Why the project that ousted Food Truck Friday is good for South End

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Yes, two very popular cultural elements of Charlotte are being displaced. Yes, older, low-rent retail buildings are getting destroyed along with some character that makes Charlotte great.

But the changes announced last week to the Dimensional Place project make it a much better fit for South End and the amount of attention being paid to the area is a breath of fresh air.

When the initial plans for the Food Truck Friday and Common Market lot emerged there was an uproar like I have never seen before. I was vocal in my distaste for the project, but it was for different reasons than most. 

All involved promised they were going to melt into the urban landscape, that they were going to enhance the urbanism of the area they were in. When the reality came to light it seemed this was all lip service. What we were presented with was so anti-urban it belonged in Ballantyne, not South End.

Uninviting plaza space, blank garage walls, hidden retail, tree lawns (small sidewalks) and more all contributed to something that didn’t feel right, that didn’t work. So we got loud. And shockingly those involved heard us and listened.

Cousins Properties and design firm Duda Paine presented new plans that are vastly improved on the original plan. Gone is the retail set back behind this, sure to be underused, plaza and the lack of attention to the “corners.”

DFA-site-plan

Photo via Duda Paine/Cousins

dimensional-lobby-access

Photo via Duda Paine/Cousins

DFA-camden-elevation

Photo via Duda Paine/Cousins

DFA-park-elevation

Photo via Duda Paine/Cousins

DFA-tryon-elevation

Photo via Duda Paine/Cousins

Some questions remained unanswered

Why this lot? Why not save the old buildings? But I don’t think we will ever get an answer we are all satisfied with.

At the end of the day, this is the lot the client, Dimensional Fund Advisors, wanted and paid for. This is a prime-time lot that if not developed now, would be in the future. Pick your poison: This or some new crappy apartment complex with no retail and more Charlotte Beige.

As for not incorporating the old buildings: Well, it’s just not something that was ever in the cards. There are a few reasons why I don’t think it was ever going to happen:

  • The architect doesn’t save facades, just not the style.
  • If they were to just develop the lot itself, instead of the buildings, the new office building would have to be much higher in order to make it economically feasible, which I’m sure people would also have an issue with.
  • To build “over” the old buildings would require destroying them in some way as the structure above would need to be supported which could require having to build supports in the back of those old buildings.

All that said, I am happy that those involved actually listened to us. Does it suck we are losing some old buildings with rent low enough to cultivate businesses? Absolutely, but think about what we are gaining. $100+ million in investment into the city, 300+ fantastic jobs, retail, an “anchor” to the heart of South End and even neighborhood parking.

Let’s take a look at the new plans and what was changed and done right (vs what was done oh-so-wrong to begin with). Tim Hendricks, who is the lead exec from Cousins on this project said “great projects come with great collaboration” and I think these new plans demonstrate that while not all the complaints were heard, most of the biggest ones were.

Camden activity

My biggest issue was that very little attention was paid to the fact that Camden Road is the future of pedestrian activity in South End. Camden from Tryon Street all the way to the Atherton Mill has an incredible amount of potential to be a hub of activity and the original plan did nothing to address that.

In the new plans, the retail is pushed to the street, the sidewalk is wider, the trees are hardscaped (in tree wells, which essentially means the trees are planted “in” the sidewalk, think the 5th Street sidewalk across from Dandelion Market) and there is a plaza/patio space approximately the same size as the Common Market patio now. What this does is activate the street both for pedestrians and commuters. It actually recognizes Camden as the walking street it is and embraces it.

Park & Tryon and Tryon & Camden

3-corners-of-dimensional-building

Photo via Duda Paine/Cousins

Another component that is vastly improved are the corners of Park & Tryon and Tryon & Camden. In the previous plans, the Park & Tryon corner was nothing but area for the garage and the Tryon & Camden corner was nothing but a giant wasteful lobby, but I will get back to that in a minute.

While the giant lobby remains it actually serves a purpose along with the rest of the corner. Designated the “Art Plaza,” this corner will serve as the primary focal point of the project. The plan calls for open public space at the corner to provide space for pedestrians to congregate as well as to showcase art installations. There has been talk of using light-based sculptures to be the focal point of this Plaza and I think they should definitely run with this idea. The plaza is designed to maintain the character and art focus of the area.

Art-Plaza-Tryon-&-Camden

Photo via Duda Paine/Cousins

dimensional-art-plaza

Photo via Duda Paine/Cousins

Back to that lobby, yes it is still big, yes it is still mostly a waste of space but this is for the client, the builder of the project. Safety concerns prevent the lobby from being open after hours. However, it was communicated that the lobby will contain its own art collection that can be viewed “through the looking glass” from outside in the Art Plaza.

The other corner at Tryon & Park will be designated the Wilmore Landing Spot. A quaint corner designed to acknowledge and cater to the residents of the nearby neighborhood of Wilmore, the hope is the retail at this corner will be a market and/or café that will benefit those residents. The Landing Spot also comes with plenty of patio space for these retailers.

Wilmore-Landing-Spot-Tryon-&-Park

Photo via Duda Paine/Cousins

There is a lot of good to this project but I also feel like changes must continue to deliver a truly top notch project that the area deserves. My biggest apprehension to giving the project a full stamp of approval lies in the overall design. The office component still feels a little suburban to me and the retail stretch along Camden gives off a bit of a glorified strip mall vibe.

camden-patio

Photo via Duda Paine/Cousins

retail-slot-concept-dimensional

Photo via Duda Paine/Cousins

What should still be done

I think the Camden retail slots should each have their own identity and the design should draw from the designs of the surrounding area and the buildings this project is destroying. I think then, we can see the old buildings go in peace and look to the future with this project.

Speaking of the retail, Cousins has stated that the retail is for “us” [the community] and is looking to ensure that the tenants aren’t just big boxes like Starbucks, but tenants that actually provide for the community and aren’t chains.

I am a bit skeptical of this, however, as one of Cousins other mixed-use projects — Gateway Village —has chains like Chick-fil-a and … Starbucks. I hope they truly take a different approach here and get some quality tenants. I want a cocktail lounge!

One item I want to point out is that these changes are coming at an expense to the developer and DFA. One change that was made is that the garage was shrunk and two levels were put underground to help with scale of the project as well as masking of the garage.

This is extremely expensive to do and the fact that they did shows, to me at least, that they want to do right. They listened to us, and in doing so made their project more expensive. In an age in Charlotte where so many projects are value engineered, and design is skimped for funding reasons, it’s refreshing to see a cost be increased to make sure the product is a success with the area.

Another bit about the garage is, it will be open to the public after-hours and on weekends. This is a huge benefit to the area as it will provide a bunch of parking to an area that needs it badly. My assumption is that parking will be free because after-hours and weekend parking is free everywhere else in South End, but I was not able to get confirmation on that by the time of writing.

Overall the project is vastly improved, the site plan is night and day better, the building materials being used are beyond top notch (the brick, wood paneling, etc. are all going to look great).

With an 18-month construction schedule, look to see this complete in late 2017 or early 2018. Until shovels are in the ground I would expect the collaboration between us and the developers to continue to ensure this project is the best it can be.

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Jason Thomas
| @jasonthomasclt |
Development expert since 2015.