The rain hinders the neighborhood's residents from enjoying the outdoor seating this Thursday morning. Inside the small Starbucks, I manage to snag a seat at one of the tall tables and turn to survey the crowd. For mid-morning, when you'd expect most folks to be toiling away at their bank jobs, it's still a good crowd. Most check their email or scour social media while sipping on their lattes.
One man in a business suit might be perusing his stock investments. The intense look on his face, complimented by smart wardrobe choices — a dark blue suit, pink dress shirt and pink and purple striped tie — suggests so, anyway. He's sitting by the window. If he tore his eyes away from his laptop, he could peer outside across 7th Street at the expansive patio of the now-closed Philosopher's Stone. The rain has brightened the greenery of the trees that line the sidewalk.
If an apartment building goes up on the parcel of land that's home to P-Stone, Jackalope Jack's and Rusty Rabbit, that particular treeline, the kind Elizabeth is known for, could vanish. According to an April 2 Charlotte Business Journal article, the real estate development company Faison is looking into putting a "160-unit apartment complex with ground-floor retail space" there.
But no one involved with the possible development is talking. We reached out to Chris Branch, Faison's senior managing director, to see if he'd share some insight. He never responded. L. Watts Hamrick and two fellow managing partners at Pamlico Capital own the 1.5 acres of land being eyed; he did email me back, but said they'd prefer not to comment.
Representatives of the neighborhood didn't have much to say yet either. Jim Belvin, a board member of the Elizabeth Community Association, wrote via email: "We have read about Faison's potential retail and apartment development at Caswell Road and 7th Street, but have not seen any site or building plans. If the project moves forward, we anticipate working closely with Faison and the Planning Department to ensure that project meshes with Elizabeth's best interests."
In the meantime, Shameem Ravelli, owner of Rusty Rabbit, says the news of the development was not actually news.
"We knew when we signed our lease that it was slated for development," Ravelli says. "They said [it would happen in] maybe five years, maybe 10 years." Rusty Rabbit, a local furniture and art store that additionally offers vendors space to sell their works, from jewelry to paintings to home decor, has a three-year lease and is already one year in. (An email to the property manager Ravelli works with, Michael Altieri, was unanswered by press time.) Rusty Rabbit opened in Elizabeth last fall, and before that was located on North Davidson Street.
Even if Faison came forward with a plan next week to build on that lot, Ravelli says she and her husband would just make plans to move the building — a 3,400-square-foot, two-story, lilac-colored house — to another plot of land. They're in the renovation and salvage business and actually know people who move houses.
"It's just logistics to find a lot that's close enough and large enough, that's not a million dollars, that we can move this behemoth to," she says confidently. "No one wants to see this building damaged or lost."
Rob Nixon, owner of Jackalope Jack's, says he and his business partner Andy Wilson also anticipate the development. In fact, they expected it in 2007. That's why they purchased and opened The Peculiar Rabbit, and later the venue that is now The Rabbit Hole, in Plaza Midwood.
"That was kind of our parachute," Nixon says.
About eight or nine months ago, they renewed Jackalope Jack's lease for five more years; Nixon says two-and-a-half years were guaranteed, and either party could cancel at the end of three. "We don't anticipate them doing anything for another 18 months to 24 months."
And if/when developers do decide to do something with that parcel of land and force them out?
Nixon says they'll host a "big-ass party for the customers" to say goodbye to Jackalope Jack's. "As an owner, I totally understand the development," he says, citing how run-down the buildings, including his own, are. "As the owner of the business, I hate to see it go, but it's going to happen. [Jack's] is a good ol' dive bar, but I bet it doesn't have a five-year life-tag on it without major work. The block has to change."
According to Real Data Apartment Market Research, currently there are more than 10,000 units under construction in Charlotte, with another 10,000 in the works. The most popular areas include NoDa — with the Blue Line Extension, that's no surprise — downtown, South End, SouthPark and Elizabeth.
It's hard to imagine a too-shiny, too-new apartment complex at the corner of 7th and Caswell. Up and down 7th Street, old homes have been converted into businesses. But with history and the passage of time come rotting wood, settling floors and other problems, if not dealt with properly.
Nixon says he actually wanted to buy the block, but realized just doing renovations on Jackalope Jack's would cost him $300,000 to $400,000. "It needs to be completely rebuilt on the inside, new plumbing, new electric, new HVAC — it's an old building. I'm sorry; it's an old house that was turned into three or four different businesses, and you know, 25 years ago turned into a restaurant. It was never structurally built to be a restaurant."
Since Philosopher's Stone closed — a note on the restaurant's door reads it had "fallen on hard times" — and the Business Journal article came out, Ravelli and Nixon both say their customers are wondering when they're next.
"To be completely honest, the misinformation that is out there right now about the development and the negative attitude toward it is actually hurting our business," Ravelli says. "We're trying to move tenants in, and their first question is, 'Well, is your front door going to be padlocked?' No. It's silly."
Nixon says a number of people reached out to him, wondering the same thing. "Philosopher's Stone did not get shut down," he says. "They didn't pay rent; that's the truth of it. So the landlord put a lock on the door. But everyone heard the development was coming and assumed we were shutting down as well."
They're definitely not. But it's coming.