The challenge that is Charlotte

Key avenue offers great potential but must address rough patch in its center

Charlotte Avenue is the next 12South.

Or is it? Or should it even be?

Many Nashvillians have been touting the street for at least three years, noting its long-term potential for infill construction, its varied and interesting segments, and its capabilities to thrive with improved mass transit.

And, indeed, much positive has happened.

But here is something to consider: Within the approximately 4.5-mile stretch from Capitol Hill on the east to White Bridge Road on the west, Charlotte has landed no more than five new projects since Nashville’s post-2000 urban development movement.

In fact, given both the number of new buildings the city has seen constructed during the past 13 years and the prominence of Charlotte, the dearth of additions is almost stunning.

Ron Brewer, who tracks Nashville development via the local website, says the math is simple. 

“There is an abundant supply of buildings for reuse,” Brewer notes. “Until the supply is completed, new construction won’t start.”

Brewer says the most appealing sites along Charlotte are likely the parcels that accommodate eight car lots and that span the inner-interstate loop on the east to 51st Avenue on the west. The parcels offer relative small buildings that would require minimal demolition costs and are likely 

“The car lots — they are going to be very vulnerable,” Brewer predicts. “If I were looking at, for example, developing a six-story apartment building, the first place would be at 51st and Charlotte (on which a used car lot currently operates and next to an old-school stretch of commercial spaces that are increasing in both visibility and vibrancy). Something like having the car lots leave would go a long way in jumpstarting the street.”

No doubt, the looming groundbreaking of 1City near I-440 and the burgeoning commercial node between 44th and 48th avenues north also should prove hugely helpful in spurring additional development on Charlotte, particularly along a rough-and-tumble stretch of the street that is sandwiched by Midtown’s medical district on the east and Richland Park on the west. But the progress will come with challenges.

Specifically, the 10-block segment of Charlotte from 33rd Avenue on the east to 43rd Avenue on the west is, to put it mildly, brutal.

Few of the approximately 45 commercial buildings along this span — a number that is so anemic that the areas suggests a Detroit-esque vibe — are of architectural significance. And many are deteriorating.

Weed-strewn lots, tacky signage and modest housing stock — located primarily south of the street in Sylvan Heights with the few homes north of the street in even worse shape — pockmark the approximately one-mile stretch. The I-440 overpass, a steep hill between 33rd and 38th, railroad tracks and Interstate 40 running parallel on the north combined to create various inhibitors to quality growth. And, as Brewer notes, there are the used car lots, which lend a parking-lot-like quality and, as such, a pedestrian unfriendly quality to the street.

Henry Menge, managing director and principal broker with XMi Commerical Real Estate, acknowledges the 33rd-43rd segment shortcomings.  

“There are pockets where you have topography issues and socio-economic challenges,” he says. “There are very few traffic lights though that stretch (only three, in fact) and some pockets of blight.”  

Still, Menge feels the future redevelopment of Charlotte in general, and this rough-and-tumble stretch in particular, cannot be dismissed.

“It’s all about economic pressure,” he says. “There are some large tracts of land that could, theoretically, be assembled. If you look at traffic patterns and traffic counts, it’s a [potentially] strong corridor.”

The strength of the corridor is also, perhaps, its weakness. Charlotte spans such a distance as to allow lots of changes — and that’s good. But the street is almost excessively linear, with very few of its side streets (at least those from 33rd on the east to White Bridge Road on the west) offering commercial spaces.

By comparison, other U.S. cities offer impressive urban streets that are extremely linear in their commercial fabric. East Carson Street in Pittsburgh and Bardstown Road in Louisville, for example, stretch for many, many blocks and feature very few commercial spaces on their respective side streets. But those two streets are much more narrow than Charlotte Avenue and are have significant housing/people density on their secondary street. Carson and Bardstown also are defined by eye-catching vintage architecture, which is lacking on Charlotte.

South Boulevard in Charlotte, N.C., might make for a better comparison to Charlotte. But that street and its multi-block stretch of commercial spaces has infilled nicely the past 15 years or so, in large part, due to its proximity to light rail line The Lynx, which runs on nearby Camden Road.

Charlotte will not have such high-impact mass transit (the proposed “bus rapid transit lite,” notwithstanding) to help spur development. And if the “best” segments of the street do fairly well, could that limit the progress made on the worst stretch (the aforementioned span of 33rd to 43rd)?

Wood Caldwell, principal at Nashville-based Southeast Venture, is modestly concerned, at best, about any challenges Charlotte faces.

“We are looking at some things,” says Caldwell, who oversees Southeast Venture’s development efforts with Cam Sorensen. “We think it’s the next 12South.”

Caldwell says a key consideration is that the increasingly popular Sylvan Park and the up-and-coming Sylvan Heights and The Nations residential districts are now more than vibrant enough to support multiple businesses along Charlotte, even if those businesses are to be located in the “rough stretch.”

“Sylvan Park needs something a lot more than the commercial epicenter [at 46th Avenue and Murphy Road],” he says.

Some folks have wondered if the vintage L&L Restaurant Equipment Co. warehouse located at 3814 Charlotte could be adaptively reused as apartments or condos and, thus, serve as an anchor of sorts for the stretch most in need of reinvention.

XMi’s Menge says Charlotte between 33rd and 43rd offers a few tracts four acres and larger that have potential for the type large-scale redevelopments that can be catalysts.

“It’s a chicken or egg situation,” Menge says, “but all it takes is one project to get it going and to start to see a positive change.”