Long neglected, Charlotte’s ‘Corridors of Opportunity’ could be the key to a more equitable city
In our series In Focus: Corridors of Opportunity, WFAE will follow initiatives by the city of Charlotte and outside groups to target resources to six areas that have long been neglected. WFAE will examine the decisions, key activities and progress throughout the next year. We’ll also take a closer look at the rich histories of these communities and the people and businesses that contribute to their resilience and vitality.
Many of the neighborhoods surrounding the main thoroughfares into uptown Charlotte had historically been largely overlooked places where residents, many who are low income and belong to communities of color, watched the city’s boom from the sidelines. Now those communities once labeled “fragile” and “threatened” are the centerpiece of Charlotte’s efforts to build a more equitable city without displacing people who have made them their home. The Corridors of Opportunity program, part of the Mayor's Racial Equity Initiative, will invest $109 million in public and private dollars into those neighborhoods over the next five years.
The goals of the program echo some of business owner Ronald McIlwain’s thoughts. From the window of his tax-preparation business, he has a front-row seat to the changes along North Graham Street. Just south of his office is the old factory complex that’s been redeveloped as Camp North End, and across the street is the house his mother bought when he was a teenager.
“There were five houses on this side. [They’re] no longer there,” McIlwain said.
The land around it has been cleared to make way for about 70 townhomes.
McIlwain welcomes the new investments in a part of a town he says the city long neglected. But he’s already had to move his tax business once and is paying higher rent at his new place.
“My hope is that we could develop this corridor, that businesses would come here, that Black businesses would be allowed to be here, that we could live in the new apartments that they’re building and just make it a good neighborhood and a better neighborhood,” he said.
The Corridors of Opportunity
The city’s Corridors of Opportunity initiative includes six areas- North Graham and North Tryon Streets, Albemarle Road and Central Avenue, Sugar Creek Road and I-85, Freedom Drive and Wilkinson Boulevard, West Boulevard, and Beatties Ford Road and Rozzelles Ferry Road.
Its goals include ensuring residents have access to affordable housing, diverse, well-paying jobs and the skills needed to qualify for them, reliable transportation, updated infrastructure, and safe neighborhoods.
Each of these six areas has different strengths and challenges. Some have begun to see a flood of outside investment. That can create opportunities for residents but also displace them and transform demographics, as older, affordable homes are torn down and replaced by larger, more expensive homes.
For example, in 2010, Black residents made up 82% of people living around Beatties Ford Road near uptown. As real estate costs have increased, that percentage has decreased to 63%. The share of white residents increased nearly five-fold during that period, while the share of Latino residents in that area stayed the same.
In others, growth is only nibbling on the edges, but residents worry how much longer they’ll be able to afford to live there.
“We wanted to make sure that we protect the history, the legacy, the tradition of the people who historically lived there, but also begin to provide the type of field necessary to propel growth, making sure that people who lived in those communities can remain there,” said City Council member Malcolm Graham, who chairs the city’s Jobs and Economic Development committee.
The areas also have higher crime rates than the city as a whole, aging infrastructure, high unemployment and poverty rates — some around 27%, more than double the city’s.
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A shift in the way the city targets resources
The city has long invested in those six corridors. But the city’s Economic Development Director Tracy Dodson said that a few years ago the question became: Are we doing it right? That was driven home when she told a colleague about the work her team was doing along Beatties Ford Road.
“She said, ‘It looks the exact same as it did 30 years ago,’ Dodson recalled. “It was gut-wrenching. It was like, ‘Really, that's what the community thinks and that's how they feel?’ And, immediately, it was like, ‘Well, we got to change the way we do things.’”
City Manager Marcus Jones told the heads of economic development, planning, housing, and transportation to figure out a way to get to the root of the problems that held these neighborhoods back. The result was a more collaborative approach.
“Rather than just building a sidewalk, we asked ourselves, ‘Are there businesses or services on that side, along that sidewalk? Is there lighting? [Are] there transit stops?’” Jones recounted at a recent news conference.
They also began more intentional listening to residents and business owners and building on their work, and enlisting outside groups to provide other services.
“We have the community that's at the table, the community that's driving this. We have the city that's working more collaboratively, but then we open up the table to the county, the United Way, the YMCA and everybody else that will be making investments in a corridor,” Jones said.
Much like the diverse neighborhoods included, the Corridors of Opportunity program isn’t monolithic, but a collection of initiatives. It launched in 2020 with a budget that’s now grown to $62 million. A year later, the program was folded into the Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative along with $47 million in private dollars for business grants and loans.
Beatties Ford Road and LaSalle Street — an early focus
Beatties Ford Road, the vein through Charlotte’s historically Black west side, was the city’s first focus. It coincided with developer Chris Dennis’ first purchase of commercial real estate. A friend at Historic West End Partners called to tell him to check out a property at a key intersection
“We stood right at the corner of Beatties Ford and LaSalle, and we looked around. I said, ‘Where's the building?’ And she said, ‘Right behind us.’ And I said, ‘Wait a minute, huh?’” Dennis remembers.
It was a neglected one-story building that looked like it needed to be demolished, but he had a vision for what he came to realize was once McDonald’s Cafeteria, a civic and political hub for the city’s Black community. Along with Chase Bank, he and his partners recruited Black-owned businesses to fill the space — a coffee shop, a bakery and a plus-size bridal store. They bought the property across the street, too.
“I didn't see a community that had been defunded. I saw a community that one day will be vibrant and also a community that would maintain its culture, grasp on to its history, but had great, great bones,” Dennis said.
The city liked that vision and that Dennis had long worked in the corridor and lived nearby. The initial project received a $180,000 grant and a $904,000 low-interest loan from the city. Through the corridors initiative, the city added new accessible ramps, pedestrian signals and crosswalks, launched an affordable housing project expected to have at least 25 units and, with the county, started a “violence interruption” program centered around the intersection.
It taps into the hope people have in this community. Terrence Henderson, who lives a few blocks away from the intersection, hopes this type of work will be empowering for his neighborhood.
“They will see the example of other people who are leaders and who give back to the community and bring businesses like this to the community,” Henderson said. “If they can do it, you can do it as well.”
But he knows the challenges are big.
“Poverty,” he said. “And more poverty.”
Plans for the corridors
Of the six targeted corridors, Beatties Ford Road and West Boulevard have seen the most activity so far. The city is planning development and infrastructure upgrades for other key intersections along Beatties Ford Road.
A strong neighborhood coalition in the West Boulevard area - long identified as one of the city's biggest "food deserts" - has started tackling problems including how to access healthy, affordable food. The area now has an urban farm and produce co-op.
The city has plans in place for two other corridors drawn up with input from residents and business owners. The Albemarle Road and Central Avenue corridor consists of about one-third Latino residents and is home to a large international population with businesses catering to Mexicans, Salvadorans, Lebanese and more. They have plans for a cultural trail and business hub and incubator program. In the Sugar Creek Road and I-85 area, leaders are pushing for ways to stem crime and add affordable housing.
Greg Jackson, director of Heal Charlotte, a nonprofit that works with youth and those who need housing, said the city has listened to them.
“But now it's about implementation, and are we in the room when we're talking about what are the next action steps?” Jackson said. “We've been updated, which is nice, but we need more than that. We need to be in a room when the decisions are being made.”
Over the next year, the city plans to expand its efforts in two more corridors: along North Graham Street and North Tryon Street, which make up the North End, and Freedom Drive and Wilkinson Boulevard.
Next: On Tuesday, we profile the rapidly changing North End.
Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.