Commentary

Accepting change when you can’t stop it in a “tear-down” neighborhood

Construction on Wonderwood in Charlotte

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

HunterWood is fast approaching a tipping point, as new houses replace the old. A quick walk around the neighborhood found 76 old houses (built before 2007) and 50 post-2007 houses.

“The neighborhood is simply recycling. I get it. That happens,” said long-time neighbor Jane Stout, walking her dog. “I just wish the builders could be more sensitive to the surroundings. They seem to be so callous to what a lot of us like about the neighborhood.”

Todd Ewart, whose Bungalow Designs has built 12 houses in HunterWood, said he’s tried to build, “Responsibly. I’m a certified green builder. I do believe you’ve got to preserve some trees. Or plant them.” 

Ewart grew up in west Charlotte’s rural Pawtuckett community, so nature’s important to him. He studied urban development at UNC Charlotte before graduating with a degree in environmental science. At a Wonderwood house he’s completing for his family, he’s determined to save a sugar maple out front: “I’m going to have to put in a goofy driveway to get around it, but it’s a beautiful sugar maple and there aren’t many around.”

He and his wife plan to live in the house with their three sons for two or three years, then sell and move to the next freshly built house.

“That’s what builders tend to do,” Ewart said. “It’s tax-free income for builders.”

[Read Part 1: Portrait of a “tear-down” neighborhood in booming Charlotte]

Ewart started building in 2004. He saw that young families like his were getting larger and looking for bigger houses in good school districts. They had the money to pay for them. His HunterWood houses have sold for as much as $1.5 million. 

“I let my family and lifestyle dictate what I thought other families were looking for,” he said. “A million dollar home today isn’t what it used to be 15 years ago. Now, with buying a piece of land for $400,000, or $500,000, you’ve got to pay a million dollars just for a basic build.”

When Ewart first started building in HunterWood in 2014, he said he felt the tension from longtimers, and understands it. He sometimes wonders if he’s in the right profession, when he drives into a neighborhood “and I’m the least-liked person on the street.”

“I’ve seen people super-angry at me for change,” Ewart said. “No one likes change. I’ve not liked it in other neighborhoods we lived in. I hated hearing the construction. But I remind folks here that they were a part of change, too. Seventy years ago, this neighborhood was a horse pasture and a farm. So the houses had to get here somehow, and a neighborhood was developed through change.

“Over time, it all settles down.”

An original Wonderwood house next to two larger, newly constructed houses on what was once one lot. Photo: Ely Portillo

Trees and wildlife still a draw

Let’s get one thing straight: Longtimers’ anger, or angst over change, have never been directed at the new residents ⁠— only the developers who played loose with the rules to slice up lots and indiscriminately bulldozed nature.  

Gary Docken, wife Ruth Krystopolski and Krystopolski’s 16-year-old son Adam, are among the new HunterWoodians. They moved to Charlotte from Dallas three years ago when Krystopolski was hired as a senior vice president at Atrium Health. They looked at more than 60 houses before narrowing their search to two that would shorten Ruth’s commute: one near the Jewish Community Center off Providence Road, and the other a $1.25 million, 5,000-square-foot farmhouse-style bungalow Ewart built on Wonderwood.

They chose HunterWood because they liked the house, and as with many of us longtimers, they fell in love with the setting.

“I tell everybody that I live in the forest, but I’m only six miles from downtown,” Docken said. “We have deer. We have coyotes. Hawks. We have a fox ⁠— all kinds of critters around here. Ruth loves the trees. It was kind of hard for me at first. In Dallas, you could see for miles and miles. This felt kind of claustrophobic to me because of all the trees. Now it feels like we’ve lived here forever.”

Even in their short time, they’ve seen dramatic change. Docken, 62, a retired Harley Davidson motorcycle dealership manager, said he too has grown tired of the construction.  

“I’ve lived here for almost 36 months, and there’s been construction and noise every single day,” he said. “In the middle of the day, you can’t get down the street. They’re either pouring concrete or the street is blocked by construction equipment.”

He said he understands why longtimers are unhappy about their lost neighborhood. “I probably would have been the same way,” Docken said. “I would have said, ‘OK, I don’t want our quiet, little neighborhood overtaken by huge houses.”

He thinks most of the new neighbors won’t grow old in HunterWood like me or the Archers or Dale and Sue Riley.

Yet new neighbor Kelsey Phinney said she and husband Jason and their three young sons are here to stay “barring unforeseen circumstances.” She feels other newcomers are too.

She and Jason, both originally from the Boston area, had been in Charlotte nine years when they met Ewart through friends. They were looking to build a bigger house and Ewart told them to look at land he’d bought and planned to divide into three lots at the end of Hunter Lane. 

“We fell in love as soon as we drove down Hunter Lane,” said Kelsey, 37. She and Jason, 40, work in sales and marketing for investment firms. “It was so pretty, so quiet. It was so wooded. We wanted a neighborhood that was mature and established. Nothing cookie-cutter. We couldn’t think of a better place to raise our boys.”

They bought the tail end of the three lots and hired Ewart to build a house that reflected their New England tastes. They moved in in August 2018.  A year and a half later, Phinney is struck by the neighborhood’s sense of community.

[Read More: A brief HunterWood history lesson]

HunterWood’s always been neighborly, but not as close-knit as the newcomers have made it. They get together often (some knew each other before they moved here), either gathering in front yards on warm evenings watching their children play, or renting a party bus and touring breweries. There’s a neighborhood book club, and on Halloween, neighbors, new and longtime, gather for a HunterWood party with a food truck and parade of costumes.

Phinney said her family felt the “camaraderie” immediately from new and longtime residents. Their across-the-street neighbors (longtimers Lyn and Randy Hudson) brought them dinner and invited them to their annual Christmas Eve party.

“It’s not just the younger crowd that was welcoming, but everybody,” she said.

Accepting what can’t be changed

As the building continues, Phinney, like many HunterWoodians, is concerned that the neighborhood is beginning to look a little cookie-cutter: new houses lined up at the same set-backs, all the same size, with the same architectural features and clusters of multiple rooflines.

Docken agrees. “We’d be glad if they changed them up more,” Docken said. “They’re starting to look like a variation of the same theme.” 

Phinney and Docken say they understand the frets of longtimers over change and rising property tax bills.

“That’s a very real concern, I’m sure,” Phinney said. “It’s going to become very real when it comes time to pay taxes.”

Indeed, land values soared in the recent county revaluation, set essentially by developers, county assessor Joyner told a group of concerned HunterWoodians. Existing houses were devalued in an effort to be more fair to longtime residents at tax time.

A half-acre in HunterWood averaged about $400,000. That’s about double the average value for an acre of Mecklenburg land, according to The State of Housing in Charlotte report by UNC Charlotte’s Childress Klein Center for Real Estate.

In the adjacent Randolph Park and Sherwood Forest neighborhoods, both spared widespread teardowns, land values were considerably less, and per-square-foot house values considerably more. From my back deck, I could throw a baseball into yards in Randolph Park (well, perhaps when I was a young man). From my front yard, I can see Sherwood Forest.

Yet a half-acre in Randolph Park averaged $275,000 in the new revaluation; in Sherwood Forest it’s $175,000.

Higher property values are only a good thing if you sell. Those of us who didn’t are living with sticker shock. And there are fears, as another neighbor recently put it to me, of being “taxed out and forced to move.”

But as longtime neighbor Wallace Newman, ever wise and practical, opined: If you don’t own it, there’s nothing you can do about it. Or, more gracefully put, equally wise HunterWood longtimer Ellen Archer often offers a proverb she learned in yoga class: “What you cannot change, you must accept.”

Namaste.

[Read Part 1: Portrait of a “tear-down” neighborhood in booming Charlotte]