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CNU 31: Charlotte, NC. Tom Low's Guide to Charlotte Urbanism

Oftentimes a great way to spend time at a CNU conference is not actually at the conference, but rather exploring and analyzing the urbanism of the host city (and also finding the city's many great restaurants). In the case of Charlotte, we had an ace in the hole - long-time urbanist and CNU member Tom Low. Tom is an architect and the director of Civic By Design. He is also a Charlotte resident.

Prior to CNU 31, Tom published a Guide to Charlotte Urbanism. In this guide, Tom thoughtfully describes the many neighborhoods in and around Uptown - with key advice for things to notice, and dining establishments worth visiting. The guide is worth a look if you want a bit more lowdown on the Queen City. We used this guide often as we explored Charlotte - it led us to the historic Fourth Ward, NODA, South End, Dilworth (designed by the Olmsteds), and Myers Park (designed by John Nolen).

The front cover of the Guide to Charlotte with Tom's hand sketch of Brevard Court (discussed in yesterday's blog).

One of Tom Low's suggestions was to notice this historic one-bay firehouse in NODA (aka North Davidson). Constructed in 1935, it has special historical and institutional significance as a structure that originally housed both a fire company and a jail cell. The building type is referred to as a “storefront style” urban fire station designed to blend in with the pre-existing built environment.

As we strolled by, a firefighter was sitting on the second-floor balcony, enjoying the weather and the view. It dawned on us that this kind of firehouse was one of the first live-work buildings. It is also interesting to note that the building's scale - in an era of mega fire stations, this building fits perfectly into the urban fabric at a scale that does not overpower the human being.

It is also an asset to the neighborhood, not only as a protector of life safety but also as a high-quality urban building with sensitive details and simple durable materials.

NODA is clearly a district in transition, like much of Charlotte, development and infill are responding to the influx of new residents - 100 people per day move to Charlotte. NODA is Charlotte's most funky, artsy, quirky neighborhood with a popular main street full of small shops surrounded by original mill houses overlaid with new development. One new project that we strolled by was this large mixed-use development at the corner of Davidson and Jordan Place. It includes apartments, retail, office, and co-working space. The building above helps to anchor the large array of surrounding buildings within the development. The structure is adorned in simple brick with relatively well-executed brick detailing. Its scale, massing, and design are restrained and seem to be a gesture to the many historic industrial buildings in the district. While not perfect in its overall execution (note the vertical elements at the base not quite lining up with the upper floor vertical "structure"), it is better than most of the new infill in the surrounding area.

On the way out of NODA, heading back to Uptown we visited Optimist Hall. Optimist Hall is a $60 million redevelopment of an old mill that includes 83,000 square feet of office space, a 22,000-square-foot food hall, and an additional 32,000 square feet of anchor restaurant and outdoor space. The above photo is of the outdoor courtyard that is used for seating. The courtyard is accessed from multiple doors within the food hall and provides a charming gathering spot for outdoor dining and hanging out. The scale, detail, and permeability of the surrounding building frontages help to define and enclose the space.

Optimist Hall’s historic mill building, once one of the largest producers of gingham textile in the country, dates back to 1892 and features nods to the past in everything from the paint color to original flooring and fire doors. The hall’s signature seafoam green paint matches the building’s original interior color and the original walnut floors show wear and tear from the old spinning machines. Reclaimed windows and new gingham screens create dividers between cozy seating nooks, and some of the tables are made with reclaimed heart pine.

Within NODA we were able to catch glimpses of the Little Sugar Creek Greenway. This non-motorized trail connects many parks and neighborhoods within Charlotte along Little Sugar Creek - it even extends to the border with South Carolina. In this particular section, Trail Oriented Development and infill are starting to come to fruition as old industrial and mill buildings are repurposed along the greenway.

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