Jun 6, 2024 - Business

How Charlotte got a record number of cookie-cutter apartments

Under construction apartments

Under-construction apartments in Charlotte. Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

A record number of new apartments are going up in Charlotte. And if many look copied and pasted, that's because they are.

Why it matters: It's not just Charlotte experiencing the cookie-cutter apartment phenomenon. Big cities across the U.S. are becoming more indistinguishable because of universal building codes and economics.

Driving the news: In the historic Elizabeth neighborhood, Charlotte city leaders deferred (and nearly shot down) Centrum Realty & Development's proposal for a multi-family building last month because of its differing scale. The rezoning case shows how much more time and effort it takes to create something out of the box.

  • The proposed project would have been taller (78 feet) in the front and shorter (45 feet) in the back. It would fit a high density of units while being less disruptive to the single-family homes behind it.

What they're saying: City zoning committee chair Douglas Welton told council that the project's height was a nice trade-off for more housing, plus, "an exceptional building form. If we'd done this by right, you would get a cube."

Follow the money: Many builders, more interested in turning a profit than erecting a unique structure, are "designing by spreadsheets," Space Craft's development manager Sarah Baxendale tells me.

  • That means they first calculate the minimum number of units needed to get financing, then determine the amount of parking required, the size of the garage that makes sense on the site, and so on.

"People think of real estate development as this incredibly profitable business, and it can be," says Damon Hemmerdinger, co-president of Camp North End developer ATCO. "But ... the margins are very thin in multi-family development. All developers get pushed to low-cost materials and simple details."

Let's look closer at why apartments are similar, and how some local developers work around the limitations.

Almost all multi-family housing is built out of wood.

Wood is the cheaper and quicker material to build with, but it must stack, meaning there are limited ways to shape the structure. Steel and concrete offer more freedom for designs, but they're pricier.

Northwood Ravin, a Charlotte-based multi-family developer, is building more with concrete nowadays, including a new project in South End, president and CEO David Ravin tells Axios. They have an in-house contracting company that helps minimize the costs.

  • "South End has so many apartments. We've got to do something different," Ravin says. The company strives to do five new things in each project, which is how it opened some of the first apartments with a cold plunge and electronic locks in Charlotte, he says.
  • Northwood Ravin says it's interested in the longevity of its buildings since it retains its properties. Those who sell, Ravin tells me, are often called "merchant builders."

For merchant builders, there isn't time or money in the budget for creativity.

Many of the new apartments in Charlotte are by large regional or national developers who plan to sell once finished. They want the building up fast and within budget.

"The architect is reduced to ... choosing the facade panels and the colors," says David Walters, UNC Charlotte professor emeritus of architecture and urban design.

Smaller, local developers look for ways to keep costs down and prioritize aesthetics.

  • For example, residents of Camp North End's future apartments will share a parking garage with a nearby office building. Saving money on parking spaces means the developer can spend more on over-framing windows or other aesthetically interesting features.
Camp Noth End's under-construction apartments. Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

The building codes in the United States lead to similar structures.

Over the years, it's become popular to build apartments with concrete bases. Builders can then put up to five wood-frame stories on top. That's why a lot of new housing is of the same scale.

Another example: Single-stair buildings, known as point access block buildings, are illegal in the U.S. Because apartments need two egresses, most stretch to fill a whole block and end up looking like cubes.

Cities have extra building restraints.

On top of federal and state regulations, the City of Charlotte has the Unified Development Ordinance. It's 600-plus pages of rules builders must follow.

Facade modulation, for example, is in the UDO. It's why buildings carve in and protrude at least every 60 feet. The rule is intended to make walls more interesting, but it's also "led to a lot of sameness," Baxendale says.

  • Charlotte developer Space Craft has tried to design the modulations differently, like sculpting the recesses diagonally. Sometimes that means they sacrifice square footage and make up for the loss of profit in other ways, like building less parking.

Location matters.

Developers are building to squeeze a dense number of units onto the site and usually, it's a basic-shaped parcel.

In Camp North End, land is spliced by old buildings and railroad tracks. The incoming apartments, Kinship East and Kinship West, are split into two buildings with open space in the middle.

  • "Dense, urban locations create better design, more people-friendly places than non-urban locations," Hemmerdinger says.

Space Craft prepares its site plans based on its locations. At its Oxbow project, it's positioning bottom-floor retail to draw in users from the Cross Charlotte Trail.

  • "[We're] pushing our architects to think about the site as a blank slate and really thinking about the user experience on the ground floor," Baxendale says.

Developers might invest more in a visible property, like a corner in South End.

  • "It's seen by so many people that it becomes its own sort of billboard," Walter says.

Yes, but: Despite their similar appearances, these apartments are quickly meeting a demand. Rent prices are expected to stabilize, or even temporarily fall, as new apartments open.

  • "It's like Charlotte's a victim of its own success. There's so many people moving to Charlotte and a lot of young people that need rentals," says Marc Manack, associate professor at the UNC Charlotte School of Architecture. "It's driven a lot of this expedient kind of development work."

Flashback: Throughout history, building codes have influenced similar construction. Even the Boulevards of Paris were built to tight regulation in the late 19th century, Walters says.

  • But, architects spent more time adding decoration to the buildings back then. Early in the 20th century, architects for years were taught that decoration was bad and simplicity was good, Walters recalls.

What's next: Construction is slowing dramatically in Charlotte because of high interest rates. The nearly 30,000 units being built now will likely be some of the last construction for a while.

  • Thus, the apartments of the 2020s will be due for repairs around the same time.
  • At that point, property owners will decide whether to rebuild or give the facades facelifts, which was done in the past to create variety in today's praised European cities.
  • "They're beautiful because they've lasted through time," Walters says. "Things have been altered and added on and bits have been demolished and new bits built, but there's not been wholesale demolition, which is what Charlotte prefers. I just hope we don't do that in the future."

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