The architecture of South End has been a long discussed and contentious subject for going on two decades. The discussion began with the Camden Grandview (then called Summit Grandview), a hulking edifice that towered over the sparse, low rise expanse of late 1990s Dilworth and South End. It certainly has its charms, and a modest amount of character, but it’s “beigeness” has set the tone for the next two decades.

Since the completion of the Grandview, South End’s building stock has exploded, and it’s been marred by cheap construction, poorly thought out design, awkward elevations and inactive pedestrian environments. After 20 years, have developers and designers learned from any of the mistakes that have been made over all these years?

Of all the inner-city neighborhoods, South End has been impacted the most by urban development. The area, a former industrial area anchored by century old textile mills, has started to transform into a fairly vibrant urban neighborhood. This transformation, however, has happened with little direction or thought for its past, rendering the neighborhood quiet, lifeless and riddled with over-scaled apartment buildings.

In just 13 years the South End area has transformed from what Pat McCrory, in 2004, called “a Corridor of Crap,” to what I not so affectionately call a “Canyon of Mediocrity.”

The good

Camden Gallery Apartments. Source: Axiom Architecture.

There are a couple buildings with their upsides. While none are exceptional, 115 East Park Avenue, Camden Gallery, 1616 Center, The Ashton, and about half of Southborough have features that do an adequate job at least paying homage to the neighborhood’s industrial past and address their surroundings.

115 East Park Avenue, for instance, is a building that has always been ahead of its time. This David Furman designed, brick and stucco building predates the Light Rail by six years, yet it has a nearly unparalleled treatment toward the street. Along the Rail Trail, which did not exist when this building was built, you will find stoops to around nine apartments. Stretching nearly the entire East Park Avenue elevation you will find a early 1900s storefront that was incorporated into the design.

This is the kind of attention to detail that I would have loved to see in the Dimensional Fund Advisors project, instead of tearing down the great buildings that fronted Camden. From top to bottom, this building is a winner.

The bad

District Flats. Source: Greystar.

The vast majority, District Flats, Post Southend, Loft One35, Junction 1504, Silos Southend, Colonial Reserve, and many others, completely ignore aesthetics and street presence, and contribute nothing to the neighborhood as a whole, except rooftops, and Futo Buta.

Silos South End began life in 2008 as an incredibly ambitious project containing office, retail, condos and apartments. After the developer went bankrupt, and the economy went sour, the plan lost the structured parking, the retail, the commercial and the condos. The finished product is an awkwardly designed, bright colored, gated community that falls quite a bit short of the transit village that was envisioned nearly a decade ago.

The ugly

1100 South Blvd. Rail Trail Treatment. Source: Google Street View.

Newer buildings like 1100 South Blvd. look okay from far away, until you get close and observe the interaction with their environment. Just walk around to the rear of the property and observe the ramp to the subterranean lobby, and its Rail Trail facing fire access lane, with its exposed spray insulation, patchy concrete, raw edges and piping. Why does this even exist on a designated pedestrian pathway?

The future outlook

Have we learned from the mistakes of the past? Yes and no.

Most of the progress that’s been made has been due to population gain. The age-old mantra is “retail follows rooftops” after all. New buildings like Solis Southline, Camden Gallery, and 1616 Center, have begun including retail as part of their plan. Thanks to the surging population, developing retail is no longer a risky investment.

Retail, however doesn’t necessarily make a building great. Take Crescent Atherton Mill for example.

Crescent Atherton Mill. Source: Crescent Communities.

I’ve gone from very impressed to woefully uninspired by the Atherton Mill redevelopment. The only thing that pays homage to its namesake mill is the predominately brick construction. Crescent Atherton Mill, because of its historic pedigree, offered one of the last real opportunities for a developer to “get it correct.”

The original Atherton Mill, not to be confused with the Park-Cramer building that is more prominently located on the corner of West Tremont and South Boulevard, was built in 1892. It’s an irreplaceable asset in Charlotte’s scant stock of historical buildings. Highlighted by its brick pilasters, recessed arch windows that soar nearly 20 feet tall, its facades have texture, interest, and tons of character.

When I look at Crescent/Edens’ contribution to the site, I see a flat, featureless brick wall, dotted with undersized windows, and crowned with painted fiber cement board. The building lacks the detail work that I expected when I learned MV+A would be the Architect of Record. For those unfamiliar with their work, MV+A is a company that managed to design a huge Walmart anchored building, and have it aesthetically fit into a district of old industrial buildings, in the heart of DC.

77 H Street in D.C. Source: MV+A.

It seems to be that the architects went into their standard “bag of tricks” and copy pasted everything we’ve ever seen, and just decided we deserved a little more brick, instead of the usual EIFS, corrugated metal and hardiplank.

Crescent Atherton Mill South Blvd Elevation: Source: Public Record

The most devastating feature included in the plan is the six floors of unshielded parking taking up half of the South Boulevard fronting elevation, all the visible southwest elevation, and towering over the 1892 building it should be paying homage to. Context is just important as aesthetics, and this was completely overlooked by the designer.

In 2015, David Furman called out designers in an editorial that ran in the Observer. He said, “Hopefully we can remember that we are not just building institutional assets for clients. We are building a city. And we have the unique opportunity to focus on creating the city in which we all aspire to live. There will always be compromise, but we in the design community must try harder to make a better place.”

While Atherton doesn’t give the neighborhood what it deserves aesthetically, it still offers a truly transformational project to a neighborhood that’s on the verge of greatness. Between Atherton’s retail plans, Asana’s ongoing adaptive reuse projects, DFA’s regional HQ building, and Beacon’s Railyard Project, it’s readily apparent that the neighborhood has almost arrived.

It’s also apparent that a neighborhood on the verge needs some sort of design guidelines. The city’s new Unified Development Ordinance – under development now by staff and consultants – needs to be fast tracked to 2018, not 2019. 

It’s pretty telling that Greenville, SC, a city Charlotte out-populates by 800,000 people, has had a well regarded set of Design Guidelines for Development for 17 years, and Charlotte has none.

In short, we deserve better, Charlotte needs better.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Your next article should focus on what has transpired over the past several years in Plaza-Midwood. Every bit of local charm is being squeezed out by the continuous addition of cookie-cutter apartment/condo buildings being built on Central Ave. Next, you can detail the “destruction” of NoDa, Elizabeth, SouthPark, etc., etc., etc.

    • You are so right about the disgustingly generic, bland apt/condo boom along Central Ave in PM and the boom along the light rail line leading into NoDa. Such a sad sight watching all this mediocrity spread to these corridors.

  2. I completely agree with the desire to see better quality buildings in South End and in general. I have been a practicing architect in Charlotte for 25 years and know that the designer does not call all the shots. For large projects there is always a team including developers and contractors. The designer is often the least powerful person at the table.

    Quality is not just a matter of lines in a drawing it’s also a matter of investment. The poorly proportioned widows mentioned in the article are more likely the result of saving money than the designers desire to draw small windows. Every designer I know likes big windows.

    As citizens of Charlotte we can demand better with our buying power. You don’t need a degree in architecture to recognize when something is cheaply built. When we select a place to live we have the power and we should not rent or buy cheap places. If we are willing to invest a little more money in quality places the message will be heard and we will live in a better city.

  3. The architectural profession has long since ceased control of good design as the driver of urban development. Architects now are a licensed commodity that is a means to an end for developers. And there are far to many architects for whom a fee is much more important than accepting the responsibility of being the stewards of our built environment.

    As a newcomer to the area it is unfortunate that Charlotte had lost its opportunity to brand the city through design. It is Anywhere USA now. And as long as people keep buying/renting the garbage being built and architects are making 3-4% commissions why would it change?

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