When it comes to urban development, Charlotte corporations, developers and architects have been locked in a love affair since 1972. This tempting mistress’ name is “Superblock,” and she has been a thorn in the side of the city’s architecture for nearly five decades. My definition of a Superblock is a little different from the textbook definition, which refers to large blocks of developed land that break away from the traditional city grid.
When I say “Superblock” I’m referring to urban, REIT, corporate campus type developments, with huge parking structures, that take up all or most of an entire city block.
That love affair carries on today on the burgeoning Stonewall Street Corridor, abuzz with new construction. The massive mixed-use complex known as Novel Stonewall Station fits the mold as a great modern example, but first a little info about Charlotte’s first “Superblock.”
Charlotte’s first “Superblock” was Bank of America Plaza. When the tower (NCNB Plaza at the time) was conceived in the early 1970s by local architect Odell Associates, it was seen as a shining example of the modernist/international style. The-40 floor black glass tower’s sharp edges reached up to the heavens, piercing the sky, flexing the might of the corporation that would go on to help create the idea of interstate banking, and thereby take the finance sector by storm.
Where its tower architecture succeeds aesthetically, its base failed the public realm on nearly all angles. Its footprint is massive; of its 1,200 feet of street frontage only a small percentage interacted with pedestrians.
All the uses of the building are completely internalized. The rest of it, marked by completely reflective black glass, and stark cold concrete, looms over pedestrians, robbing them of sunlight, and visual interest, creating a hostile, abandoned aesthetic. From far away it looks great, but when they completed construction they robbed the pedestrian realm of life and aesthetic variety. In the end, the need for parking trumped the desire to create an aesthetically pleasing street on all four sides.
Upon its completion this spring, Novel Stonewall Station will be home to a staggering amount of Mixed-Use Development. Anchored by 459 apartments, uptown’s first Whole Foods, an Even Hotel by IHG and a Home2Suites by Hilton, the building will serve as one of Uptown’s most important projects, catalyzing an entire district that until a few years ago was interstate on-ramps, a small theatre and a seedy nightclub.
This complex is about as large as it gets, covering nearly 5 acres. Stretching from the Light Rail to Caldwell Street, to 277, this project will include nearly 1,000 feet of street frontage. The street fronts are the polar opposite of Bank of America Plaza, however, and are made up mostly by cohesively designed brick storefronts, with ample room for signage and lighting opportunities.
The marquee elevation, Stonewall Street is by far the most attractive. It features a nice mix of materials; brick, “wooden” fiber cement board, and minimal EIFS (foam based synthetic stucco). The windows alternate orientations, and toward Brevard, each apartment features a “bay” that juts a bit out into the street, creating an interesting textural element. The facade on the right half rises 7 floors from the street and is clad in a handsome brick.
The facade is nice, but the building towers over the street, and is crowned with a clunky cornice/paraphet. It would have been nice to have a set back, and a bit more articulation to allow more sunlight to make its way to the street.
In contrast to Bank of America Plaza, where Stonewall Station succeeds close-up, it fails a bit from far away. Facing 277, the elevations are flat and featureless, a redundant pattern of windows and the occasional cut in railed patio. The “greige” apartment facade forms a 435 foot long rectangle running parallel to the 277 on ramp, until disappearing into the omnipresent parking deck. Some sort of articulation to break up the flat expanse would have taken this elevation much further, breaking up an otherwise monotonous grey wall.
The drawback of having a strong mix of uses in Charlotte is the parking requirements. This issue has created all of Charlotte’s “Superblocks.” Thanks to the need to house the vehicles of shoppers, residents and hotel guests, Novel Stonewall Station features a 120-foot-tall parking garage with a 1.4-acre footprint. In places it sticks a full 2-3 stories above the apartments on all sides of the complex.
We will have to wait to see the finished product to judge the parking deck. Crescent has sunk a big chunk of change into masking this unfortunate, but necessary addition. They’ve brought in Marc Fornes, a well-known Brooklyn-based architect known for creating stunning and vibrant architectural sculptures/forms. I’d imagine, by looking at the artist’s work, that the 277-facing elevation could be dramatically changed.
In addition to the large mid-rise section, the project will feature three towers. The tallest will house 25% of the complex’s apartments, and is perched on top of the aforementioned parking deck. It’s glassier than the rest of the project, and its smaller scale gives its design better balance, and sight lines.
The other two towers will house a Home2Suites and an Even Hotel. These buildings sport the same handsome street fronts as the apartment building, but rise from the ground with even less inspired designs. They are only 5-25 feet taller than the parking deck, and will add to the apparent girthiness of the building. I think taller hotel buildings, maybe around 15 floors, would have broken up the block a little more. They do however offer an aesthetic that is different from one another, and the rest of the block, adding a bit of architectural variety. The will also mask a good portion of the massive parking deck.
All things considered, Novel Stonewall Station might be a Superblock by my definition, but it will still be a transformative project, providing exponential progress to the Uptown area, still trying to find its identity as a place for people to live, work and play. It’s now up to Crescent to plug in the last 10% of detailing, and hopefully round the project together into a great finished product.
I think the general public’s thirst for parking is what’s ultimately hampering projects like Stonewall Station. Creating meaningful, architecturally striking projects is nearly impossible when you have to account for the cost, and space required to develop thousands of parking spaces. Its vital that the city takes a hard look at its parking requirements, and decides what the future holds for land development. Charlotte is a city trying desperately to become more pedestrian friendly, and that cannot continue while allowing automobile-centric policy to run rampant.