How an Historic Neighborhood Destroys Itself
Charlotte's Elizabeth neighborhood is the victim of its own success and modern urban planning.
As an historic neighborhood, Elizabeth is dying. Of course there will be many old houses in the neighborhood for decades to come, some grand, some meticulously preserved. Property values show no sign of going anywhere but up. It will in many respects remain a very pleasant place to live, so there will never be a shortage of people wanting to live there.
But in other important ways, Elizabeth has changed significantly over the last decade, in one relentless direction, and it will continue to change until it reaches its terminal condition: a place valued chiefly for its location, filled with houses known primarily for their market value, ringed with and isolated by blandness, indistinguishable from countless other close-in suburbs that have suffered the same fate.
The signs are plentiful. Let's take a tour of the neighborhood.
Gone or Going.
Central Sun. For thirteen years I watched this house decay, although it had been in continuous use all the way to the end. How it came to be destroyed is a long story, but in the end, nobody with the wherewithal ever really tried to save it.
The worst was watching it go: radiators, windows, doors, trim, most of the timbers as stout and strong as the day they were cut. Virtually none of it was salvaged. In 2016 Charlotte, it is cheaper and more convenient to cart everything off the landfill.
7th and Louise. This house sat vacant for years, trapped in the estate of the last occupant. As a defensive measure by the neighborhood association, this lot on busy 7th street had been re-zoned as low density residential (like mine). The heirs figured that by tearing it down, they would have an easier time getting it re-zoned as a far more valuable commercial lot. They were wrong, and a new residential building will rise in its place.
Notice that these buildings were on the edge of the neighborhood or on its thoroughfares, and most of them had names; they were not only familiar to Elizabeth residents but to all Charlotteans. They will be erased, and the memories of them will follow, and nothing of their kind will replace them. This is a kind of civic Alzheimer's disease.
Then look to its right. This upgrade, like so many others in Elizabeth and nearby Chantilly, will have the sole distinction of subsuming the corpse of a more modest old house, a Bungalow in this case. These new houses will be bigger, which will naturally increase their value. But they will in no sense be old houses.
The Few and The Many.
The walled garden. This new house is for sale, at a price many orders of magnitude higher than virtually every other house in the neighborhood (for now anyway). I only know a house is behind this wall because I saw it under construction. I suppose few in the neighborhood will ever know what it looks like. And how often, do you suppose, will the eventual owners of this house interact with the occupants of the relatively modest homes that surround it?
The relentless 4-story apartment block.
Careful thought was given to ensure that these apartments fit in to the neighborhood, with ‘walkability’ as the goal, and flourishes that harmonize with our architectural heritage. Thus has modern urban planning perfected costumes for buildings. Walkability will be achieved by adding hundreds of new pairs of feet to the neighborhood, with no corresponding increase in places to walk to that would actually eliminate the need for cars. They will become ever more of a headache, both for those who use them and those who have to walk and bike around them. The balconies are nice, but based on every other apartment complex in Charlotte, you will rarely see anyone use them.
What You Won't See As Much.
Trees. Elizabeth has lost a substantial amount of large tree canopy in the last decade. This partly due to timing: the large oaks planted when the neighborhood was developed are now reaching the end of their natural lives, and their maximum potential for hazard and inconvenience. Yet so many of the voids they left behind are still vacant years later, or are occupied by trees of much lesser mature height or by buildings. It is hard to escape the notion that what we are losing will never return again.
Modestly Priced Homes. Like most close-in suburbs near thriving urban centers, Elizabeth's property values and rental rates barely suffered during the housing crisis and have resumed their steady upward climb. It is increasingly difficult for anyone but the affluent to consider living there. This is great for its property owners (like me), but there is at least one serious side effect: the neighborhood still requires the services of non-affluent people (an Elizabeth homeowner mowing a lawn is a rare sight), so they and their cars must commute in and out of the neighborhood. We still have them; we just don't have any real connection to them.
And no, none of the 200 or so new apartments coming to the heart of Elizabeth are designed to serve low income residents.
Why is This Happening?
Things grow, they have their time, and they die. So it is with houses and neighborhoods. So it was that these buildings and this neighborhood, in their turn, wiped out what came before them, whether older buildings or pristine woodland. No doubt an earlier version of me was there to lament the creation of what I now treasure.
Yet, things seem different now. So much of the destruction I witness seems needless, acts more of omission than commission. What is deemed necessary makes way for growth that today is almost always inferior to what it replaces, in terms of its impact on the community and its ability to forge new civic memories.
A Victim of Its Own Success.
The worst damage is being done with the best of intentions, first by the neighborhood association's focus on protecting the residential character of the neighborhood. This is quite understandable, if you are a residential property owner. Living in a leafy suburb close to a thriving urban center is a very desirable thing, and so are the resulting property values.
But apart from protecting those property values, this focus has had several perverse side effects. By concentrating the commercial traffic onto ever more busy thorougfares, residents gain relative peace on the neighborhood streets at the expense of ever more misery on the main streets, which they must continue to use to get to work and essential services.
As the area population grows, the insistence on residential zoning right up to very edges of the neighborhood fosters high residential density along the thoroughfares, displacing the space available for local businesses that serve residents within walking or biking distance. This is where the old houses sit that everyone knows and remembers. They can adapt to business use, or in their shabbier conditions to low-income residents, or even to odd ducks like me who choose to live on a loud, busy street. They cannot adapt to high-density housing.
Ever-increasing property values have other effects inside the neighborhood. They drive the less affluent out, and motivate the sale of modest houses that are far out of kilter with the prevailing cost per square foot. These rarely survive a sale without complete transformation to new houses, if they survive at all. Some of the new stuff is notable, or distinct, or particularly well-crafted; a few retain the genuine charm of old houses. But mostly they are just bigger, newer, and more expensive.
The larger old houses tucked safely inside the edges are in no danger, at least on their exteriors. But their interiors, one by one, are becoming indistinguishable from new houses. Many Elizabeth residents, it seems, love everything about old houses except living in them.
The second major factor in Elizabeth's demise is modern urban planning itself. It is this, more than anything else, that we have to thank for the relentless parade of apartment blocks that dominate Charlotte streets and that have now arrived at the heart of Elizabeth.
If it strikes you that these apartment buildings manage to look remarkably similar, despite strenous efforts to make them distinct, you need only experience the expensive planning documents and studies, meetings and proposed plans that precede them. They too have a remarkable sameness: the same crisp, pleasing architectural drawings, the same theoretical construct of how a neighborhood should look and function, the same ritual dance between developers, government officials and neighbors:
- Developers will propose a project ludicrously dense and tall
- Others will strenuously object
- Neighbors will weigh in, focused primarily on traffic and parking
- Tastemakers will bemoan the monotony that results from cramming as many units as possible into the limited space available
- Eventually, inevitably, the number of units will be reduced
- The height will be lowered
- some parts of the facade will be be pushed in and others pushed out
- Traffic will be sluiced to point B instead of point A
- Green space will be increased slightly (neither visible or available to non-residents)
- The project will be approved
These projects, ostensibly designed to promote a more vibrant, interconnected neighborhood, have essentially the opposite effect. The last thing adjoining neighbors want is any interaction with the new buildings, so they are invariably walled off on their back sides, with all vehicular and pedestrian traffic shunted through the main thoroughfares. They amount to a barrier between the interior of the neighborhood and its public areas.
The stoops and balconies that adorn the fronts of the buildings are largely theoretical; the balconies are too small to be of practical use, and offer nothing much in the way of compelling views. This is why you rarely see people use them, and when they do, their reasons have nothing to do with community interaction. The stoops serve single housing units, not the building itself, and anyway most residents will come and go by a car which is not accessible via the stoop entrance. In other words they are mostly useless, and will serve mainly as large plantholders, a visual sop to designers and passers-by.
So, we existing residents aren't likely to see much of our new neighbors, except for those few who wait for the bus, or frequent the ever smaller proportion of business services within walking distance. No one expects them to stay for very long, much less raise families. We'll mostly catch their silhouettes, and they ours, through the smoked glass of car windows. At least there will be plenty more of those to look at.
This is how an historic neighborhood dies, not from neglect, but from surfeit. Its residential core steadily transforms into an expensive enclave, walled off from its communal centers. The visual expressions of its history increasingly become private pleasures, hidden from the rest of the city behind canyons of apartments.
Those apartments bear the anodyne look that can only be achived by committee, of which the members that have the most to gain and the largest influence have the least connection to the place they are transforming. They are populated by people whose primary consideration is proximity to work and services outside of the neighborhood. They displace the available non-residential space, further eroding the proportion of services to residents who can reach them without a car.
And the old houses and buildings on the edge - the unique face of Elizabeth, the repositories of civic memories, the daily reminders that you are here, instead of somewhere else - continue to fall one by one. Those who would save them lack the means, and those who have the means either do not value them, or choose not to resist the arithmetic that makes their destruction more valuable than their redemption.
Is This a Natural Death?
There is a kind of relentless logic to this process. The major players involved - the neighborhood association, politicians and bureaucrats, even developers - are acting out of basic good will, based on my own experience with them. Even the owners of those old houses that fall to ruin or development or transformation have their complex webs of reasons and motivations, one of which is that it is none of my damned business what they do with their property. I cannot disagree with them.
Even so, I do not believe this is a natural process; to the contrary, there is something profoundly inorganic about it. The new buildings you see have arisen according to a plan, a very expensive plan, years in the making. Do not suppose that this plan is designed to curb large-scale development. It creates the conditions and rationale for such development, and lays out its opportunities and limitations, to which very smart, very well-financed business people can conform, while maximizing their return on investment. Well, conformity is what we have gotten.
Plans like this pay homage to historic character but offer nothing much in the way of preserving it, beyond expressing the hope that what replaces it bears some faint resemblance to what is lost. They obliterate the economics that encourage old buildings to be re-purposed or incentivize their owners to preserve them. In the new regime, only large-scale residential projects maximize return on investment, so that is exactly what we are getting, in the heart of Elizabeth and all over the city.
Elizabeth is a neighborhood of many beautiful old houses, convenient to a thriving urban center. In the face of such overwhelming pressure, it could not possibly survive as anything like it once was. Nor should it. But it could have survived with more of its identity intact, with more of its signature building stock healthy and viable, and with more capacity to serve its residents in a way that enhanced their quality of life and that of the city itself.
How exactly it might do this is the subject for another posting, but at the very least it requires some heightened sense of the value of old houses and buildings and why they matter, as well as a recognition of the forces that are fostering their destruction. That is the reason for this article and the ones that will follow.