Timing, money and Charlotte culture combine to create a messy situation

Why is restoring NoDa’s textile mills so hard?

In any other time, the request might not have been so hard.

But a nonprofit developer’s plea last week to use $2.3 million in city money from federal grants to help repair Charlotte’s historic Mecklenburg Mill came after a recession and a brutal, lingering downturn. It also came after the City of Charlotte had already invested $6.7 million in the property between 1990 and 2007.

The request faced a slew of community comments and tough questioning from Charlotte City Council members last week. The nonprofit developer, The Community Builders Inc., bought the land in 2011 after a quick walk-through with no promises of future city help. The city money TCB seeks would come from a pot of about $4.6 million in federal block-grant funds left from savings on other projects.

Update: Charlotte City Council votes 9-2 to give $1.25 million to help restore mill

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The council delayed a vote until Monday, just barely ahead of an Oct. 12 deadline for the developer to leverage other grant money and tax credits for historic preservation. Without the additional city money, the project could end up costing the developer even more because of the unavailability of other grants. And the proposed renovation might not even happen.

So why has it been so hard to restore this important piece of Charlotte’s textile history in a rejuvenating, hip neighborhood? Well, it’s complicated.

In a shiny city, history doesn’t sell – yet

Dan Morrill, consulting director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, a county-run agency, has some ideas. (The mill is a designated historic landmark, although that doesn’t protect it from demolition.)

“The reason it’s difficult is because it’s been neglected, abandoned, deteriorated and it’s very, very costly to rehabilitate it,” Morrill said in an interview. “The city has also chosen to put a lot of expectations on the redevelopment of the property. They want so much affordable housing.”

The hulking Mecklenburg and Johnston mills are part of the reason the hip, revitalizing NoDa neighborhood, a former mill village, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Developed by Charlotte industrialists, the mills were built and the village sprouted in 1903 on former rolling farmland.

The Community Builders Inc., headquartered in Boston, plans to create 48 units of affordable housing in Mecklenburg Mill and, in a Phase II, create market-rate housing in the adjacent Johnston Mill. A Phase III would include new commercial space to serve the NoDa community.

“One of the principal methods of preservation is adaptive reuse,” Morrill said. “When you are talking adaptive reuse, you are as subject to market forces as you are with any other piece of real estate.”

And market forces in post-recession Charlotte remain tough. However, the mills’ site sits next to the path of the extension of the Blue Line light rail, with a transit station planned across 36th Street from the mills. That creates the opportunity for future tenants to travel uptown or to the UNC Charlotte campus in less than half an hour.

City Council members, in grilling TCB, made clear that some fear Charlotte would be throwing good money after bad, given the past 20 years’ history.

The city approved a $1 million loan to a developer in 1990 to convert the mills to low-income housing. By all accounts, the conversion merely covered up structural problems. By 2006, the city foreclosed on the developer, Trenton Properties, and evacuated residents from Mecklenburg Mill because of termites and other structural issues. In total, the city had spent $6.7 million.

Patsy Kinsey, the only council member at last week’s meeting who specifically advocated for historic preservation, also wonders about the influence of all of Charlotte’s newcomers on the community’s will to remember the past. Kinsey has been involved in historic preservation in Charlotte since the early 1970s, and she knows the value of the mills as historic economic engines and community builders for that slice of Charlotte. But times are different now.

“All of a sudden, we became a boom town,” in the ’90s and through the past decade, Kinsey said in a phone interview. “A lot of people came in, and they didn’t know our history or care.”

Still, she remains hopeful for the mills and NoDa.

A neighborhood fights for history and affordable housing

Hollis Nixon has fought for the mills’ preservation for 10 years as president of the NoDa Neighborhood Association, and she has also seen a lack of concern about history.

“I grew up living in the historic district of Concord, and it was a fight if you wanted to raise your fence half a foot,” she said Thursday. In Charlotte, she said, the focus of growth has been on shiny new things instead. “It’s like night and day,” she said.

Nixon spoke to City Council in favor of the mill owner receiving the block grant money, but she’s unsure what will happen Monday.

“I don’t know whether we have the votes or not,” she said. But she heartily endorsed the commitment to the neighborhood from The Community Group. She said the group has worked with planners to design the nearby light-rail stop and made plans for community space inside and outside of the mills.

She also said she thinks there’s misunderstanding over exactly where the $2.3 million would come from. The block-grant money has accumulated from federal grants that have flowed to Charlotte yearly since 1976, and no other projects have requested funding at the moment from the city.

“It doesn’t affect the local taxpayer,” she said.

The money also would allow The Community Group to leverage $13 million from outside sources, with the potential to jump-start development in the neighborhood. The project is shovel-ready, Nixon said, and if the developer doesn’t get the money now and can’t pull off the project, she vows that neighborhood leaders will be in front of the council again, seeking help for fixing the blight the deteriorating buildings are causing in the heart of their neighborhood.

Nixon also noted that few areas of Charlotte welcome “workforce housing,” defined as available to households making 60 percent of the area’s median income. Given that the mills had housed low-income people in the ’90s, the neighborhood commitment to housing remains.

The neighborhood association has also supported past efforts to restore the property, including plans launched in 2007 by local developers Tuscan Group and Banc of America. But hurdles with railroad right-of-way delayed that project, then credit dried up as the economy tanked. The light-rail project has cleared the right-of-way issues now, she said.

But in those six years, with the city owning the property – after foreclosing on the previous developer – neighborhood leaders had to fight city hall over increased crime near the property, burned-out street lights and to keep the property secure from vandals.

Nixon, who has worked across the state on similar projects for two engineering firms, blames most of the deterioration and structural problems on the developer who got city money in the ’90s. “I appreciate what the city attempted to do in the ’90s, but the bottom line was the money was given to the wrong developer,” she said. “The money just went to the wrong hands.”

The Community Group had no way to know how much work it faced, because rotting beams were covered up, she said. “Until you start gutting the interior of a space, you can’t tell how bad it is,” she said.

At the last council meeting, council member Andy Dulin did some quick math and criticized Phase I of the project as creating just 48 housing units, at a cost of $327,395.10 per unit (adding in the outside money leveraged by the $2.3 million federal block grant).

But Nixon said that money isn’t just buying workforce housing. It’s preserving a historic building and would spark other investment in NoDa.

“These are centerpieces of not only NoDa but of Charlotte,” she said. “This is a landmark for the city and it should be embraced as such.”

Kinsey agrees. The mills created the neighborhood, historically called North Charlotte, and represent the textile history of Charlotte as a whole. The area became a haven for artists and the creative class starting in the late ’90s.

“I'm very comfortable with The Community Builders, the city is very comfortable with them, and the neighborhood is very comfortable with them,” Kinsey said.

“We think this will be the catalyst for market-rate housing there.”

What will happen at Monday night’s council meeting?

“We’re working on a way,” Kinsey said. “We're working to help my colleagues understand.”

Successes for historic textile mill preservation

Down the street from the Mecklenburg and Johnston Mill, the renovation of Highland Mill No. 1 has worked so far. It recently converted from condos to apartments, and a new brewery has opened there. Elsewhere in Charlotte, Alpha Mill and Atherton Mill were successfully renovated by private, for-profit developers.

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And elsewhere in North Carolina, Carr Mill became a centerpiece for the small town of Carrboro, next door to the university town of Chapel Hill. Its renovation began in the late ’70s, with the help of the town’s mayor and the grant-writing and research prowess of Brent Glass, then a doctoral candidate at UNC Chapel Hill and now director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The developer? Southern Real Estate of Charlotte.

Some 20 miles from Carrboro, the Saxapahaw community centers on a once-closed mill that’s been restored in the past 10 or 15 years. It has become a creative retreat and bedroom community for Chapel Hill and Durham.

For Mecklenburg and Johnston Mills in NoDa, the planned renovations have always been big projects with city involvement. Perhaps timing has been off. But they sit in the heart of a hip, growing community, and the planned light rail offers a lifeline. Perhaps.

Charlotte’s economic success in recent years has been tied to its image as a glittery New South city, not a community with roots in the past, said Tom Hanchett, historian at the Museum of the New South.

“I think in other parts of the country where there’s been less economic vitality, people have been desperate for any kind of economic development,” Hanchett said. “In Charlotte, because there is so much economic vitality, there is a tendency to look to the new as our only economic future.”

If the City Council on Monday decides against releasing the block grant funds, the hulking, decayed buildings could continue to decay for a few more years.

“At the end of the day, Community Builders own the property, so it’s their final decision what to do with it,” Kinsey said. TCB has up to three years to redevelop it, then the city has the right of first refusal.

But Hanchett thinks the mills’ location could pay off. “I think we miss the opportunities that come with the old,” he said. “NoDa is a really good example of this. Now it's really clear that the revitalized mill plus the grassroots things going on in the neighborhood have made NoDa a destination.”