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A periodic series in which we’ll visit neighborhoods going through change, big and small.

Cherry Rezoning Stirs Old Fears, Mistrust

Davie Hinshaw
Charlotte Observer

The Charlotte City Council’s decision to rezone nearly 6 acres near uptown has highlighted along-runningfear among African-American residents that they will be pushed out by gentrification.

The move last month has also rekindled allegations from Cherry residents that developer Stoney Sellars’ company, Stonehunt, took advantage of a nonprofit whose mission was to provide affordable housing for the neighborhood.

Stonehunt bought 7 acres from the Cherry Community Organization in 2005. The property included roughly 100 homes. He’ll replace them with 39 new homes and two duplexes.

A review of Mecklenburg excise tax records shows Stonehunt paid $1.1 million for the Cherry property.

The tax value on the land today: just under $3 {C}{C}{C}{C}{C}{C}{C}million.

The nonprofit’s mission was to provide low-income housing for Cherry residents, but Stonehunt plans to build mostly market-rate single-family housing. Stonehunt will raze some duplexes, many in poor condition.

Sylvia Bittle-Patton, who said she collected 1,000 signatures opposing the rezoning, said she is concerned that higher property values will squeeze out longtime residents.

She supported Stonehunt rezoning requests in 2007 that cleared the way for a 42-unit apartment complex for low-income seniors in Cherry.

But she said Stonehunt broke a promise to accommodate displaced residents. She also said she believes Stonehunt acquired the property at below market value.

“We will not stand by silently and allow them to make false promises to our residents, neighborhood leadership and religious leaders,” said Bittle-Patton said during a public hearing on the rezoning.

Cherry, southeast of uptown, was created in the late 19th century as a working-class neighborhood for African-Americans.

It’s now surrounded by some of the most affluent parts of the city and redevelopment along Kings Drive. About 150 yards from Cherry is the Metropolitan development, where developers have petitioned the city to allow a 25-story hotel to be built.

Sellars, a politically connected developer who has donated to elected officials, including former mayors Anthony Foxx and Patrick Cannon, said he understands residents’ concerns.

“They are worried about gentrification,” Sellars said about neighborhood opposition. “And with the economy growing, that has accelerated.”

But he said rising property values from his new construction will have a positive effect, improving the neighborhood overall.

And Sellars denied that he received a favorable price in 2005 on property he bought from the Cherry Community Organization, which bought the homes with city and federal money in the 1970s.

Controversial sale

Phyllis Lynch was the president of the organization when she sold much of its land to Stonehunt.

Lynch, who was 59 and in poor health at the time of the sale, died in 2007.

Sellars said the county’s most recent tax assessments of just under $3 million are incorrect. He pointed to problems from the county’s 2011 tax revaluation, which led to a new valuation of all properties.

“No way that’s fair,” Sellars said. He said his lender in 2013 appraised the land at $1.8 million.

But with the economy improving, other parts of Cherry are being gentrified, and land is selling for four times what it cost a decade ago. On Waco Street, a handful of small lots – about 1/10 of an acre – sold last fall for $125,000 and $150,000 each.

Virginia Bynum, 86, the current president of the Cherry Community Organization, said she feels Stonehunt broke a promise to the community by not building enough affordable housing.

“They had promised they would build some low-income houses, that people would be able to stay in their places,” she said.

Sellars said he told Cherry residents he would find homes for longtime Cherry residents. He said most were elderly, and he said they found homes in Cherry Gardens, the apartment complex for seniors.

He said there will be people who will be displaced by the recent rezoning, and Sellars said they are renting “month to month.”

April rezoning

April’s rezoning was for 5.71 acres located on the west side of Luther Street.

The previous zoning would have allowed 63 townhouses. In approving the project, City Council members praised what they called a “down-zoning” for the area, meaning a developer would be able to build fewer units than originally allowed.

The zoning committee, an advisory group, voted 5-1 against the rezoning. A main concern of the group was that the new homes would increase housing costs in the neighborhood, which the city has wanted to keep affordable.

City staff recommended in favor of the rezoning. It’s unusual for the city and the committee to differ in their recommendations.

In a write-up for rezoning, city staff wrote that Stonehunt’s “proposed detached dwellings provide porches. In addition, the style and architectural style of the proposed houses strikes a balance between the existing housing styles in the neighborhood.”

Council members didn’t discuss keeping Cherry affordable when considering the rezoning.

They were worried about violating a recent state law that prohibits elected officials from considering affordability when discussing zoning changes, a law meant to make it easier to rezone property in affluent areas for affordable housing.

“State statute says you can’t discriminate against affordable housing,” said City Attorney Bob Hagemann. “We urged them to stay away from affordability.”

Council members approved the rezoning 10-1. Patsy Kinsey, who represents the area, voted no.

Kinsey said she thought the proposed houses were too large for the neighborhood.

In 2008, Stonehunt also made a small land swap with the owners of the Asian Herald newspaper, whose offices are in the King’s Tower on Baxter Street.

After acquiring the Stonehunt property on Cherry Street, the Asian Herald tore down two homes and built a parking lot for its business. That upset Cherry neighbors, and the Chun Group, under pressure, tore up the parking lot and made the land green space.