• Hip Charlotte

    Defying predictions, Charlotte Avenue evolves in its own lively, eclectic way

    By J.R. Lind, from Nashville City Paper

    Roads are as easy to stereotype as people.
    West End is tony and academic, wealthy and well-heeled.
    The city’s soul is on Jefferson Street, and Nolensville Pike is where the world has settled down.
    Gallatin Pike is hip in places and tough in others.
    Franklin Pike is alternately funky and forested and fancy.
    Twelfth Avenue is a boomer with birthing pains.
    And Charlotte?

    It’s a mishmash of car lots and light industry, a straight shot from the Capitol, past hospitals and chain restaurants, sliding under interstates and slipping by big-box stores.

    It’s our street of big shoulders, hard-working and wholly utilitarian.

    Of all the spokes on Nashville’s wheel — the old buffalo tracks that became hunting trails and then wagon paths and streetcar lines, all paved over and given numbers and names — Charlotte is one of the most forgettable.

    Its identity is that is has none — not in the way Vanderbilt defines West End or the city’s African-American history defines Jefferson Street.

    Charlotte is a way to get to Bellevue, a path in and out of downtown when Interstate 40 is jammed with traffic.

    If there’s nothing that “makes” Charlotte, that means Charlotte is ripe for the making, and finally, it looks like it’s happening.

    Nearly a year ago, a group of commercial real estate experts sat down with The City Paper‘s sister publication, Nashville Post magazine. The 11 North apartments had just opened at 11th Avenue and Charlotte. Plans were in the works to develop the empty lot across the street — at the time it was the temporary home of the Greyhound bus station; since then its primary purpose has been parking for the cast and crew ofNashville.

    Those development pros mentioned that the confluence of 11 North opening and the whatever-it-will-be across Charlotte would “open up the corridor,” triggering a domino effect.

    Momentum would carry west on Charlotte — typical medical development would carry the growth to the abandoned Department of Highways building at 22nd. The opening of the 28th Avenue Connector, plus the construction of the new public health center and the oneC1TY development would fill in the vacant areas through the Interstate 440 flyover.

    There were pockets of opportunity beyond I-440 — vacant lots, assemblages with dusty plans, sturdy and underutilized industrial space, and yes, used car lots. When the money flowed from downtown, the thought was, it would spur development right up through Richland Park, facing as it does a “town square” of sorts, which, of course, would find new use.

    Suddenly, Charlotte is reimagined from downtown 3.5 miles west to White Bridge Road. From there, the road is pretty well-established — a pocket of Southeast Asian commerce (a stretch that deserves its own story) leads to traditional residential areas and those big boxes at Nashville West.

    In a matter of minutes, a decade’s worth of development was planned.

    It would just take that momentum coming from the core.

    But Charlotte, sweet Charlotte, had no time to wait. Charlotte, as ever, did its own thing. Charlotte, the road designed to drive, is changing without downtown, and the best way to see it is on foot.

    The span of Charlotte from White Bridge Road to 440 slices across the northern portion of Metro Council District 24, and the district’s representative, Jason Holleman, knows it well enough to know that knowledge of the road comes from feet pounding the pavement.

    An early morning run takes him from the new police West Precinct astride Richland Creek all the way to the Metro Courthouse, a full four-and-a-half-miles-plus on the sidewalks of Charlotte.

    It’s an appropriate jumping off point. Charlotte is home to a number of civic structures (including the State Capitol), and within sight of the new police facility are several touchstones of Charlotte’s reputation — a car lot, some national retail and fast food and older strip malls, one of which includes an auto parts store.

    And while the used cellphone dealers and cash advances are still in those strip malls, the adult bookstore is gone.

    And The Great Escape — the used record store that has been many a young Nashvillian’s first toe in the water of cool — moved from its longtime Division Street location to a spot on Charlotte, neighboring a Goodwill, a beauty school and a Chinese buffet.

    If that block proves the stereotype, the next one might be a microcosm.

    Wait for the light to change at Morrow Road. Across Charlotte is an old gas station — all bright colors and curvilinear mid-century architecture — repurposed as a mechanic’s shop. Next door is Bobbie’s Dairy Dip, a west side institution, serving up shakes and burgers to lengthy lines of old-timers, in-movers, families and tattooed youngsters. Behind Bobbie’s is the high-end Miel restaurant, one of the first top-flight restaurants to be pulled from the core and off West End. The old Krystal is now hip burrito joint Nuvo Burrito. And back across Charlotte is the Charlotte-est place in the world.

    Wendell Smith’s block has anchored Charlotte and Morrow since 1952. It’s a one-stop shop — meat-and-three restaurant, liquor store, convenience store, cash advance, pawn shop and jewelry store.

    Still owned by Smith’s family and still bustling, it’s unlike anywhere, and that’s fine with Holleman, who sees the established businesses on Charlotte as an important part of the corridor moving forward.

    The danger with revitalization is avoiding the temptation to revitalize in the same way every other neighborhood revitalized.

    “You don’t always want to compare yourselves to Five Points or 12South,” Holleman said.

    Charlotte is different from those neighborhoods because the road itself is an important thoroughfare; it’s functional. Furthermore, Holleman said, the neighborhoods along Charlotte are still home to longtime westsiders, some of whom own the commercial space on the street. Revitalizing Charlotte is a careful balance between providing the amenities that the new crowd wants and balancing the desires of the longtime residents.

    Chris Veit writes “Charlotte Is Shaping Up!” — a blog focused on growth along the road. He’s noticed that tension.

    “In talking with people who’ve grown up here, they’ve pointed out West Nashville is an older part of Nashville. That’s another hurdle. These people are resistant to change as opposed to other, new people,” he said.

    Holleman’s morning run goes by Headquarters, a small, cool coffee shop in the “town square”-style row of buildings facing Richland Park. Sitting outside, Veit says there are three new businesses that may be the jump-starters to a new life for Charlotte.

    “I feel like places like [Headquarters] and Porter Road Butcher and M.L. Rose are the tipping point,” he said. “The whole regeneration of Charlotte has a lot to do with gentrification. You bring in these amenities that the gentrification crowd adheres to. Those are businesses that draw activity. … Places you can walk to, rather than get into your car.”

    Porter Road Butcher’s new location will be in a renovated Church’s Chicken between 48th and 49th avenues on Charlotte.

    It’s already taking shape — the garish reds and yellows of fast-food chicken have been painted over with a homier beige and the old sign tarped over. The chef-owners of the heretofore East Side-only whole-animal butcher were running out of space, knew they needed to expand and knew that a lot of their clientele were coming from Sylvan Park. In a very real way, they represent the change on Charlotte; they are converting a lowbrow national fast-food joint into a high-end local food purveyor.

    It isn’t a wholesale destruction of what was there before — it’s a reuse.

    It’s happened a lot on the road. An old church became the Darkhorse Theater, for example. Betty’s — another place that carries the west side institution label well — is a former trolley car turned beer bar that kept slinging cheap pitchers to Sylvan Park residents and Centennial Boulevard factory workers even as young noise-music fans packed the place to hear Nashville’s weirdest music and surprise sets from local legends Lambchop as well as Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.

    Farther east, Berry Hill’s popular Melrose Pub opened a second location — rebranded as M.L. Rose — on a former car lot (of course). The decor even winks at Charlotte’s reputation (or maybe, sticks its tongue out at it), with a heavy emphasis on auto decor inside and the rusty hulk of a truck sitting out front. The beer and burger concept has been popular and was welcome, Holleman said, because it provided something that that stretch of Charlotte has lacked — an independent local restaurant, the kind of thing that makes neighborhoods.

    Headquarters followed M.L. Rose, and Porter Road will follow both; if the bar was a bellwether, a lot nearby could be the crown jewel.

    “The church property — and I’m kind of biased — that’s the prominent site along Charlotte. I really feel like that will make it,” Veit said.

    The prospect of a national drugstore filling the 46th Avenue space vacated by Charlotte Avenue Church of Christ was what led him to blogging.

    “That’s why I started my blog: the Rite-Aid. That was a heated issue,” he said.

    If Charlotte has a front door, it’s the intersection with 46th. It comes straight off the interstate. M.L. Rose is to the east, Richland Park and the “town square” spreads out to the west. And the church property — part of the original plan of Sylvan Park, a gift to the Church of Christ — is now empty, primed for development.

    The rejection of the Rite-Aid by a suddenly active neighborhood — “the younger generation wanted to see change; the older crowd didn’t want to see it,” Veit said — led to corridor meetings that defined what Charlotte can be.

    And a lot of those definitions are already what Charlotte is — buildings up to the street, an easy rhythm of transition from large buildings to small niche spaces. Charlotte is an admixture, same as it ever was.

    In May, 4508 Charlotte Pike Partners — which shares an address with Spiva-Hill Investments, a longtime partner of M.L. Rose owner Austin Ray — paid $1.15 million for the 1.2-acre site. At the moment, plans for the space are undisclosed, though most observers suspect a mixed-use project, with retail on the ground floor and some multi-family residential above.

    And once that project is complete, the momentum may carry development the rest of the way east.

    Holleman’s morning run goes by the old fire hall — now privately owned and used by its owner as a place to fix up his vintage cars — and by Alan LeQuire’s gallery, long a fixture because the renowned sculptor needed warehouse space and easy access to industrial materials. And he’s surrounded by light industry, including Madison Mill, a behemoth of a factory that produces baby gates.

    A savvy developer would see the factory space as ideal for an Edgehill Village-style redevelopment. The building is quirky and oddly shaped — and huge. But, like Charlotte Avenue itself, it’s still hard at work (and it has its own railroad spur).

    Next door, though, is the former Hostess distributorship, which will become a small urban retail center, developed by Mt. Juliet’s Commercial Real Estate Services. The bakery will be adapted and expanded. And CRES’s Will Tyner said his company’s investment will prove wise.

    “We believe there is going to be a number of redevelopment opportunities along the Charlotte corridor over the next few years, and that as the affluence and population of the area continues to rise, you will see a demand for much more commercial space. The growth in the Sylvan Park, Sylvan Heights and Nations neighborhoods are already creating demand for more neighborhood restaurants, retail and other commercial uses,” he said.

    One of the biggest landowners in this stretch is H.G. Hill Realty Co. That’s no surprise, as Hill is one of the biggest landowners on dozens of stretches across the city. The company’s property holdings here, though, differ from some others. For starters, it’s not on the “going home side” of Charlotte. The holdings stretch from the railroad tracks, over 40th Avenue and up to 39th — but on the south side of the street. It doesn’t follow the old Hill mantra — that grocery stores should be on the side of the road most accessible for homeward-bound commuters. The Hill company started assembling properties here in 1926 — there was once a grocery; it didn’t survive, perhaps because it was on the wrong side of the road — and finally completed the assemblage in May 2010. “It’s not an urgent situation,” Hill Realty CEO Jimmy Granbery understated in an interview last summer.

    Granbery said there are plans for this stretch — undisclosed plans — and it’s a matter of when and not if those plans will come to fruition.

    Today, though, it’s still car washes and check cashers, steady payers of rent to the Hill empire, vestiges of the once and current Charlotte.

    If the momentum for Charlotte’s redevelopment didn’t come from downtown, urban observers expected it would come from Hill — the company whose Hill Centers have driven development in sites across the city.

    Across the street, Climb Nashville is readying its new gym on a vacant overgrown lot (between two car lots, of course, and across from, of course, an auto parts store). For once, Hill looks like it’s late to the redevelopment party.

    Several blocks east, a framework exists for how the early- to mid-century industrial giants of Charlotte Avenue could be reimagined.

    The gritty, sandstone former home of the state’s Department of Highways (a delightfully antiquated name for what is now called, rather blandly, the Department of Transportation) has sat vacant and broken down for years at 22nd Avenue, but will get new life via a transformation from Holladay Properties.

    The new energy on this span of Charlotte came from the opening of the 28th Avenue Connector — sold as a way to tie West End and Jefferson, but has instead turned new eyes to Charlotte, as evidenced by the planned oneC1TY health care campus project and the planned next phase at the old transportation building.

    “I think the Charlotte corridor is not quite as far along as 12South. The upside of this area is enhanced by better linkage, better mass transit, and the economic impact of the Medical corridor,” said Holladay’s vice president of development, Allen Arender.

    Arender and his partners say they have to tear down the main structure, clad in striking stacked sandstone but now structurally unsound after a decade of neglect. The focus instead will be on the sheds to the west.

    The former storage sheds — with their exposed beams, frosted glass and brick courtyards — will be adapted into a mixed-use, multi-tenant retail and office space, all while maintaining their hardened mid-century look. And Arender said it’s the type of space people are looking for.

    “Space like The Sheds really appeals to creative and technology companies that want an out-of-the-box solution to their space needs. Their employees are younger and want to work in a creative and collaborative environment. The Sheds is designed to appeal to this sector and some retail users who are looking for the same feel. We have found that this type space, well-located and priced appropriately, has wide market appeal,” he said.

    It won’t be the first mixed-use revamping of an existing industrial structure in Nashville — Edgehill Village and Marathon Village are the city’s two most prominent examples — but money flowing to Charlotte for these types of projects is still rare. Commercial real estate developers are equal parts speculative and risk-averse; if Holladay can make it work at 22nd, someone else will take a chance farther west — but Arender said don’t expect a wholesale change.

    “I expect you will see some additional reuse projects (like the Hostess building proposed project), but I also expect some of the industrial users will continue to operate in this corridor,” he said.

    Cars fly by Holleman on his run. Nashville is waking up and going to work — and using Charlotte to do so. The commuters from Bellevue and West Meade and Hillwood speed into downtown, Metro’s Main Street almost imperceptibly sliding downhill from the high ridges on the west side to the river.

    Sunlight flashes off the corrugated metal buildings, engines rumble off the old brick and steel structures. Trash rolls across the old Church of Christ lot — still vacant, still waiting. Hammers begin at the future Porter Road Butcher and customers — some on foot, some on scooters, some on bikes and, yes, some still driving — flit in and out of the narrow Headquarters coffeehouse.

    Families head to Richland Park, trucks pull out of the industrial buildings, and delivery trucks stop at Bobbie’s. The old-timers file into Wendell’s, sitting alongside the young crowd — breakfast is a meal everyone agrees on.

    And the first bank customers pull into the drive-thru at the Regions Bank at 51st. If there’s any guarantee Charlotte won’t become just another 12South or a western shadow of Five Points — that guarantee comes from that bank.

    It’s the one with the gilt geodesic dome, the only one in the city. It’s so perfectly futurist and so delightfully out of place, better suited for a theme park or a miniature golf course than atop a bank.

    Holleman loves it — he’ll jibe anyone who wants to replace it. So does Veit. “It’s one of those things that just makes Charlotte Charlotte,” he said.

    Charlotte is funky and quirky and ripe to be a mix of the old and new. As Holleman points out, unlike neighborhoods that are dead or dying, the older businesses still thrive — Wendell’s is still crowded, the dentist at 43rd still has regular customers, the thrift stores across from Richland Park are still well-trod. That energy is sustained, bolstered by new energy from new businesses coming from Berry Hill and the East Side.

    Charlotte even did most of the work on its latest “dramatic urbanization” its own way. Not content to wait for the money to flow westward out of downtown, the energy is flowing from west to east.

    There are still dozens of used car lots and small mechanics and a store that sells used tires occupying prime real estate at the Morrow Road intersection. Maybe these uses aren’t desirable to the gentrifying crowd — but Charlotte still has to work, and those car lots and cellphone stores do a steady trade.

    Now take a second look at the bank — Regions did a renovation on the branch’s exterior. The walls are stone — the building’s exterior fitting the hard-at-work nature of its surroundings. But that dome remains, almost out of place even on its own building.

    The interesting thing about geodesic domes (gilt or plain) is that they actually get stronger the bigger they grow. They support their own weight.

    If the Charlotte corridor continues its growth, that dome will prove to be the perfect symbol.