Columns » Trouble Hunter

Apartment developers are sterilizing Charlotte

In a neighborhood fight, Plaza Midwood shows up

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Public art was the subject of WFAE's Charlotte Talks on Monday. A representative from the Arts and Science Council and two other guests spoke at length about the need for our city and its neighborhoods to tell their stories through art.

It made me wonder what city they thought they lived in. What Charlotte tends to do any time a neighborhood does start telling its story through art is level it to the ground and build sterile condos and apartments where the culture used to be, and price them so high most artists are forced to vacate the area.

NoDa has seen its fair share of this behavior. Many of the galleries that Charlotteans once flocked to "crawl" through on a bi-monthly basis are gone. The neighborhood is now more a nightlife destination than arts enclave, and it seems to welcome these developments. Even as it was announced earlier this year that the beloved Chop Shop would be demolished in favor of a mixed-use development, not one NoDa resident showed up to protest at the rezoning hearing.

Plaza Midwood residents, on the other hand, aren't going down without a fight. They don't share real estate developers' vision for a generic apartment utopia, and they plan to say so loudly at a public hearing on May 18.

"We cannot continue to sit idly by and watch what we have built be torn down, whitewashed and homogenized for the sake of more high-end apartments and more tax revenue," said Jenna Thompson, a neighborhood resident.

Thompson is organizing 100 speakers for the rezoning hearing and circulating a Change.org petition online to save the latest neighborhood cultural landmark in the crosshairs of developers: Tommy's Pub.

Tommy's Pub is a bar/live music venue that has occupied a small building on Central Avenue at Westover Street since the 1970s. It's easy to miss. It doesn't book big national acts like the Chop Shop. Sometimes an indie act on tour will roll through and play for donations, but usually artists from the neighborhood are getting down on its stage.

"It's never needed anything fancy," says musician and regular Wyley Buck Boswell. "Just some dim lighting, racing posters and ice-cold domestics made it the charming dive it's been for so many years."

A charming dive bar seems like nothing more than an amuse-bouche for the insatiable apartment-building beast planning to crap out 97 units plus some retail space after he devours it.

But Plaza Midwood residents should not be underestimated. Remember the backlash the Thirsty Beaver's landowner received when he tried to force the beloved tenant out by erecting fences around the building perimeter? Long story short — the Beaver's still there. The fences are not. And who would've thought a neighborhood boycott could shut down the most iconic restaurant in Charlotte — the Penguin? But it did. If any 'hood of Davids can drive out Goliath, it's this one.

The condo boom died during the recession, but, as the economy recovered, an apartment boom took its place. (Thanks, Obama.) Apartment vacancy was at almost 7 percent in March with 10,000 units under construction and 10,000 more planned. Developers are counting on our metro area's projected growth to fill them. They're also big believers in marketing studies that tell them millennials don't want to buy a house; we'd rather pay obscene prices for a little box in a trendy neighborhood we'll never own a piece of.

The prices are the bigger problem. Art and history, as deep a connection we feel to them, are luxuries. Housing is a necessity. Where are Plaza Midwood's many working-class residents going to live when their rent and property tax prices skyrocket or their current homes are replaced by apartments they can't get approved for?

Median rent for Plaza Midwood in 2011 was $746, according to city-data.com. In 2015, after the opening of several high-end apartment buildings like Metro 808, it's $1,395 (Zillow.com).

"Plaza Midwood was built by the working class when no one else wanted to live here; by people who have established themselves as integral to our very close-knit community with their hard work, perseverance, and vision of what their neighborhood should be. These are many of the same people who, if this pattern of ill-planned gentrification persists, will be pushed out of their homes," Thompson said.

Our area population is expected to surge in the next 15 years and grow to 2.74 million by 2030. It appears all these new people will have an apartment waiting for them, as long as they also have high-paying salaries and no interest in culture or authenticity.

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