Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Low Slung Texas-style TOD overtaking Charlotte's South End

Image by Sean Busher © Neighboring Concepts
A LYNX Light Rail stop in Charlotte's South End

The cover story on last Sunday's edition of the Charlotte Observer profiled the apartment development boom continuing in Charlotte's South End. The interesting point it raises is the relationship between land prices and density. The higher the land value, the higher the density developers have to pack into apartment projects, so market cycles are basically reflected in the density realized by Transit Oriented Development projects.  At least in Charlotte. The Observer's Kerry Singe recounts amusingly how Proffitt Dixon Partners, the developer of the Fountains at New Bern (overlooking the New Bern LYNX station), took advantage of the market swing:

"The firm bought the land at a discount from the lender, cut the number of units and added a lounge where tenants can wait for the train."

Read more here: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2012/12/07/3711178/light-rail-attracting-apartment.html#storylink=cpy

Singe quotes firm partner Wyatt Dixon: “We bought the property at an attractive price; we had a great design for the site, and we weren’t forced to pay so much for land where we had to over-densify.” Of course, the article makes a reference to the premium added to apartment rents by the "convenience" represented in the light rail. Numbers of similar reports on the South End tend to credit the light rail for the entire effort, but it is worthy to recount some of the development history in the corridor to follow up on this topic with a bit more nuance.

In the early 90's this district which had previously borne no name was rebranded the South End, an old textile mill and warehousing district just a ten minute walk from Charlotte’s bank town skyscrapers. (Leticia Huerta's cotton bulb mosaics in the base of the transit shelter columns on the image above commemorate that past.) Light rail service was still two years away, but when I first arrived in Charlotte in 2005 to begin working for an architecture firm involved in the South Corridor project, the newly minted TOD zoning district category was shortly to be recommended for much of the South End.  (Though I myself arrived too late to have a part in it, my firm co-designed the LYNX stations with Sasaki.) A year before I arrived, the Charlotte Trolley restoration effort had reintroduced rail transit to Charlotte by linking the South End to Uptown using an abandoned rail line the City had purchased for the planned light rail.

In anticipation of the light rail, this trolley-served strolling district was in 2005 in the midst of a condominium building boom representing almost half a billion dollars of private investment. That it was primed to do so already says nothing exceptional about the South End. Like many previously neglected old mill districts in central areas of cities, the South End became a hot market for new and adaptive reuse development when design firms began moving in and converting the mill buildings to good uses.

Moreover, the district occupied the transitioning edge between two distinct prewar neighborhoods, Dilworth and Wilmore.  The former had revitalized in the 80’s and was among Center City Charlotte’s most affluent neighborhoods. The latter, Wilmore, was challenged with high poverty rates and, arguably, was just beginning the gentrification process. The South End was thus at that seam of change in cities that prove enormously attractive to developers, not only because of the favorable economic factors driving regeneration, but because much of the property available is in large lots that are easy to purchase and assemble due to accrued obsolescence, property underutilization or vacancies.

But according to Mary Newsom, "South End's development was sparked...by a small-time, volunteer trolley run. So it was the hope of light rail, and a modest little rail ride, rather than mass transit service itself, that was key" (to South End's TOD building boom).

Another new Texan-style TOD apartment complex in South End
For many urbanists, mass transit is merely useful as a symbol. But the action of developers, apparently, bear Mary Newsom out. Consider the story of the Fountains at New Bern mentioned in the Observer article.

The sales information cheat sheet on the City's property records website indicates that the prime corner piece of the property for the Fountains at New Bern had changed hands numerous times between speculators, beginning with the first $2.6 million purchase of the property from a land holding company in October 2006, well over a year before the LYNX inaugural run.  Just a short while later, in the height of the South End's condo building bubble and still a few months away from light rail service, the property commanded a $9.25 million purchase price on August 7, 2007. LYNX service began in November of 2007, but shortly thereafter the bubble burst. The property was therefore dumped for $5 million in April of 2009 just as the LYNX was hitting its peak ridership numbers, which were hovering back then over 19,000 daily boardings (they have since slumped down to 15,000 apparently).  In June of 2011, Wyatt Dixon's LLC bought the land for a cool $1.567 million, which is a whole mil less than the initial price spurred by TOD speculation in 2006! 

Other properties with new development on them indicate a similar pattern of property exchanges.  So, the early hopes for light rail brought rampant speculation for TOD development that neither the symbol nor the reality of transit was able to deliver to Charlotte. The actual rail service itself has little to do with any of this. It is the public will for higher density development that indeed drives the market, and that has a lot to do with other forces intrinsic to market dynamics and the politics of the area itself.

I would thus insert to Mary Newsom's take home lesson this: the City’s participation in the effort is something that did matter greatly. The light rail transit vision compelled the City to purchase the right-of-way, and it was that vision that fanned the flames in plans, in zoning, in capital improvements and in policy changes. These things don't control the outcomes but they really matter. By merely becoming associated with the symbol of transit, the tracks that had recently symbolically divided the well-off neighborhoods on the east side from the somewhat struggling ones on the west side were now speeding the governmental choices promoting the development activity between them.

The Observer article makes the pertinent observation that the South End caters to the young professionals that are somewhat averse to long commutes and mortgage traps and that makes it therefore ideal for higher density apartment development. Judging by the gated, Texan-style apartment products being built, it is these car-based yuppies, more than the light rail service itself, that are the compelling force behind "Transit Oriented Development" in Charlotte.

Seeking more than crap? New commercial development spurred by the South End apartment boom.
Trendy apartments, indeed, are great magnets to attract the Creative Class set and the associated development that population helps spur. I do think the hipsters and the faithful taco trucks that the South End attracts are a huge benefit for the corridor. For one, large numbers of young, affluent people are likely to sustain new commercial activity along South Boulevard (think: light rail bar crawls, Saturday markets and pet breed clubs). Hopefully this brings much better quality, public realm enriching, mixed-use new development to what our former mayor Pat McCrory (now governor-elect) called a "corridor of crap". To that end, I look hopefully to the creativity in the halls of Government Center.