How Charlotte’s South End got so hot
By Page Leggett
Photos by Alex Cason
Chuck Barger used to be the mayor of South End. Not the literal mayor, but lots of residents and frequent visitors to the formerly industrial, now exploding Charlotte neighborhood agree he was the figurehead. Even some staffers at Charlotte Center City Partners, a nonprofit that promotes the area, concur.
Barger, former co-owner of the Common Market, is gregarious, quick-witted and fast-talking. From 2008-16, his sundries/coffee/deli/wine-bar hybrid was the epicenter of one of Charlotte’s fastest-changing neighborhoods. You had to walk down an alleyway — past a naked mannequin — to reach the front door. It felt clandestine, maybe even a little dangerous, at least by the standards of a buttoned-up bank town then rattled by recession. “You got edgy points for coming there,” says Barger, who acted as a happy-go-lucky maitre d’.
Fast forward to 2019: Common Market’s former Camden Avenue location is now the East Coast headquarters of Dimensional Fund Advisors, one of the world’s largest money-management companies with more than $580 billion in assets. The office houses more than 250 employees with annual wages averaging more than $145,000. The curvy nine-story tower signals South End’s emergence as perhaps the hottest office and residential submarket in one of the nation’s most sought-after business cities.
What was mostly a warehouse district 20 years ago is now home to 11,000 residents with an average household income of $65,000, many of whom are young professionals who work as bankers, accountants and systems analysts less than 2 miles north in Charlotte’s central business district. It’s nearly impossible to find an apartment renting for less than $1,200 a month — the average is about $1,600 — or prime office space for less than $34 per square foot.
Barger isn’t impressed by the 280,000-square-foot Dimensional building, designed by Durham’s Duda|Paine Architects and developed by Atlanta-based Cousins Properties Inc. “It doesn’t feel like it belongs,” he says. “It feels like a downtown building that doesn’t really address the street.”
But that viewpoint hasn’t stopped hundreds of millions of dollars from flooding into the neighborhood, reflecting a soaring demand to work and play without a significant car commute. More than 1.6 million square feet of office space and nearly a half-million square feet of retail projects are under construction or planned. The district has six craft breweries and nearly 200 restaurants and shops — including the iconic Price’s Chicken Coop, the cash-and-takeout-only site that opened in 1962.
Fortune 100 giants including Allstate Corp., Ernst & Young and Lowe’s Cos. are leasing big chunks of space, pushing rents at or above those of Charlotte’s downtown. On most nights and weekends, the neighborhood bubbles with energy as one of the city’s most popular spots for drinking, dining, running, biking, dog walking and many other activities.
In 2010, property in the South End district had an assessed value of about $757 million. Five years later, it was about $1.1 billion, a 41% increase. Since then, construction and population have accelerated, and Mecklenburg County has reassessed property values. By next year, total valuation — which includes residents’ cars and other personal property — is expected to reach $2.7 billion, more than tripling in a decade.
‘Couldn’t afford to live there now’
South End’s shifting landscape impresses George Dunlap. The Mecklenburg County Commission chairman sees its remarkable transformation as entirely positive. He grew up in Wilmore, which the neighborhood to the west of the train tracks was called before architect Terry Shook and developer Tony Pressley coined the name South End in 1996. (Wilmore is still used for the adjacent, mostly residential area.) Dunlap’s family bought their simple bungalow in the early 1970s for $26,000. It now has an appraised value of $339,500, which mostly reflects the land cost. Small condos and homes adjacent to the condos now often fetch $400,000 or more, while newer, larger properties sell for $500,000 and up.
“I couldn’t afford to live there now,” Dunlap says. But he’s not complaining. “All the development — the condos and retail — has made it a much more desirable place to live than when I was there.”
He rejects concerns over gentrification, contending that no one is being “forced out.”
“If I lived in a home valued at $70,000 or $80,000 and someone came to me and said, ‘Your house is really worth $300,000,’ I’d say, ‘Give me $300,000.’”
South End’s residential boom started with the 2002 opening of The Arlington, a 23-story condo development that many locals label The Pink Building. By 2010, South End had about 3,000 housing units and 5,000 residents, according to Charlotte Center City Partners. By 2015, there were 4,700 housing units and 8,000 residents. Today, there are an estimated 11,000 South Enders, nearly half between ages 20 to 34.
The city’s official definition of South End covers 592 acres, or about 1 square mile, stretching from Interstate 277 on the north to New Bern Avenue on the south with South Boulevard as the eastern boundary. In 2000, the area had about one resident per half-acre. Now, there are 11 per acre and within five years, it’s expected to be 17.
Millennials crave “places of texture and authenticity,” says Charlotte architect Terry Shook, who is considered one of the neighborhood’s godfathers. They like a neighborhood with “everything an urbanite could want — great restaurants, bars, fitness centers [and] coffee shops,” says David Furman, another architect and developer who helped pioneer the area.
Shook jokes that South End is an overnight success that was 25 years in the making. “What it really was, though, was perhaps the greatest grassroots undertaking in the history of Charlotte.” He’s talking about the hard-fought battle to build a light-rail line from downtown to Charlotte’s southern edge.
The history of the Lynx Blue Line dates to 1891, when a new trolley was the latest in locomotion. Wilmore and nearby Dilworth were Charlotte’s first suburbs, with houses built for workers at local textile mills. A trolley ran between downtown and Dilworth until 1938, when buses and cars made it obsolete. Local transit enthusiasts promoted its return as a novelty in 1996, running four evenings a week from the redeveloped Atherton Mill retail market in South End to downtown. Their hope was to foment a much bigger mass-transit program stretching across Charlotte.
In 2007, after years of debate over its cost and station sites, the Blue Line opened as a 9.6-mile link between the north side of downtown Charlotte and Interstate 485. As a key beneficiary of the light rail, South End became North Carolina’s best example of transit-oriented development, a national trend aimed at creating communities promoting denser live-work-play environments.
About a third of South End residents either took the light rail, walked or cycled to work in 2017, according to the most recent report by Center City Partners. That may seem low, though the popularity of electric scooters and dockless bikes in the last two years has probably boosted the percentage of South Enders who get to work without a car, says Megan Gude, the partnership’s point person for the neighborhood.
Overall ridership of the Blue Line gradually declined before another 9-mile section stretching to UNC Charlotte opened in 2018. In any case, the original Blue Line is widely viewed as a home run with its $463 million investment — albeit more than double original cost estimates — helping spur the neighborhood’s rapid growth. One other key catalyst is the 3.5-mile “Rail Trail” of sidewalks running parallel to South End, providing a car-free zone for walkers, runners and cyclists that gives easy access to breweries, restaurants and a neighboring Publix supermarket. (Rival Harris Teeter later built a store on the east side of South Boulevard.) The trail was envisioned by Furman, Shook, Center City Partners and landscape architect Richard Petersheim of Charlotte-based LandDesign Inc. On the first Sunday of each month, a local market lines part of the trail with vendors selling handmade wares, food and craft beer.
Young and thirsty
More than anything, South End has made Charlotte a much more inviting place to live for young, talented professionals who have options to work in Atlanta, New York or other markets, boosters say. In 2015, Furman designed what he calls the first new office building in South End: 1616 Center on Camden Avenue. Five stories of office space with street-level retail are wrapped around a parking deck. “Nobody wants to see parking garages in a great urban landscape,” he says.
In the early days of the revitalized South End, design firms and ad agencies formed the core of the business community. Today, the district rivals downtown as a preferred site for a corporate headquarters or division office. Office space in the center city averages $34.28 per square foot, virtually the same as sites in the South End and nearby Midtown neighborhoods, which are grouped in surveys by Jones Lang LaSalle Inc., a Chicago-based real estate services company. Other studies say the average rent is even higher.
Mooresville-based Lowe’s plans to invest $153 million in a 23-story South End tower that will house as many as 2,000 tech-oriented employees. The home-improvement retail giant had planned the center for its suburban campus, but CEO Marvin Ellison says retaining and attracting talented software developers will be easier in South End than in Iredell County. The Lowe’s building, expected to open in 2021, is being developed by Charlotte-based Childress Klein Properties Inc. and Florida’s Ram Realty Advisors LLC.
At another marquee development, The RailYard, with twin eight-story buildings and tenants including Allstate and Ernst & Young, began moving hundreds of employees into the building earlier this summer. Nearby, online marketplace LendingTree Inc. is moving its headquarters from south Charlotte to an 11-story South Tryon Street building.
Arts and beer
Like many gentrifying neighborhoods, South End’s changes started with a heavy infusion of art galleries. Some, including hidell brooks gallery and Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art, are still around. C3 Lab, a coworking space that attracts artists and other creatives, regularly hosts gallery shows.
But Ciel Gallery closed in February 2018, and the Charlotte Art League, a nonprofit gallery-studio that had operated in a pie-shaped space on Camden Road for more than 20 years, decamped for Charlotte’s NoDa neighborhood north of downtown. In 2014, Donna Scott, an actress and independent theater producer, joined forces with the league to bring theater to South End. Her plays and improvisational comedy shows helped attract visitors who had never noticed the gallery before.
But Charlotte-based Asana Partners LP bought the block in 2017, prompting the gallery’s move. After a major renovation by Asana, which specializes in revitalizing inner-city neighborhoods, a home-decor company and a health-food restaurant opened in the space previously occupied by the league and a beloved, grungy Phat Burrito restaurant.
The visual arts are still represented, including through SouthEnd ARTS, a nonprofit that stages juried art exhibitions and hosts a social-justice speaker series. Bars and breweries still host live music. But there’s no place anymore to see live theater.
“Artists move in when the rent is affordable,” Scott says. “They light up a place, bring people in. Artists change the character of a neighborhood. And when the rent goes up, they’re often the first to vacate.”
Or maybe it’s really all about the beer. While popular craft-beer pubs are scattered across Charlotte, South End is clearly the centerpiece of the industry. Furman says the movement has energized South End, but not just as a place for friends to congregate. “Craft beer has brought entrepreneurs into the game,” he says. “And they’re successful. They take these old junker buildings and give them new life.”
South End isn’t just a beer bastion. It’s a foodie destination, too. From ramen shops (Futo Buta) to Korean barbecue (Let’s Meat) and oyster bars (The Waterman) to cocktail bars (Zeppelin) to legendary burger joints (Mr. K’s and Zack’s Hamburgers), South End is among the city’s tastiest neighborhoods. Carolina Foods Inc., one of the area’s oldest food businesses, isn’t open to the public, but its freshly baked Duchess-brand honey buns provide the neighborhood’s official scent.
Krispy Kreme Doughnuts Inc. plans to open a store with a walk-up window in South End by Jan. 1. It will adjoin its corporate office, which opened earlier this year after company officials said they could recruit more easily to Charlotte than Winston-Salem, where the iconic chain has been based since its founding in 1937.
Orange barrels aplenty
For the last two decades, South End has been a perpetual construction zone. Entire blocks get razed, and new buildings pop up in their place. If you visit only occasionally, it never looks the same as the last time. (“Where’d that apartment building come from? And why does it look nearly identical to the one next door?”)
One consistent criticism of South End, echoed by Furman, Shook and others, is that too many of the five- to seven-story apartment complexes look alike. Furman blames the pressure to get projects moving quickly to meet investor demands. “It’ll take six months to create development documents, three to four months of permitting, two years to build, and the client will ask, ‘Can you have the design by Friday?’ We’re spending 95% of our time in production and 5% in design.”
One sign of creativity is the 400-square-foot apartments that Furman designed as a residential component of The RailYard project. Most South End units range from 600 square feet to 1,200 square feet. “In an urban world, tenants will trade square footage for a kick-ass location,” he says.
Shook says if he had it to do over again, he’d “push for new code, require better urbanism, offer more affordable housing.” As parts of Charlotte continue to gentrify, he says, “It’s incumbent upon us to be respectful of the people who’ve made these neighborhoods home for a long time. These are issues of the soul as much as they are of code and infrastructure.”
But even Shook understands that change is inevitable and, at times, history must be bulldozed. After his Shook Kelley Inc. operated in South End since 1992, he sold the property to Atlanta-based Portman Holdings LLC late last year, which plans a food hall on the site that abuts the light-rail line. His 30-employee architecture firm moved to another developing inner-city neighborhood near Charlotte’s Johnson C. Smith University.
In a sign that the more things change, the more they stay the same, Common Market returned to South End last fall on West Tremont Avenue. Though it’s a new building with a well-worn look, the market has the same kitschy decor that includes a Christmas Story-style leg lamp and a hand-lettered chalkboard sign pointing the way to “Fancy Ass Beers.” On the landing between the main level and the loft are barrel chairs with duct tape holding some of the vinyl together. “We got them from South End Exchange,” co-owner Graham Worth says. “They said, ‘They need to be recovered.’ We said, ‘Like hell they do.’”
Duct tape is part of the charm. So is Worth’s DIY paint job. To save money, he bought a random assortment of mis-tinted paints from Lowe’s. Patrons like the crazy quilt of a hangout. It’s unpretentious.
The neighborhood gathering place is still proudly open almost around the clock, 365 days a year. The old regulars have returned, says Barger, who is a minority owner. And newbies — there are so, so many — have been introduced to the bodega.
Barger smiles, thinking about his old role as South End’s mayor. “There really isn’t one [now],” he says. “The neighborhood has changed. It is not at all the municipality it was. It’s still pretty cool and groovy, what’s over here. But I don’t feel I know it anymore.”