West of uptown Charlotte, residents try to preserve community while embracing growth
This week and next, we’re bringing you profiles of six areas in Charlotte for our year-long series “In Focus: Corridors of Opportunity.” These are six historically overlooked corridors the city is working to revitalize with millions of dollars in new public investments.
Today, we’re bringing you to a corridor in west Charlotte between Freedom Drive and Wilkinson Boulevard, where residents and business owners are excited and a little anxious about the city’s promises.
The inside of The Pauline Tea-Bar Apothecary on Wilkinson Boulevard was cozy and warm on a recent Tuesday.
A barista poured hot water over tea as people sat at tables and in armchairs, sipping drinks. Neighbors Mary McKay and Pam Walters carried their mugs to a spot near the front window.
The two women are community organizers in the nearby Westerly Hills neighborhood, and they've noticed the area they call home has started to change quickly.
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Walters pointed out the window to some new apartments going up across the street, and another nearby lot where bulldozers were at work.
"They just started tearing it down, what, a couple weeks ago?" she said.
Walters has lived in Westerly Hills since 1975. She said in previous decades, developers and the city neglected this part of town, in sight of and yet distant feeling from Charlotte's skyline.
"The city never recognized the West Side," she said. "The West Side was always overlooked."
In the past, this slice of west Charlotte between Freedom Drive and Wilkinson Boulevard was more associated with topless bars and prostitution, she said.
McKay heard the stories before moving in four years ago.
"You know, you say you're going to Wilkinson Boulevard, someone would look at you with a slight eye and say, what are you going to Wilkinson Boulevard for?" McKay said.
Much of that went away when police cracked down in the mid-2000s. Now, McKay said the area should be known for its quiet neighborhoods — places like Westerly Hills, Ashley Park and Historic Camp Greene — each filled with diverse residents and an almost even split of renters and homeowners.
"We have Muslim families, we have African American families, we have Asian families, we have Hispanic families," she said.
Residents are drawn to the area by its affordable rents and home prices and its proximity to uptown and the airport.
But as more people have moved here over the past 10 years, the average home price has more than tripled to about $250,000 — enough to draw attention from investors and developers.
The demographics are changing too. In 2010, the area was 65% Black, now it's 58%.
Some parts are changing more quickly, like in Wesley Heights, Seversville and Biddleville just outside of uptown, where the share of Black residents has fallen from 72% to just under 50% in the last decade.
Neighbors excited, cautious about city investment
On a recent Tuesday night, residents of the Historic Camp Greene neighborhood gathered in a church basement to sip coffee and hold their monthly neighborhood meeting.
Stephanie Stenglein led the group as neighborhood president. She said her group has already been working to make the neighborhood more vibrant and closer as a community.
"We have a community garden now, we have a little library, we take advantage of a lot of the city funding opportunities. We have new signs here," she said.
The neighborhood also has a new annual arts festival, founded by longtime resident Cynthia Harrison.
"We had artists, we had bands, we had live performances," she said.
Harrison also successfully lobbied for a small neighborhood park off Wilkinson Boulevard.
"Whenever I think about what I do, it's not for me, it's for future generations to come," Harrison said.
Neighbors say they're excited the city wants to invest more in the area. The biggest change on the horizon could be the new Silver Line light rail down Wilkinson Boulevard to the airport.
It's the kind of multibillion-dollar, city-defining investment that residents are eyeing with a mixture of hope and trepidation.
But the new light rail line is at least a decade or more away. For now, Camp Greene resident Jeet Pawar said he'd like some simple street improvements, such as better sidewalks and bike lanes.
"I walk and bike a lot, and I would really appreciate that infrastructure around here, which I don't see," Pawar said.
Stenglein said she also had a short list.
"We'd love to see some more public art. We'd love to see some more safety on the streets, as far as cars speeding and stop signs and sidewalks and fixing some of the sidewalks," she said.
City to begin drafting investment plan
Back at The Pauline Tea-Bar, owner Sherry Waters said she's all for more investment in the area, but she hopes the money will improve the neighborhood without displacing residents or small businesses like hers.
"My fear is that a cute little space like The Pauline Tea-Bar and us being on the corner here is not going to be here for long, that it will get flattened, and that there will be a developer to come in and build up," she said.
The city hasn't yet finalized a plan for investing in the corridor, but says the money could be used for business grants, affordable housing, safety initiatives or street and neighborhood improvement projects.
The $109 million committed so far will be spread throughout the six corridors, which also include Central Avenue and Albemarle Road; West Boulevard; Beatties Ford Road; Sugar Creek and I-85; and Charlotte's North End.
The city hopes to meet neighbors in the coming months to work out a plan. They'll finalize what they're calling a playbook to guide investments in the area later this year.
It could be one of the largest investments the area has ever seen. Residents hope the city gets it right.
Next, we'll profile the city's three remaining Corridors of Opportunity: Sugar Creek/Interstate 85, West Boulevard and the Beatties Ford Road corridor.