by Michael Lowrey
My latest column for Carolina Journal:
CHARLOTTE — It was a protest that absolutely no one in Charlotte saw coming. A dive bar in a hip neighborhood was to be replaced with an apartment building with more retail space. Such redevelopment plans usually aren’t very controversial in Charlotte — but this one turned out to be. And though the redevelopment project went forward, the protest suggests a new type of millennial issue activism that could have far-reaching impacts in the state’s rapidly growing urban areas.
Charlotte, the state’s largest city, is adding population rapidly — nearly 80,000 people between 2010 and 2014 alone. In response, the city has seen a wave of new apartment construction. Most of the new apartment buildings popping up in the Queen City look very much like condos, featuring high-end finishes like granite countertops, and carrying high monthly rents. They aren’t being sold as condos, though, because the financing for condos dried up after the housing bust. So for now, at least, apartments they shall be.
Unsurprisingly, the city of Charlotte really likes the idea of such infill redevelopment. The city can’t expand out any more, so it must expand up if it wishes to grow its tax base. And that means tearing down old buildings and replacing them with newer, bigger, more expensive structures.
This building spree of high-end apartments is especially noticeable in trendy, eclectic neighborhoods such as Southend, NoDa, and Plaza Midwood, which are located near but not in the city’s central business district. These structures are not occupying vacant lots. Whatever goes up in these areas replaces an existing building that’s being torn down, a building which might contain some elements that have made the area popular.
This very dynamic is upsetting some people who frequent these neighborhoods. A proposal to tear down an old two-story commercial building best known for housing Tommy’s Pub in Plaza Midwood, a venerable dive bar along a main thoroughfare, set off a firestorm of criticism earlier this year.
“You won’t be able to tell it from any other neighborhood in Charlotte,” said resident Caroline Hall to WCNC-TV. “The only reason I come here on a daily basis is because of the uniqueness of the neighborhood.”
Complaining on Facebook about something is easy. Translating that into action is more difficult, and what’s happened and continues to happen in this case. People actually did speak against the proposal before the Charlotte City Council. A workshop held several months after council approved the rezoning on how to preserve locally owned businesses that rent space in old buildings drew more than 50 people and generated considerable press attention.
This is different from the usual rezoning protest in that it involves a commercial, not residential, property and most of the people objecting actually don’t own houses nearby. At the same time, it is reminiscent of more traditional restrictions on growth, involving a group that “got theirs,” found its niche, and wants to block any changes.
At some level, it’s difficult to take Hall and others like her too seriously. Essentially, this amounts to people who hang out in trendy areas asserting that they are entitled to prevent actual property owners from doing things differently. That’s difficult to defend economically or philosophically.
As Bismarck said, though, “politics is the art of the possible.” If millennials continue having difficulty making the transition from renters to homeowners, and can’t really afford to have kids, either, then we could see the rise of a new sort of urban politics, one catering to specific concerns such as this. And in such a world, for better — or likely worse — addressing the strong aversion to change by those who don’t have skin in the game may become a political imperative.