By Helene Hilger
This month I sat down with Ms. Mary Newsom, Associate Director of Urban and Regional Affairs at UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute, to hear her thoughts on where she saw the East Charlotte’s heading – did she see us on the upswing or in decline? Ms. Newsome has a long history following regional urban and suburban development and has written several times on the fall and rise of the Eastland Mall site.
Not surprisingly, she had no definitive answer for me, explaining that our neighborhoods are too disparate to be changing together. Some areas (Plaza Midwood and NoDa) are struggling with gentrification while others see little sign of new economic development. She noted that changes moving down Central Avenue from Plaza Midwood would continue as homebuyers seek housing affordability close to uptown. But she characterized the more distant suburbs as suffering from the “laisse faire” development of their time (1970’s and 1980’s) – a period when zoning was weak and the home architecture (brick ranches) and commercial buildings (think vacant Pizza Huts) did not have much “character” as they aged. Nevertheless, she predicted that affordable housing prices will spur the popularity of the “far east” sectors within a decade.
As for Eastland, Ms. Newsom expects it to develop incrementally rather than with a single large project. However, she qualified the prediction by saying that change might move quickly if, for example, a developer offered us a unique urban neighborhood plan unlike anything else in Charlotte. She noted the remarkable success of our many small business owners and entrepreneurs and pointed to the many thriving enterprises along Central Avenue that emerged from the sweat equity of immigrant entrepreneurs. Most of those businesses, she explained, were not started with loans but with money gleaned from years of saving – and they are succeeding and expanding. They are the seeds from which more robust growth will occur.
I asked Ms. Newsom how we could spur and support strategic growth and development in more East side neighborhoods. She suggested that it is up to us to build on our assets and play up our “cool factor.” We host many interesting international restaurants, and we can expand our “cool” by luring new entities such as coffee shops, bakeries, art shops and other venues that bring the adventurous to our neighborhoods. She cited E.A.S.T. Charlotte’s annual Taste of the World as a good example of such promotion. Another strategy she mentioned was the use of “tactical urbanism,” where temporary events (e.g. a pop-up plaza and street fair) create festive and novel gathering places. The community-building that results spurs new cohesion and activism that makes a sector more vital and interesting.
Ms. Newsom explained that one of Charlotte’s key neighborhood challenges is finding influential champions. The lack of such champions creates a “power vacuum” that makes it hard to move projects such as the revitalization of Eastland and other East Charlotte sectors forward. In the end, Mary reminded me, “Big projects don’t save neighborhoods. Neighborhoods save neighborhoods. You have to work it out.” In sum, the take-away from our conversation is that it will be up to East siders to organize ourselves through E.A.S.T. Charlotte, the Harris Coalition, and neighborhood organizations that will catalyze the East side changes we hope to see.