Dec 5, 2022 - Development

Can Brooklyn’s redevelopment bring back a once-thriving Black business district?

The Brooklyn Collective. Axios archives

With long-awaited Brooklyn Village project set to break ground soon, the developers say they plan to include minority-owned businesses in the redevelopment of what was once the city’s largest Black neighborhood.

Why it matters: Black-owned businesses once thrived in Brooklyn. But the neighborhood was torn down in the 1960s and ’70s in the name of urban renewal, displacing around 216 businesses and thousands of residents. Now, developers seek to create a hub in which Black businesses can thrive.

Context: More than six years after Mecklenburg County selected developer BK Partners to redevelop the area, the county said in October that construction will start after the developer closes on the property in early 2023. BK Partners is a partnership between developers The Peebles Corporation, based in New York, and Charlotte-based Conformity Corporation.

Driving the news: In an interview with Axios, Don Peebles, founder, chairman and CEO of The Peebles Corporation, said he is looking at working with minority-owned firms to help fund the cost of building out their retail spaces in the project into their rental agreements. The capital required to upfit a retail space can be a barrier to small businesses.

  • Peebles’ firm used this model when it developed properties in Washington, D.C., and in Miami Beach. But he said those spaces were smaller than Brooklyn Village.
  • He said they also will consider starting with lower rents for small businesses and scaling rent as they grow.

What they’re saying: “Obviously, we’re going to be prudent with who we provide that to: we’re going to have to be comfortable the probability of their business being successful is high, that they’re responsible people, etc.” Peebles says. “But with that, we’ll make it so that it’s an opportunity to start a business and that the capital outlay doesn’t make it prohibitive for them to start a business.”

The plans: The full three-phase buildout of the 17-acre Brooklyn Village redevelopment will occur over at least 12 years. It will eventually include 1,243 residential units, 252,000 square feet of retail, 712,400 square feet of office and 280 hotel rooms.

  • 10% to 12% of the housing will be priced below market-rate, with 30% of those units priced for those earning up to 60% of the area median income (AMI), or about $56,520 for a family of four. The rest will be affordable for those making up to 80% AMI, or $75,350 for a family of four.
The multifamily piece of Brooklyn Village’s phase one. Photo courtesy Mecklenburg County

Yes, but: Recreating the community of entrepreneurship that flourished in Brooklyn is a more difficult task.

Flashback: South Brevard Street was like Charlotte’s Black Wall Street, and it represented Black wealth, says Monique Douglas, executive director of the Brooklyn Collective and co-owner of CBK Branding & Consulting Firm, on a podcast I hosted at the Collective convened by Urbane Environments (which you can listen to above).

  • “It was a creation of something beautiful for the Black community, something that they could look up to: leaders within this part of our city that were setting the pace for economic and upward mobility,” Douglas says.
  • The Mecklenburg Investment Company building, for example, where the Brooklyn Collective is now located, housed doctors, dentists, lawyers and other professionals and businesses.

Brooklyn’s destruction cost Black Charlotteans millions in generational wealth, an Axios analysis this year found.

But some of the greatest losses to the residents and entrepreneurs can’t be quantified: community and connection. And there’s still no hub for Black business owners in Charlotte.

  • “Because there’s not a centralized location where people feel like they are safe or feel like they can get resources or feel like their experiences can get understood, I think sometimes people who are Black entrepreneurs are swirling in their own space by themselves,” Harrison Williams, ecosystem-builder-in-residence for the Black Wall Street Forward Project in Charlotte, said on the podcast.

Williams says there’s been a migration of some Black business owners to other cities because it’s harder to do business in Charlotte.

  • “There’s this idea of people feel like they have to jump over so many hurdles, or do XYZ to get scraps here in Charlotte, where you can do that very differently from a business perspective in other cities,” he says.
  • Plus, Black-owned businesses face difficulty finding prime retail spaces in Charlotte.

By the numbers: Just 3.8% of businesses in the Charlotte metro area are Black-owned, despite Black people comprising 23% of the region’s population, Axios reported this year.

Historic Brevard Street businesses. Photo courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library

The big picture: Gentrification is affecting businesses too. Many neighborhood advocates draw a comparison between the urban renewal in the 20th century and the displacement happening today.

Zoom out: Neighbors and advocates have voiced concern that Atrium Health’s transformational medical school campus and innovation district, which overlaps in part with where Brooklyn once stood, could drive up housing prices, displacing residents.

Monte Ritchey, President of The Conformity Corporation, said on the podcast that the goal for the Brooklyn project is to be additive, and not a part of the problem. One solution to the issue of gentrification, he says, is to have more retail spaces that are 1,200 to 1,500 square feet, rather than the 2,500 that a national chain might require.

  • The Winnifred in South End, for example, uses this “micro retail” model.

With the project set to begin soon, BK Partners has pledged that 35% of project work would go to minority, women and small business enterprises, or MWSBEs.

They’ve already started that through the pre-development process, Ritchey says, working with firms like The Banks Law Firm and Ohio-based Moody Nolan (the largest Black-owned architecture firm in the nation), which partnered with Neighboring Concepts, a local Black-0wned architecture firm.

  • Peebles says they’ll prioritize local women- and minority-owned businesses for construction projects. They will likely also host events for businesses to learn more about the opportunities.

BK Partners doesn’t plan to develop all of the buildings in the project itself. Peebles said they will look for minority and women-owned businesses when it comes to the third-party developers (those projects will still be held to MWSBE commitments too, he says).

Phase 1 plans for Mecklenburg County. Photo courtesy Mecklenburg County

What’s next: The first phase includes the property where the shuttered Bob Walton Plaza is located, at the corner of East Brooklyn Village Avenue and South McDowell Street.

  • It will include at least 395 units of multifamily (at least 10% of which must be affordable), 106,800 square feet of retail, 531,600 square feet of office space and 150 hotel rooms.
  • The first building is required to be complete within three years after the companies close on the property, so the county expects it to be finished by early 2026.

The bottom line: Urban renewal has left a lasting fear among business owners that it could happen again, Douglas says. The most important thing with any development in the area is that promises are fulfilled, she says, and that Black-owned businesses are a part of the construction process and retail space.

  • Supporting Black businesses shouldn’t be seen as a form of philanthropy, Williams said, which is often the response in the wake of tragedy.

With new development cropping up, Harrison hopes: “We don’t forget that Black businesses are the thing that is creating culture and creating foundations within communities.”

Abel Jackson’s “Historic Brooklyn” mural at 219 South Brevard St. Photo: Daniele Chemtob/Axios
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