Residents, businesses fight to save neighborhood culture in Charlotte development wave

by: DaShawn Brown Updated:

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Brian Wilson remembers what Central Avenue used to be.

As one of the owners of Thirsty Beaver in Plaza Midwood, Wilson spends much of his time looking up to what the neighborhood has become, literally.

"When we first came here, this was the only building here," he said.  "There was a church on the corner, and then it was woods around us."

Surrounding Thirsty Beaver now is the framework for hundreds of new apartments, with construction on the project dwarfing the neighborhood dive bar.

When approached about buying the property that the bar currently resides on, Wilson said their landlord decided it was time to take a stand. 

"He was approached in the wrong way initially about selling the property," Wilson said.  "He was told that he was going to sell the property, which obviously didn't happen."

Instead, Wilson's landlord refused to sell, and builders have had to work around them.

In similar Charlotte neighborhoods, including South End, other small business owners haven't been able to survive the allure, nor the price tag of incoming large scale development.

"I don't think I could compete with the prices of leases that are going on now," Jennifer Justice said.

Justice was among the original owners of Phat Burrito, which closed in February after she said parking issues cost the restaurant more than half its customers.

[PAST COVERAGE: South End’s Phat Burrito closing Saturday after nearly 20 years]

The property owner sold the lot the restaurant previously used on Camden Road, which also housed the local gallery, The Living Room and South End neighborhood deli, Common Market.

"I do hope more people stand up and say, ‘Look, this is important, we need to hold on to this,’" Justice said. "These little brick buildings mean something to us."

David Walters, a retired UNC Charlotte professor and architect, said among his concerns is how recent development projects could homogenize the city's culture.

"There's a basic truism of city planning," he said. "Cities need scruffy old buildings. What developers want to do, perfectly naturally, is to clear things away, get a clean slate so they can do their thing. Having existing stuff that they have to work around makes it more complicated, makes it more expensive, but that makes a better city."

Attorney Colin Brown of K&L Gates represents multiple development companies in the Charlotte area.  Brown said developers are often perceived as "the bad guy," often rooted in a community's resistance to change.

"Change is scary, and we're the agents that are on the front end of that," Brown said.

Brown also said good developers understand the value of a neighborhood's character and seek to engage the community in dialogue to give them a voice in the changes soon to come.

"The conversation is how do we have better development, not how do we have no development," Brown said.

"I'm in favor of development," Walters said. “Anybody with a brain is in favor of development, because cities either develop or they die. Ultimately, it's city value as identity versus developer profit. Both are legitimate, and at the moment, developer profit is winning over city value."