There’s no denying that South End is the most dynamic area in Charlotte right now.
With the potential exception of Uptown, it’s also the fastest-growing. Over the last 10 years alone, South End has transformed from a residential-leaning no man’s land into a transit-accessible commercial juggernaut.
Today’s South End is a millennial playground. You can’t walk 20 feet without running into someone with a handlebar mustache holding a craft beer.
Why? Thousands of new apartments seeded by liberal zoning restrictions for density along the LYNX light rail corridor have been a huge boon for South End.
These 3-5 story residential buildings started popping up around 2007 or 2008, just when the light rail’s Blue Line commenced service. From Uptown to Old Meck Brewery, new commercial developments are now popping up in the district every week, many accessible by public transit or B-Cycle.
While there’s a lot to cheer about South End’s transformation, I want to look ahead at potential challenges that the ‘hood will face in the near- to mid-future.
And no, I don’t mean your favorite burrito place going out of business.
Issue #1: Connectivity and walkability
Obviously, South End is “well connected” because of its light rail, proximity to Uptown, etc. As a pedestrian, though … not so much.
Walkability along the light rail is terrific because of the well-thought out and popular Rail Trail. Outside of that, however, there is a startling lack of sidewalks and a missing walkable grid that will eventually need to be improved through public-private partnerships.
Think of it this way: A major strength of South End is its connectivity to Dilworth. Dilworth has the affluent population that retailers love, but those same residents are unlikely to put their lives at risk to sprint across South Boulevard, Frogger style.
South Boulevard is a major vehicular artery that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, as is South Tryon Street. These roads will inevitably hinder South End’s sprawl and push development away from Uptown.
We’re already seeing this in Scaleybark and Lower South End (LoSo) developments. A lack of planning regarding walkability could be a potential challenge to making South End as dynamic as it could be.
Issue #2: Historical demographics across Tryon
The median income on the eastern side of South Tryon is more than double that of the western side of the street. “West” South End has long been one of the lowest income areas in the city and while the development on South Boulevard is steadily raising its income levels, it’s a slow transformation that will continue over a number of years.
High profile retailers are driven by demographic income studies that take these kinds of numbers very seriously, so the pace of retail growth in South End may not keep up with the pace of residential expansion in the short-term.
Issue #3: South End ain’t SouthPark
To some, South End still feels like the little brother tagging along behind his big bro. South End may be growing fast, but many large-scale retailers wouldn’t dream of suggesting to their board of directors that they should take a risk on South End.
Most people don’t like to take risks because risks are a good way to get fired.
I was with a very experienced and successful retail developer the other day who was debating whether they should or shouldn’t move into South End. I was being very expressive about South End and why I thought he needed to look there. “It’s the future of Charlotte!” I was saying. “It’s where all the young, affluent people want to move and hang out and of course, spend their money.”
He looked me right in the eye and deadpanned, “Adam, my brand needs to decide if we want to be rich or if we want to be cool, because I don’t know if we can be both.”
And I get it: His customers are wealthy and his products expensive. His current customers live in and around SouthPark.
Now I believe his current (and future) customers want to be cool and go where the action is, but that’s not something I can demonstrate to him on a graph or spreadsheet. Until this case study of new urbanism called South End is a little more mature, I’ll have a harder time winning that argument.
South End is a vibrant, dynamic part of Charlotte. If its growth over the past few years is any indication, there’s nothing but good things ahead for this little slice of the city.
I believe it is.