Immigrant and arts groups face displacement from cultural center
After Maheder Yohannes and her family left Ethiopia more than a decade ago, the Midwood International and Cultural Center on Central Avenue quickly became a familiar location. They were able to access important legal resources there through International House, one of the center’s primary tenants.
“We actually went to that space and talked to lawyers that were present, and they were able to help us with the whole immigration process, helped us obtain our green card and subsequently helped us through the whole citizenship process,” she said.
Since then, the nonprofit center, formerly Midwood Elementary School, has become a gathering space for the Ethiopian and Eritrean communities.
“My high school graduation was in the auditorium. I've attended numerous graduation parties in that space. So that space is kind of like known as the Ethiopian slash Eritrean graduation party space,” Yohannes said.
Now, the clock is ticking for tenants at the Midwood International and Cultural Center. The nonprofits housed there have a year left before they must hand over the keys of the historic landmark to property developers.
These immigrant and arts organizations are now searching for an elusive alternative — a new space in Charlotte that is both affordable and accessible.
Yohannes worries about how immigrant communities will be affected.
“I hope they relocate to somewhere else, but I just feel like there's no better area for the International House or the MICC to be but that space, just because there's so many international communities that are housed in and around that space,” she said.
Property exchange deal
In October 2021, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools sold the property to a development company, Conformity Corporation. In exchange, CMS property consultant Dennis LaCaria said the district received three office buildings for administrative space and $434,000 in cash.
International House Director Autumn Weil says the sale wasn’t a surprise. But the organization is struggling to find a space that offers the affordability and the ease of access they enjoyed for 12 years in Plaza Midwood.
“There are some grassroots nonprofits in here, including ourselves, that we can't go out and pay market rate like a for-profit business can,” Weil said. “And so we're really, to be honest, struggling to find our next home that will be that international community and welcoming center like we are here.”
Over the years, the old school building has transformed into a nonprofit hub for tenants like International House, the Japanese Association, Charlotte Lit and Action NC. Groups like Tesfa Ethiopia (co-organized by Yohannes), the Alliance Francaise and Black Pride have taken advantage of the auditorium space to hold events.
“We've also, over the last 12 years, become a host of lots of international festivals and activities within our auditorium, and that opportunity will likely not be available in the future, unfortunately,” Weil said.
International House Executive Assistant Mica Gadhia described the current location as a microcosm of Charlotte.
“It's incredible,” Mica said. “We hear eight different languages in our hallways at all times when people come in for our legal services. We have every different nationality and culture walking into our offices. It does feel like the world is right here in International House when you're here on a typical day.”
Lack of affordable options
Since 2018, the tenants had a fixed lease of $35,000 a year — a difficult price to beat for a central Charlotte location appraised at $9.3 million in value.
Paul Reali with Charlotte Lit worries that the cultural significance of the site has been overlooked for profit.
“Ultimately what's happening in this building is it's come down to how to make money on this parcel, [which] is going to be to get rid of the people who are here, knock it down, convert it, do something with it that makes it inaccessible to the orgs that are here,” Reali said.
As the literary arts organization explores rental options, they’re discovering that their situation is not unique.
“What we found is that there is an enormous need for office space, classroom education space, rehearsal space and performance space,” Reali said. “There is somewhere still, you know, a mill building, a property, something that would actually make a terrific permanent arts center for a mix of different kinds of arts orgs. And I think our city should have one.”
Charlotte Lit considered following another displaced tenant, the Light Factory, to the VAPA Center on North Tryon Street. Reali said they discarded that option because the future is also uncertain there.
Light Factory Executive Director Kay Tuttle says the VAPA Center, owned by Mecklenburg County, has been a good fit for the photo arts organization but the fix is temporary.
“We still don't know how long before we're looking for another space that's somewhere close to Charlotte and affordable and all those things that are getting harder and harder and harder to find,” Tuttle said. “We kind of feel like nomads because we have been in so many different locations."
Weil says the real estate hunt for International House has led to sleepless nights.
“International House is hoping to stay on the east side because that is where our population tends to live,” Weil said. “Immigrants, refugees, asylees, non-English speakers, they need to be in close proximity to where they get help because they're not driving yet. It's difficult to navigate public transportation. And so it's important that we stay within the community that they live.”
Limits to landmark status
Weil recognizes that it will be very difficult to replace what they found at Midwood Elementary.
The site opened in the 1930s as the first elementary school to serve the Central Avenue corridor. In November 2016, the City of Charlotte named the former Midwood Elementary a historic landmark.
The designation places restrictions on altering the exterior of the property. But it doesn’t protect the building from demolition, explained Jack Thomson, executive director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.
“While the Historic Landmarks Commission has the ability to review and approve or deny proposed material alterations to a designated landmark, we are limited in our ability to completely decline or reject demolition proposals,” Thomson said.
When demolition applications are made, Thomson said there is a 365-day wait period to allow community feedback and explore alternative options.
“We have not received any application relative to the Midwood Elementary, either for demolition or for any proposed material alterations,” Thomson said. “So as far as we are aware, everything is status quo.”
Conformity Corporation’s Monte Ritchey did not respond to requests for comment.
The remaining tenant at the cultural center will have until September 2023 to find a new space.