When the Republican National Convention convenes in Charlotte, North Carolina next year, more than a few attendees will step on the light rail adjacent to the Convention Center and head to the South End for craft beer, fine dining, wine bar hopping, to stroll shops or to stand in line for freshly churned ice cream.
Yet, only a few years ago Charlotte’s South End was an abandoned mill town dotted with empty factories.
“The area grew up around the railroad, which brought large mills and smaller industrial uses like machine shops,” says Megan Liddle Gude, Director of Historic South End, a department of Charlotte Center City, a non-profit devoted to the development of the city’s urban core.
“By the 1960s, manufacturing left, and the area was in decline. In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, art galleries and design businesses began to occupy some of the old mills.”
Gude points out that the rail line that brought industry to the South End in the first place also spurred the area’s renaissance.
“After obtaining the right of way on either side of the old train tracks, the city established a light rail line in 2007.”
A wide pedestrian-friendly swath with great views of Charlotte’s dramatic skyline, the right of way has become a favorite place to stroll, sit, jog or people-watch. It also houses a number of public art installations. And the once-decaying industrial buildings see new uses as a new young population moves into the area.
Today, the one-square-mile South End is the single fastest growing apartment submarket in the United States.
“In 2000, the area had 500 residents,” Gude says. “Today, there are 11,000 residents and 600 new housing units.”
One of the places where people will live is at the Atherton Mill, a mixed-use development on the site of a former textile mill.
“We have 115,000 square feet of retail, including the historic mill and trolley barn,” says Lyle Darnall, managing director of Edens, who is developing the property. “There will be 345 apartment units and 36 live-work spaces. We also provide space for Charlotte’s farmer’s market.”
Edens’ environmental budget exceeded $1 million. The state of North Carolina helped with the remediation of the property, which included removing oils and chemical contaminants from the soil under the mill building and replacing factory floors that had been soaked with coal tar resin.
“We replaced the floors with the same kind of end-grain wood blocks,” Darnall says. They look just like the original, but there is no off-gassing or smell.”
The Lance Packaging Company, which makes peanut products, was headquartered in a beautiful red brick building in the South End before moving into a more spacious facility. Today, the building houses condominium lofts on the upper floors and, at street level, Lincoln’s Habadashery, where chef Michael Shortino crafts sandwiches named after things like the Thirteenth Amendment.
“It will set you free!” Shortino says. At Futo Buta Ramen, located at the edge of the light rail trail, he serves up steaming bowls of freshly made noodles in a flavorful broth.
The former Nebel’s Knitting Mill, built in 1927, now is called the Design Center and is home to local favorites like Superica, a Tex-Mex restaurant, and Pepperbox Doughnuts. Nearby, C3Lab provides co-working space to artists, designers, entrepeneurs, freelancers and other creative types. Business is booming: the owners are expanding into neighboring buildings.
The energy in this part of the city is palpable. Perhaps some of next years’ conventioneers won’t find their back.