to tenants like Akahana, recently changed hands and has a For Lease sign up front.

A number of developers with ongoing projects in Plaza Midwood — including Crosland Southeast and Sinacori — could not be reached for comment. A representative for Asana says the developer does not have any updates to share at this time.

[Related Agenda story: Project update: Developer plans an overhaul of a site in the heart of Plaza Midwood]

In recent years, a number of beloved neighborhood joints have closed or relocated for one reason or another. The Penguin. Tommy’s Pub. The old Dairy Queen. Buffalo Exchange.

Plaza Midwood, Kastanas says, has always been a tight-knit community whose personality comes organically from the artists and musicians and chefs who operate businesses there.

“The corporate franchise guys … they come in and take advantage of the things we created,” Kastanas says.

“I think we’re losing our identity as a neighborhood.”

Of course, not every established business in the neighborhood is leaving. A few of the ones remaining credit loyal patrons, plus a solid relationship with landlords uninterested in selling.

There is perhaps no better visual representation of the endurance of longtime businesses amid rapid redevelopment than the Thirsty Beaver in Plaza Midwood.

Surrounded by new luxury apartments on Central, the Thirsty Beaver is a dive bar with somewhat of a cult following. Dozens of underwire bras inexplicably adorn its front door. Toward the back there are old arcade games, plus a pool table. Beer is $2, and mixed drinks come in little plastic cups.

You won’t find fancy cocktails or craft beer on draft here. It is a far cry from the upscale speakeasies and ritzy rooftop bars opening in other parts of town.

Brothers Mark and Brian Wilson have operated the Thirsty Beaver since early 2008, making it one of the neighborhood’s older business. The idea for the bar came from the brothers’ travels. When they’d visit places like Nashville or Memphis, they’d want to check out the neighborhood hangouts. There wasn’t really anything like that in Charlotte at the time.

Property investor George Salem first leased the place to the Wilsons, and after Salem passed away a couple of years ago, his son took over as landlord.

The Wilsons have always maintained a strong relationship with the Salems, Mark Wilson says. The brothers pay their rent on time. They respect the building. They have no plans on leaving, and the Salems have never indicated any want it any other way.

Thirsty Beaver in Plaza Midwood
Thirsty Beaver in Plaza Midwood

That’s despite a lot of pressure over the years from developers. In 2015 CW Development bought the property around the Thirsty Beaver and soon began construction on a five-story apartment building.

The developer tried, and failed, multiple times to buy the bar’s property from the Salems.

The Thirsty Beaver became somewhat of a symbol of neighborhood endurance. Former Charlotte Observer writer Ely Portillo compared the bar to the house from “Up,” the animated movie about a curmudgeonly homeowner who refuses to sell to developers.

But the onset of even more new construction nearby hasn’t changed much for The Thirsty Beaver. In fact, Wilson says, the bar has benefitted from the waves of new faces moving into the new apartments and condos in the area. Before the pandemic, it had been getting even busier and had to expand its hours. Now the bar opens at noon on Saturdays instead of 4 p.m.

The people moving in might be new customers, Mark says, but they still appreciate The Thirsty Beaver for what it is: A neighborhood dive bar.

“We’ve not tried to change who we are. People seem to like that,” Mark says.

“People feel like they’re supporting something other than some corporation, I guess. It makes them feel attached to it, which is which is great.”

House of Africa in Plaza Midwood
House of Africa on Thomas Avenue

Less than half a mile up the street from The Beaver is House of Africa, a shop that Pape Ndiaye has operated for 24 years, selling an assortment of African wares, from jewelry to handmade gifts.

Ndiaye was stopping through town, on his way from Atlanta back up to New York, in 1995 when he decided to stay in Charlotte for good. He’d just had lunch at John’s Country Kitchen when he rounded the corner onto Thomas Avenue and saw a For Rent sign.

He signed a lease from Tom Brown, who owns several other nearby property in Plaza Midwood. Ndiaye also bought his house in Plaza Midwood from Brown, whom he describes as a good friend.

Ndiaye’s seen a lot of change in Plaza Midwood over the years. Nearby, the beloved Penguin restaurant closed in 2015, the same year Legion Brewing opened its spot on Commonwealth. John’s Country Kitchen also closed that year after nearly four decades in the neighborhood.

Throughout the change, there’s always been a certain cohesion to the neighborhood, says Ndiaye, who also hosts the annual Juneteenth Festival right outside his business on Thomas Avenue. He and other business owners also credit the support of the Plaza Midwood Merchants Association.

“I’m ready to stay for the long haul,” Ndiaye says.

Around the corner from Ndiaye’s shop, Andy and Lesa Kastanas also don’t have any immediate plans to move. They, too, say they have a good relationship with their landlord.

They still worry about the change in the neighborhood, though.

“I’m afraid that the locals may get pushed out and that we’ll have to look for a new area of town, an underground area where art can thrive, where creativity can thrive,” Andy says.

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