Monday, May 15, 2006

NoDa: A contrary view

Paul McBroom takes issue with an Observer editorial – the unsigned pieces that run on the Opinion Page – that I wrote last month.

The editorial said the historic North Davidson Street neighborhood known as NoDa (formerly North Charlotte) is at risk from intense, transit-oriented development. It said high-rise buildings, which are in general a welcome transit-oriented form of development, would create irresistible economic pressure through rising land values. Without some protections in place, it said, those rising values would doom the historic commercial area and its older, one- and two-story buildings that now house art galleries and restaurants. The rising values would also doom the surrounding small, historic mill village.

McBroom, who with wife Sharon Pate owns Neighborhood Properties and formerly ran Neighborhood Realty, took me on a quick NoDa tour last week to explain why he thinks high-rise development is the only thing that will save the area. I’m familiar with the neighborhood, having visited it off and on since it was a fading mill neighborhood knows as North Charlotte.

But I hadn’t driven through the residential streets in a few years. It’s booming with home renovations. Houses are being expanded, front and back. Some are losing their old mill-house look; others retain it, but with updates. There’s even an in-ground swimming pool going in next to an old mill house.

McBroom has been involved with NoDa properties for more than 15 years. “I came to NoDa early, but I wasn’t one of the first ones with the vision,” he says. He and Sharon own the Neighborhood Theatre building, a venue they launched in 1997 until leasing its management to others in 2003.

Here’s his view: He thinks high-rise buildings along the to-be-built light rail line – which will run along railroad tracks that cross 36th Street about a block from North Davidson – will help preserve the low-scale downtown area. In his view, high-intensity development at the tracks would provide an outlet for development pressure that otherwise would doom the historic commercial area.

Further, he thinks all the renovations, including the ones erasing the character of the old mill houses, are necessary in order to attract today’s homebuyers. Without those newcomers and their money, he says, the area still risks being perceived as a low-income, high-crime area. Right now it’s hot, but he says, “There are too many things that are fragile.”

He also says, “What’s happening on the other side of 485 is going to hurt NoDa more than anything that’s going to happen here.” He means NoDa’s competition for economic development dollars isn’t uptown, Elizabeth or Dilworth, but Ballantyne and farther out.

“What’s here now isn’t sustainable without drastic new growth,” he says. I hope he’s right, because I have real affection for the neighborhood. Do I think he’s right? Sadly, no. Since the 1970s I’ve watched rising land values in uptown Charlotte set off an economic domino game that swept away almost all the older, personality-filled buildings that many uptown boosters now longingly wish we had.

It would be nice if some reasonable blend of new and old can be crafted, with strategic forethought to protect the flavor of the area, but allowing enough new to provide the economic rebirth McBroom talks about. But I don’t see any of that planning happening, which is why I’m afraid for the neighborhood.

But this is one area where I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I hope the decisions of NoDa's future is in the hand of NoDa residents, and not Observer editorial writers who would like to press the 'pause' button on the world. Things change, and in NoDa, for the better. I only wish I bought one of those houses 10-15 years ago.

Jimmy Mac said...

I have one question to all of you readers of this blog,why all the hate for Mary?
I think she ask the questions that need to be ask about development in Charlotte.
Without people like her to question the motives and intentions of developers and elected leaders,we all would be up a creek.

Anonymous said...

Mary,

Nicely done -- you got down in the trenches and invested the time to understand the other side on a personal level, discussed that side in a manner that didn't require you to sacrifice your own opinion, and skipped the hurtful sarcasm. You even let us inside your soul a little, by sharing that what drives you is not just an anti-development stance or wishing for a solution that is not economically feasible, but sentiment for something that you believe can be saved if only someone would show the leadership required to broker a compromise.

Credit also to McBroom, who rather than writing your column off -- or worse, fleeing at the mere mention of your name given your tendency to beat up on developers -- had the guts to risk subjecting himself to potential ridicule by reaching out and meeting with you.

I don't know whether you read my long-winded response to your previous blog entry, and I certainly wouldn't presume it had an impact. But either way, since I took the time to point out your shortcomings in that instance, then I should also give credit where credit's due when you go in the other direction. Keep bringing us more of these, please!

Now I just hope that the reader response to this type of entry is as significant as for the other. That might be giving your overall readership more credit than it is due, but perhaps the important voices -- the ones with the power to influence change -- will have more of a tendency to listen to your columns and blogs when the discourse is balanced.

Addressing the topic of this particular post, how is it that Charlotte Cotton Mills (where that new Cans restaurant is) survived when so many other structures succumbed to the wrecking ball? Is that the type of solution that you and McBroom are looking for -- a high-rise that blends in with historic structures, allowing if not perfect preservation, at least the salvation of a little slice of Charlotte's character while fostering economic development? If so, how can we encourage NoDa's property owners to work with the Historic Landmarks Commission as occurred in that case? If you feel that Cotton Mills is a success story, then let's celebrate it in print, to try encouraging others through carrots rather than whips. (I know you've done so via your Urbies, but let's keep bringing up such success stories when they're relevant to the topic, since a) not everyone has read all of your columns, and b) it's a lot easier to envision solutions via examples.)

In any case, again, nice work -- let's keep searching for solutions through enlightened dialogue.

P.S. I shared my rant about your negativity last week with a development colleague, and she replied that my response itself was more than a tad negative. I won't go so far as to disclose my name here, but I will admit that in my post, I was venting displeasure at more than just your columns -- I was venting at what I perceive to be the sad state of the media as a whole, which has such a "glass half empty" mentality (because it sells) that publications like the Observer seem to tear down and polarize the community much more than build it up. That is very disheartening. So anyway, for that excess venting part, you have my sincere apology.

Anonymous said...

Jimmy;

You might want to learn the difference between hate and criticism. (Here's a hint: this is not hate either!)

Jimmy Mac said...

If you read the many comments that have posted to this blog I still would call it hate.
Cute post,hint this not hate!

Anonymous said...

Not all 20-story highrises are bad. I wouldn't want to place one in the middle of all the mill houses, but perhaps along the tracks near North Tryon. Surely there's not anything Mary wants to preserve on N. Tryon, is there?

As for old and new co-existing, one only needs to look at Boston. We're not talking turn-of-the-century stuff here, but Revolutionary war, 1700's, etc. Real history! Some of the most daring and modern architecture is right next door to the old Custon House, Long Wharf, Ben Franklin's grave, Boston Common, etc. Both seem to co-exist peacefully and I don't see any of the history being diminished. Surely Charlotte can do the same.

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