Charlotte’s torn down a lot of old buildings. But one type has staying power.

Optimist Hall, a food hall and Duke Energy Innovation Center, is in a reused mill that dates to 1891.

Breweries, apartments, hip food halls, creative offices, coworking spaces: Charlotte developers keep finding new uses for the city’s old mills.

As a post-war, Sunbelt boomtown, Charlotte has garnered a reputation for tearing down its old buildings and replacing them with sterile plaques to make way for the city’s glittering new skyline. But while many once-grand structures have fallen (Goodbye, Masonic Temple and Hotel Charlotte), the humble, sturdy mill has proved surprisingly resilient. 

“They have an interesting ambiance, a panache. It’s both pragmatic and romantic,” said Dan Morrill, consulting director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. “But I think the pragmatic wins out.”

It’s not the way city boosters a century ago probably saw things turning out. They expected the grand, downtown edifices they erected to endure for generations - not the mills where working-class factory hands spun fibers into textiles and sweated away at making garments. 

“This building will stand through the ages for the eternal principle of the brotherhood of man,” Grand Master Francis Winston proclaimed when the cornerstone was laid for the Egyptian revival-style Masonic Temple in 1914. Seven decades later, the temple would be gone, but the nearby mills - though many were idle - remained. 

Textile mills had plenty going for them. They were the building blocks of an earlier era’s boom, especially after James B. Duke and his company started damming the Catawba River and building hydroelectric plants in the early 1900s. Mills and mill villages sprung up throughout the region, employing thousands. Once the textile industry started offshoring jobs and closing plants from the 1970s onwards, those buildings were left empty.

But they’re replete with characteristics that many find appealing, and hard to duplicate: High ceilings, huge open floors that can easily be reconfigured, thick wood beam and brick construction, oversized windows to let light on to the factory floor. 

A rendering of the redeveloped Chadbourn Mill. Courtesy White Point. 

“They’re really sturdy. You know you can work with that structure,” said Erik Johnson, a partner at White Point, the developer behind several major adaptive reuse projects in Charlotte. “You have something that most people, to simplify it, would say ‘That’s pretty cool.’”

And beyond the physical structure, there’s something else about old mills: In a city that’s long on new buildings and short on a deeper sense of identity, they provide a concrete link to the past.

White Point, along with Atlanta-based Paces Properties, developed Optimist Hall, which opened recently in a mill that once employed 1,200 near the Parkwood Station on the Blue Line. White Point is also redeveloping Chadbourn Mill, a former hosiery mill a few blocks away (which White Point and a partner bought this month for $4.4 million), into office and retail space. White Point previously developed the Bowers Fibers building in lower South End into a large brewery and offices.

Related story: Should Charlotte do more to preserve its history?

Optimist Hall is a good example of how flexible an old mill building can be. The biggest part of the century-old structure is leased by Duke Energy for its new Innovation Center, with a far different vibe from the company’s uptown, corporate towers. The rest of the building is a food hall and restaurant space, open to the public, with room for hundreds to gather inside and out. 

The Bowers site wasn’t a mill, but as a textile-based business, it shared many similar physical characteristics. Tech company SentryOne relocated there from a typical office park in Huntersville to Bowers in lower South End. Both projects reflect the increased willingness of major office tenants to embrace nontraditional spaces. 

But Johnson said office brokers were at first skeptical that large corporate tenants would want to lease space in an old building located outside Charlotte’s traditional office submarkets. 

“That’s not an office market. You’re never going to lease that,” Johnson said they heard. But even more staid companies want to attract and retain younger employees with easy access to breweries, transit and a hipper vibe.

“Their amenity is not the work gym in the basement,” he said. “The neighborhood is their amenity.” 

Greg Pappanastos,  president of Argos Real Estate Advisors, has been planning the redevelopment of the Savona mill west of uptown for years. He credited a shift in office tenants’ mindset. 

“The mindset, as recently as the early 2000’s, used to be that companies that chose creative space were somehow ‘less serious’ in their business,” Pappanastos said. “Charlotte’s conservative corporate culture has had a big impact on the slow adoption of creative space as a viable option for commercial and residential space.”

‘Uh-oh, what is this?’

As with any old building, there are inevitably complications once construction begins. It would be simpler, in some ways, to simply scrape sites clean and start from scratch with a new building. 

“There were days that ran through our heads,” said Johnson. “If anybody’s ever renovated an older house, you take it down to the studs and go, ‘Uh-oh, what is this?’”

Optimist Hall, interior. Photo: Ely Portillo

Water was the biggest problem they encountered during the Optimist Hall project - untended leaks had seeped into parts of the building. Other common concerns in old buildings include wiring, plumbing and structural issues, as well as environmental remediation problems such as asbestos, old fuel tanks, chemicals and lead-based paint. 

“No amount of due diligence can keep a developer from running into a few ‘oh no’ moments,” said Pappanastos. 

Adaptive reuse projects (which include all repurposed space, not just mills), are a small but growing part of the commercial real estate market. A 2018 study by the CCIM Institute estimated such projects account for between 1 and 2 percent of US commercial real estate space. That figure will likely double over the next five years, CCIM projected.

There can be issues beyond the physical conditions in old buildings, however. Among those are complications with zoning and permitting rules, as well as with lenders’ reluctance to finance nontraditional projects with a lot of question marks, CCIM noted.

Pappanastos said the size of old mills, along with challenges like finding adequate parking, can complicate projects. 

“They were never intended to be used in the ways that we use them today,” he said. “So, right off, they take significantly more time and effort to plan in a way that optimizes the real estate for today’s uses.”

But keeping the old structures has an obvious advantage - they’d be nearly impossible to duplicate today, or at least would be prohibitively expensive. Many mills in Charlotte are also located along transit lines - think of the Design Center and Atherton Mill in South End, or Alpha Mill, Optimist Hall and the half-dozen other former mills north of uptown along the Blue Line. 

And a mix of federal, state and local tax credits for designated historic landmarks can make the economics work when projects wouldn’t otherwise be feasible. 

“Using historic tax credits as a financing vehicle makes it possible,” said Johnson. White Point and Paces paid almost $6.4 million for the Optimist Hall site. “Without that, the deal doesn’t work, and we have a pretty big piece of land that’s next to the light rail that would probably be beige apartments at this point.” 

More mills on the way

Mills have been successfully redeveloped throughout the region, including Loray Mill in Gastonia (now luxury apartments and retail), Gibson Mill in Concord (brewery, antique mall and retail space - food hall coming soon) and the Old Cotton Factory in Rock Hill (offices and retail). 

And more are planned. In July, Charlotte City Council approved a rezoning plan from Argos redevelop Savona Mill on Turner Avenue, west of uptown. The 28-acre site is already home to Blue Blaze Brewing, and plans call for it to eventually include 290,000 square feet of commercial space, including restaurants, retail and offices, as well as up to 240 new apartments. Argos paid just under $2.4 million for the site. 

Tenants open there now also include ECCENT Design Build and Union District Design. Pappanastos said design work is underway on the main mill building redesign, with plans to deliver the space in 2021. 

A shifting market will lead to more adaptive reuse projects, Pappanastos predicted. 

“I actually think the days of developers tearing down older buildings, at least as a default mindset, are generally over,” said Pappanastos. “The biggest reason for that is that investors and developers are starting to see the choice to save a building as financially appealing.”