Jun 26, 2023 - Development

How West End can evolve without displacing businesses and residents

Shook Kelley and Neighboring Concepts

The west side of Charlotte is poised for rapid change. It’s home to a renowned HBCU. It has a shiny new transit line. And it’s among the last edges of the center city that isn’t yet flooded by new development.

Some of Charlotte’s reputable designers and architects are envisioning a future in which community members help shape how the area grows, so culture isn’t lost and longtime residents and businesses aren’t priced out. The city’s seen that trend in other close-in neighborhoods, such as NoDa and South End, where new development forced institutions like Phat Burrito and Common Market to close or relocate.

  • The Knight Foundation, a national nonprofit with a Charlotte office, has so far invested around $8 million in the West End, from funding planning efforts to awarding grants to local organizations.

Why it matters: The West End is a longstanding Black community with a rich history. Its recently rebuilt high school was a model for integration. It has landmark sites like The Excelsior Club, once a Black nightclub dating back to 1944. Its neighborhoods were or still are home to notable figures, like J. Charles Jones and Dorothy Counts.

  • But it’s also vulnerable to displacement as property values increase, newcomers look to settle close to Uptown and deep-pocketed developers take interest in the Gold Line corridor.
  • Already hundreds of apartments are going up in or around Seversville, an area feeling some of the strongest development pressure.

[Map: Where property values surged the most in Mecklenburg County]

What’s happening: Neighboring Concepts, long-time planners in the neighborhood since the firm’s incubation at Johnson C. Smith University, has partnered with fellow architects at Shook Kelley, the orchestrators of South End’s transformation.

  • In 2020, along with Historic West End Partners, the firms started imagining future development along the Gold Line. Black-owned businesses would prosper, and residents would reap the benefits of new amenities and public spaces they’ve long desired. They compiled their ideas into a document called Five Points Forward, with $100,000 in support from the Knight Foundation.
  • The vision includes enlivening the intersection of Rozzelles Ferry and Beatties Ford roads with gathering spaces like the Five Points Plaza, public art that reflects the area’s identity and strategic parking designs that encourage people to get out of their cars and walk around.

Meanwhile, community members are buying up property along prominent corridors. A member of the Historic West End Partners board, Erika Troutman hails from College Park, a gentrifying city in Georgia.

  • “This reminds me of home,” Troutman says of the West End. “The only difference is we weren’t able to save our community.”
  • She says that’s what drove her to invest in a building she calls “1202” at 1202 Beatties Ford Road, a space she’s created for Black female entrepreneurs to grow their businesses. The goal is for them to generate enough profit to acquire their own storefronts nearby. Thus, the cycle of community investments will continue.

[Go deeper: 3 west Charlotte properties Black investors bought to stave off gentrification]

What they’re saying: Charles Thomas, a Charlotte-based program director at the Knight Foundation, suggests this type of community-driven investment is what will give residents more influence when outside investors come in.

“The goal is to try to do it for ourselves as much as we can,” Thomas says, “and then when the time comes, as larger developers take interest and want to develop in the corridor: We have a playbook. We have plans … and the community advocates for the development that they want.”

gold line JCSU
The extended Gold Line streetcar, stretching from Johnson C. Smith University to Plaza Midwood, opened in 2021. Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

Context: In 2019, Shook Kelley shifted its focus from South End to West End — two starkly different parts of Charlotte. Many consider South End a revitalization success story, but it has its share of critics since the price points make it exclusive.

  • In the two decades since Shook Kelley branded it as “Historic South End,” and as development surged around the Blue Line light rail, South End has become one of the hottest submarkets in the nation, drawing dozens of corporate tenants and national chains alike.
  • By 2019, the firm took a look around the neighborhood — once abandoned warehouses turned into hi-rises and breweries — and recognized it would continue to flourish without their assistance. They quietly packed up their office and headed west.

Henry Stepp, a designer with Shook Kelley, notes that West End is near Uptown and transit-oriented, like South End. But it has more of a preexisting identity and its own set of challenges. South End was once mainly old industrial buildings and large parcels; West End is more vulnerable to residential displacement because it’s a lot of single-family homes and small lots.

  • “We learned some stuff in South End, some stuff that we did well,” Stepp reflects, “some stuff that we could have done better.”

The Knight Foundation also noted the potential in the West End a few years back. Revitalizing downtowns is one of the nonprofit’s focuses. In this instance, it has honed in on a neighborhood that is facing imminent change, Thomas tells me.

The City of Charlotte is investing millions into improving intersections and creating safer routes for bicyclists and pedestrians around Beatties Ford Road as part of its Corridors of Opportunity program.

  • “It felt like we could ride some momentum,” Thomas says.
West End
Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

Flashback: Unlike “Historic South End,” Historic West End has a rich cultural history. It was once home to Charlotte’s Black upper middle class and well-transversed roads leading consumers toward its thriving businesses. But highway construction in the ’70s and ’80s cut off the area from Uptown and stifled the economy. Since then public investment has lagged.

[Go deeper: Charlotte could redevelop a highway that divided Black neighborhoods into homes, businesses and parks]

  • “West End has always desired investment and amenities and services that any healthy community would have,” says J’Tanya Adams, founder of Historic West End Partners. “Now maybe we are in a better position to actually bring those things to bear.”

Yes, but: How can planners and community leaders uplift the West End — similarly to how Shook Kelley spurred investment in South End — without displacing people?

  • When Axios reported on plans to tear down highway infrastructure and replace it with mixed-use development, readers voiced skepticism.
  • “Soooo, more gentrification?” one user commented on Instagram. “Do they have plans to give those or at least their descendants an opportunity to be the first ones to reap the benefits?” … “They gonna build a Starbucks and salad shop there”

Zoom in: Dianna Ward and her business partners purchased a building at 1800 Rozzelles Ferry Road in 2019. They gutted it and then reopened it with intentionally new, affordable tenants — Rita’s Ice and Jet’s Pizza — who fit in with the demographics of the neighborhood and appeal to college students at JCSU.

  • She believes gentrification will slow as people aren’t going to give up their properties in West End as easily as they may have in the past. Residents are “very aware of what they have” in the West End, with more incoming amenities and improved public transit. 

“I think that the days of stealing people’s property for pennies is a thing of the past,” Ward says. “Folks have gotten a lot more aware of their investments.”

Rozzelles Ferry Road
1800 Rozzelles Ferry Rd. Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

What’s more: Multiple resident-led organizations, with the support of contributors like the Knight Foundation, are working to prevent residential displacement. For The Struggle helps educate and protect west side residents, primarily seniors, from predatory property investors.

  • Historic West End Partners is embarking on a project with UNC Charlotte graduate students to help landowners add accessory dwelling units to their properties to rent out and earn extra income to offset higher property taxes.
  • And the City of Charlotte is finalizing an anti-displacement strategy. By July, a committee is expected to have compiled a list of ways the local government can protect homeowners.

Yes, but: Sometimes change is inevitable, especially for renters if their landlords decide to sell.

The bottom line: The transformation in West End isn’t obvious right now, but it’s coming. And the community wants a say.

  • “West End, in 10 years, hopefully, it will not look like South End,” Stepp says. “Because of … the smaller parcels, the diversity of owners and the genuine desire of the community to keep things authentic.”
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