On a raw January day, workers swarm around a huge, mostly empty lot on South Tryon Street. They’re getting ready to start building the city’s next office high-rise.
The developers tout the usual amenities — a luxury lobby, on-premises restaurants, top-drawer corporate space. But they brag just as much about proximity to sports venues, the arts complex, a new park and Fortune 500 neighbors like Bank of America.
Oh, and “more than seventy‐five restaurant choices.”
Charlotte’s downtown – which for some reason, they call Uptown – is emblematic of the city’s recipe for success: plan growth and stick to the plan, while focusing resources on the center city to create an inviting, cohesive core.
That recipe helped Charlotte weather the recession and recover faster than metro Atlanta, in the process becoming a legitimate contender for regional heavyweight status.
In a special report Sunday, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution compiled a dozen economic and social welfare indicators, including jobs, wages, GDP, foreclosures, millenial migration and more, and the results show an Atlanta struggling to gain traction.
The AJC also sent reporters to Charlotte and Dallas, two New South regions doing better, to see first-hand what’s working.
Uptown is only part of the story in Charlotte. Not far from the suits, briefcases and high incomes are the funkier, lower-rent sides of town – also part of the plan. For instance, about a mile to the northeast is Plaza Midwood, a neighborhood of apartments, houses and a retail strip where a storefront sign for Reggae Central rests comfortably near another for “Tattoos.”
Luring young people is key to an area’s future, said Bill Rohe, director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at the University of North Carolina. “Charlotte is a place that has gone a long way in that direction.”
Cities mean choices
City-ness means density – the option to live, work and play in the same area – along with choices for entertainment and sports.
“In 1991, there was a conference in Charlotte of city planners,” Rohe said. “The whole time, there was nothing but griping about what a soul-less place it was. It was horrible.”
The reaction would be different now, he said: Uptown and the surrounding area have tens of thousands of office workers, an NFL stadium, a minor league baseball park and an arena that’s home to pro basketball, minor league hockey and concerts by the likes of Taylor Swift, Fleetwood Mac and Barry Manilow.
Sitting in the Smelly Cat Coffeehouse in the NoDa neighborhood about a mile from Uptown, Kayla Dugger said she was convinced to move to Charlotte after attending an event here for start-up companies.
Dugger, 25, co-owns an Internet marketing firm with headquarters in @809, an old warehouse that houses a group of entrepreneurial companies near downtown in Charlotte’s Third Ward.
“I like it here,” she said. “There is so much going on here in such a small space.”
Charlotte’s development follows a framework set out in the 1960s. Metro Atlanta’s, not so much: there was a city plan, but the sundry suburbs were not roped into real planning until the 1990s, said Dan Reuter, manager of the community development division of the Atlanta Regional Commission.
“Our planning really began after our period of growth had kicked in,” he said.
In metro Atlanta, less than 10 percent of residents are in the city. In contrast, Charlotte accounts for roughly one-third of the metro area’s population. Moreover, the action in Charlotte — for business and young professionals — is concentrated in the center city and the neighborhoods that surround it.
Since 2000, Charlotte has seen $6 billion in public and private investment in its core, according to Michael Smith, president and CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners, a non-profit development group. “And in that time, downtown population went from 8,000 to more than 25,000.”
Debra Moore, chief of human resources for Carolinas Healthcare System, the largest employer in metro Charlotte with 32,000 employees, agreed that the city’s surge has been linked to that development.
“I think Charlotte takes great pride in being a viable, walkable, actionable city,” she said.
Another key to city-ness is mass transit. Charlotte has nearly 10-mile long light rail line running north-south through Uptown. A streetcar line is also being built, running east-west through the center of the city.
And in 2017, the city plans to open an extension of the line that will to run 9.3 miles up to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
That will fall short of what the city’s advocates would like: a rail line to the airport. But there is not yet a viable proposal to find the money for that.
“That is one great advantage Atlanta has – the airport and the rail line to the airport,” said Catherine Ross, professor in the Georgia Tech School of City and Regional Planning. “But a focus on redevelopment in Charlotte is tied to (their) success. We are having to catch up, there’s no doubt about that.”
Atlanta has, according to the past five years of data available, added 62,355 households, or 3.3 percent.Charlotte added 52,082 households, but the pace of growth was nearly double.
Jobs draw youth
Why do people – especially young people – come to Charlotte? There are things to do, yes. And there are jobs: In the past five years of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Charlotte added more than 100,000 employed people – again, about twice the pace of growth in metro Atlanta.
Charlotte’s long-running effort to nurture its Uptown-downtown has been crucial, said Ned Curran, chair of the state’s board of transportation and CEO of the Bissell Cos., one of Charlotte’s premier real estate companies.
“The cities that survived the cycle were cities that had strong residential centers in their core.
“There’s no one element,” he said. “It’s an accumulation of elements that make the difference. When you don’t have mountains and you are not even on a river, you’ve got to have something else to make you a place that people want to go to.”
Having a concentration of people and resources downtown provides more punching power economically, said Hugh McColl Jr., former chairman and CEO of Charlotte-based Bank of America. “I’m a great believer in density. You do much better when you mass your investment.”
The result is about four square miles of dense city, where people can live and work and find entertainment without getting into a car.
McColl is commonly considered the driving force behind the city’s emergence. But the template for Charlotte was sketched out in the mid-1960s by architect A.G. Odell, he said. “Everything we did was off the Odell plan. We updated it periodically, but always, we built around the center city. It was 100 percent intentional.”
The future was continually forged by a handful of executives from premier companies, McColl said.
Atlanta once had a similar, small group of men shaping events, but no comparable plan. And as metro Atlanta mushroomed the elites’ ability to steer things waned. “What we have done differently,” McColl said, “is we have stayed the course.”
Lynn Wheeler, a former Charlotte city council member who chaired the economic development and budget committees for a decade, freely acknowledged the group was disciplined and secretive in ways a government cannot pull off.
“It was all done behind closed doors – and I was all right with that. The thrust was to build up downtown. You don’t have a strong city unless you have a strong downtown. You don’t have a strong region unless you have a strong downtown.”
The time for a small, discreet group plotting policy secretly has passed, but so has the need for such a group, Wheeler said. “I think pretty much everything is in place… We’ll continue to grow. We’ll continue to invest.”
Banking bust hurt
Charlotte’s historical dependence on banking meant a history of high-paying, white collar jobs and a steady influx of educated newcomers. But when the financial crisis broke in 2008, Charlotte confronted a potential economic disaster.
Thousands of jobs were cut and unemployment soared. And it got worse.
CitiGroup announced plans to buy Wachovia, one of the city’s two large, landmark banks, posing the likelihood that half of Wachovia’s jobs would go to New York, hollowing out much of uptown’s core. But then Wells Fargo swooped in and bought Wachovia.
“Wells Fargo did not have an east coast presence and they needed Charlotte,” Morgan recalled. “They needed the Wachovia headquarters and workforce.”
So Charlotte had a chance to recover.
Although unemployment rose, cresting at a Depression-like 12.6 percent — higher than metro Atlanta’s ever got — it started falling in mid-2010 and kept sliding. By late last year it was down to 5.4 percent, below both Atlanta’s and the national average.
Draw in young people, let them rent awhile in some hip, walkable neighborhood clode to Uptown. And then they can settle down.
“When I came here 55 years ago, everybody said Charlotte was a great place to raise a family,” said McColl, the former CEO of Bank of America. “You flash forward to today and it is still a great place to raise a family.”
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