Commentary

Charlotte has 56 “tear-down” neighborhoods: Here’s a portrait of one

Walking in HunterWood, a Charlotte section of Cotswold.

This is the first part in a two-part series. Read the second story here; or, explore the history of the "HunterWood" neighborhood here

The Walters-brand piano held a commanding spot for decades in Sue and Dale Riley’s den, on Charlotte’s Wonderwood Drive. They bought it for $75, used, for their daughter Megan to learn on when she was 4 or 5 (she’s 47 now). When she was grown and came home on weekends or holidays, the piano, ever in need of tuning, came alive again.

Until recently. One bright afternoon on my daily walk, I found the aging upright kicked to the curb.

That’s because Sue and Dale, both in their early 80s, accepted a developer’s generous offer and sold the property where they’d spent 52 years raising two children and turning their near-acre lot into an enchanting sanctuary of hundreds of native plants (Sue is a master gardener and a longtime Wing Haven volunteer) and arbors built by Dale.

Their garden was so abundant, you couldn’t see their house from the street.

Suddenly, the neighborhood had lost two of its nicest and most devoted neighbors, who moved to Asheville to be close to their children. They’d tried to give away the piano, but no takers turned up. They pleaded with neighbors and friends to come dig up their plants before they got bulldozed.

Within days after they left, the developer moved in heavy equipment and scraped the lot clean ⁠— save for a few trees in the back and front corners. Two  roughly 5,000-square-foot houses sprouted from where there was once one tidy, 2,500-square-foot house in the woods.

The past dozen years, that’s happened a lot in our charming, quirky neighborhood, unofficially but affectionately called HunterWood by longtimers ⁠— and now some new residents ⁠—because it consists largely of Hunter Lane and Wonderwood Drive in Charlotte’s Cotswold community off Randolph Road. When it happened at the lot next to Sue and Dale’s a few years back, he quipped that the new houses made it feel like they’d parked a cruise ship next door.

Officially, we’re a “tear-down” enclave ⁠— one of dozens in Charlotte now defined largely by their potential redevelopment value. In the 2019 Mecklenburg County revaluation, sales of “tear-down” properties were used to determine land values in 56 neighborhoods, including Dilworth South, Wendover Road and Chantilly, according to Mecklenburg Assessor Ken Joyner.

[Read Part 2: Accepting change when you can’t fight it]

As increasing traffic delays morning and evening commutes, young professionals are looking to live closer to uptown or to services such as hospitals (several of HunterWood’s newcomers are doctors). Charlotte is passing new rules that encourage density and developers are creatively finding ways to build denser developments ⁠— like a luxury duplex and detached house on Providence Road by Pike Properties, where each unit sells for $1.25 million. 

“The tear-downs are in every direction, from Cotswold like your neighborhood to Myers Park to out here (near his office off Freedom Drive), west of uptown,” Joyner said. “From an appraisal standpoint, the market value in many of these neighborhoods is what developers are willing to pay for the land. Land is becoming many more times valuable than the house.”

In our once-humble neighborhood, the prices for new, bigger houses have ranged from  $800,000 to $1.8 million. So many nice neighbors, drawn to offers of $400,000 to $425,000 for a half-acre or less, have taken the money and moved out.

The Rileys had talked for years about moving closer to their children. So when the developer offered nearly $800,000 (according to real estate records) for their tear-down lot, they took the deal. There was enough road frontage to split the lot into two. Sue cried daily as they pitched remnants of their life on Wonderwood and packed up for the move to Asheville. 

“We love it here, but a time comes when things have to change,” Dale said before they moved. “Houses wear out and have to be torn down and replaced.

Dale’s right. Change is inevitable and, when done responsibly done, appropriate. In HunterWood, change comes daily amid a constant blaze of air guns spitting nails into studs, shrieking saws and the incessant beeping of an arsenal of construction equipment locked in reverse.

“What bugs me is the lack of concern of developers for existing plants, trees and shrubbery. They just clear things from lot line to lot line,” Dale said. But there are positive changes as well. “There are some really wonderful families that have moved in. We’ve enjoyed watching their kids grow up.”

Three large, new houses occupy what was recently a single, wooded lot at the top of Hunter Lane. Photo: Ely Portillo

An idyllic treescape close to uptown

In his working life, Dale Riley was a salesman for a chemical company, often on the road. Turning onto Wonderwood, his stress vanished. The Rileys bought their property when they moved to Charlotte in 1967, adding on bedrooms as their two children were born. Back then, Randolph Road was two lanes and Sardis Road was the edge of town. They liked the peacefulness and the wildlife. 

I bought my property on Hunter Lane in 1985 for the same reasons that drew the Rileys and others. I’d grown up on nearly three wooded acres in Chapel Hill and my real estate agent, a UNC Chapel Hill grad, knew what I was looking for. She called one day: “I just found a little bit of Chapel Hill six miles from uptown Charlotte.”

I found the neighborhood instantly beckoning, with an assortment of architecture, mostly in the Cotswold mold: Smallish houses, mainly brick or frame ranch-style, on ample lots, and abundant vegetation with a vast overstory of oaks, elms, magnolias, maples and pines. It was clearly an established neighborhood ⁠— nothing cookie-cutter about it. 
 
Like my neighbors, I liked the privacy of big lots and thick treescape. Both Hunter and Wonderwood are dead-ends, so there was little traffic. The small, loaf-shaped house I bought grew vastly after Hurricane Hugo blew five pines onto the back in 1989. We tore off the damage and built a major addition.

I like that my daughter grew up in similar idyllic surroundings as me and hope that it’s contributed to her joy for the outdoors. 

Now this house (where I live with my partner Katy) seems tiny compared to the dozens of million-dollar homes in the neighborhood.

Yet our lot still seems massive next to ones that have been subdivided for two houses built almost to the property lines. I like my longtime nextdoor neighbors, the Archers and Carons, immensely, but I’m still partial to the seclusion even a half-acre lot offers.

The Archers, Bill and Ellen, had outgrown their previous house near Freedom Park when, 26 year ago, they built their house behind mine on 1.8 acres. Both had grown up within a couple miles of where they live now.

Touring a house for sale in adjacent Randolph Park, they looked through a rear upstairs window and saw nothing but trees. “Look at all those woods over there (pointing to his future property),” Bill recalls saying. “Someone could build a lot of houses or apartments on that land.”

They marked that house off their list.

A few Sundays later, Bill rode his bicycle to visit his father on nearby Livingston Drive. Returning home, he took a spin down Hunter Lane. At the spot where he and Ellen had seen the forest of trees, Bill found a distressed, small, wooden house and a “For Sale” sign.

He knew Hunter Lane. As a boy, he swam in a pool behind a Hunter house. He called the number on the sign and was told he was too late: a builder had already bought the property. Six months after that, Bill was on his bike again and decided to get a look at what the builder had put on the property. He found no houses, but another “For Sale” sign with a different realtor. He called and was told the builder had backed out. 

In Nov. 1993, the Archers moved into their two-story brick, Bill-designed house with their young daughters.

They immediately declared war on the English ivy and poison ivy that spiraled up trees. They planted a variety of camellias (Ellen’s father, Tom Hatley, was a camellia expert), azaleas and dozens of other kinds of plants and flowers, and a vegetable garden in the floodplain along a slow creek.

They revelled in their peace and beauty.

“It’s idyllic, if you discount the neighbor over here (pointing in the direction of my house),” Bill said. He didn’t crack a smile. “To be this close to downtown and to be in this setting was just incredible.”

Change quietly on the way

The first hint of change arrived about 12 years ago, on a corner lot across Hunter from my house. As whispers of the approaching Great Recession began, a builder bought two lots at Hunter and Wonderwood and built three humongous but pretty English-style “cottages.”  Each are 5,000 square feet or larger, built close together on three long and narrow lots where a pair of small wooden houses had sat since the 1950s on two sizeable lots.

The new houses drew a different kind of neighbor, though HunterWood’s drawn celebrities before. Jazz composer/performer Loonis McGlohon and wife Nan raised their family on Wonderwood, and Josh Birmingham, the former Charlotte airport manager (the main road to the airport is named for him) lived on Hunter.

Now we had Panthers, and, briefly, a Bobcat.

One house was bought by then Carolina Panthers defensive end Tyler Brayton. The neighbors were tickled with their latest celebrity: On the mornings of home games, we’d plant “Go 96” (Tyler’s number) yard signs up Hunter Lane that he’d pass on the drive to the stadium.

The Braytons lived there until Tyler retired from football and the family (two of their children were born while living on Hunter Lane) moved back to Colorado. 

As the sour economy lingered, the builder rented the other two houses, one to former Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, now the NFL Buffalo Bills’ head coach. Before the McDermott family, Charlotte Bobcat Raja Bell lived there briefly with his family.

The new houses caused a stir as they rose, for their sheer size and the tight space between. One day, the builder’s wife told me: “You’ll love these houses. They’ll increase the value of your property too.”

I recall shrugging and walking away thinking: Probably will. They’ll probably send my property taxes through the roof, too.

Single lots divided into two

Thus began the story of our vanishing neighborhood. 

Soon a double lot on Wonderwood was sold, and three more houses started going up ⁠— with the double lot divided into three. Then, up the street, the neighborhood piano teacher sold her corner lot, which the builder subdivided into two. In no time, two more behemoths rose where sweet music once drifted from a quaint, one-story brick home.

The boom was wildly on, as builders began slicing up lots. In one spot on Wonderwood, land on which two brick ranches once stood was divided to make way for five houses that look connected, from a distance.

Before longtimers could jump to action, builders like Todd Ewart of Charlotte’s Bungalow Designs were busy splitting up HunterWood lots, using a little-known city ordinance designed to save a percentage of trees at new subdivisions.  

The so-called tree-save ordinance had been intended for larger pieces of land cleared for new subdivisions. But builders found a loophole to use it to subdivide existing single lots with 50-foot to 60-foot frontages ⁠—instead of the required 70 feet. 

[Read More: A brief HunterWood history lesson]

When neighbors in HunterWood and other tear-down neighborhood learned how the rule was being circumvented, they pressed Charlotte City Council to stop it. But the council didn’t stop it right away, and the lot-shopping continued. 

Don’t get me wrong: the developers are building beautiful, seemingly soundly constructed houses. And there’s a market for them, as the houses seem to get snatched up as soon as they’re underway. 

They just don’t fit HunterWood ⁠—at least to us longtimers.

“They’ve taken all the original character away from the neighborhood,” said Randy Hudson, who has lived on Hunter Lane since the late 1970s. “What used to be a single-family home across from me are now three McMansions.

“Most of the trees (on the once-single lot) are gone.”

Because of the size of their property, Bill and Ellen Archer are protected from encroaching development. Yet even they feel, hear and see the encroachment.

“This is a vastly different neighborhood,” Bill said. “We’ve got tons of new people, and that’s great. We welcome them all. We’ve got more houses, too. And traffic. There’s constant (construction) noise and roadblocks from construction vehicles. Sometimes you can’t get down Wonderwood.”

The new residents are mostly in their thirties and forties, which means children have returned to the neighborhood ⁠—at least 70 new neighborhood kids, by some counts.

We all like that. Now on a warm afternoon, you walk down Wonderwood, and hordes are out in the street playing. “Our kids are up and gone, and for years there weren’t any in the neighborhood,” Randy Hudson said. “Now they’re everywhere. There’s new life and it’s great to see.”

[Read Part 2: Accepting change when you can’t fight it]