South End Design District – Historic South End
Origins: In 1995, the nonprofit SouthEnd Development Corporation (SEDC) (today known as Historic South End (HSE)) was formed “to establish and promote a positive identity for South End to encourage economic development, pedestrian activity and a vibrant environment; heighten awareness of the area’s rich history; create a sense of community among business and property owners; build bridges between the business community, the Dilworth and Wilmore neighborhoods, and the City of Charlotte; and fulfill the vision behind the City’s urban corridor program by attracting private resources to continue the revitalization efforts.”
In 1999, the city of Charlotte created a special taxing district to fund those activities. Today Historic South End runs from Morehead Street on the north to Remount Road on the south, and from South Boulevard on the east to South Tryon Street and Winnifred Street on the west.
Recently, HSE became a part of Charlotte Center City Partners, and is overseen by CCCP’s Board of Directors, with two members from the HSE Board. The HSE board is becoming a neighborhood advocacy group, called Friends of Historic South End, and will meet on a regular basis.
Building a Design Community
Paris, Milan, New York City, Chicago, San Francisco… Charlotte? When one names the world’s great design cities, Charlotte is unlikely to make the list – yet. As Charlotte is growing into a more significant participant in the world economy, having already achieved the status as a major financial center, the city is becoming a notable player in the design industry as well.
Great design cities have design destinations. The focal point of Charlotte’s design industry is the historic South End neighborhood. Less than 10 years ago, South End was home to approximately 30 businesses in the greater design industry. Today, the community boasts more than 200 design-related businesses. In addition to showrooms for imported stone, high-end kitchen appliances, fabric and floor coverings, lighting and bath fixtures, and other design products, the self-styled “South End Design District” includes architects, builders, interior and landscape designers, graphic and web designers, photographers, advertising agencies, publishing companies and other businesses in the greater design industry.
What factors have led to the establishment and growth of this Design District? And how does Charlotte’s Design District compare to the design centers of other major cities and to the trends within the design industry nationwide?
There are three key factors that have influenced the growth of Charlotte’s design industry. The first is resources. North Carolina has a rich history in the manufacture of furniture and related home-design products, with major wholesale markets in High Point and Hickory.
“Many years ago, this region distinguished itself as a top textile center and top furniture manufacturing center,” says Tony Pressley, president and CEO of MECA Properties, a major developer of the South End area. “Those resources made this area a natural to emerge as a player in home design.”
The Charlotte area’s growth is the second important factor in the development of the design industry. In the past ten years (1993 to 2002 according to the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce), announced new businesses in Charlotte-Mecklenburg have accounted for $8.6 billion in investment by 8,869 firms which created jobs for 75,926 people and absorbed 96.2 million square feet of space. Mecklenburg County has averaged 14,404 residential building permits each of the past five years, according to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Building Standards Department for the years 1999 through 2003. At the same time, Charlotte has become the nation’s second largest financial center.
“The influx of people to Charlotte and the access to capital has made Charlotte a prime location for a design center,” Pressley continues. “Today’s burgeoning South End design industry has become a vertical economy within a dynamic city and region.”
“As Charlotte has grown and the community has become more diverse, the demand for a diversity of design products and services has increased as well,” notes John Vieregg of Interiors Marketplace which opened in the Atherton Mill complex in 1993, a “pioneer” in the South End Design District. Interiors Marketplace currently features art, antiques, and furnishings and accessories for home and garden for retail sale by over 85 different merchants.
When he relocated to Charlotte from Texas 30 years ago, architect Reg Narmour, senior partner at Narmour Wright Associates, was surprised by the city’s design environment. “Everyone in Charlotte was happy with the same tried and true design at that time,” Narmour recalls. “As more people relocated to Charlotte, there was a growing demand for different looks. Not everyone wanted a Colonial or Georgian home, or red brick. People wanted stucco, stone and other exteriors, and interiors became more contemporary. Charlotte’s awareness of good design and demand for good design has substantially increased in the past 10 years.”
With the influx of transplants and the growth of the city, Charlotte consumers began exploring lifestyle options outside of the traditional suburbs; design expectations were also impacted.
“Once people began living at area lakes, there became a market for a view-oriented lifestyle. Homes needed dramatic windows to emphasize those views,” Narmour points up. “Prior to that, people living in Charlotte’s suburbs had been interested mostly in trees, not views.”
Urban living has also affected Charlotte’s design scene.
“Many people in Charlotte are choosing a more urban lifestyle to spend less time commuting, and that leads people to view design differently,” says Deb Ryan, urban designer at UNC Charlotte and director of the Charlotte Community Design Studio located in the South End Design District. “Center city living usually means living in smaller spaces and choosing quality over quantity – selecting nicer building materials and sleeker, well-crafted furniture.”
The third key ingredient behind the growth of Charlotte’s design community is synergy. Initially, design businesses were attracted to South End by its location and by the adaptive reuse of historic buildings offering unique architectural amenities.
“Designers gravitate toward historical areas because they appreciate architecture, history and culture,” notes Gaye Mitchum, interior designer and owner of Gaye Mitchum Interiors and Illuminaries on South lighting showroom. Mitchum moved her interior design business to South End six years ago and opened Illuminaries in 2002. “South End makes sense as a design district because it offers spacious loft areas and an interesting architectural atmosphere.”
South End’s pioneer design businesses have been joined by many others who appreciate working in a creative neighborhood, and value the convenient access to other design resources. Compatible and competitive businesses recognize the benefits that a design neighborhood can provide for them and their customers.
Local designers and consumers have embraced the opportunity to meet their needs in one convenient location. South End is easily accessible to uptown, SouthPark and the interstates. Having a variety of design businesses clustered in one area simplifies the shopping process.
“We are all busy people. Having a designated design district can turn a day’s shopping trip into a lunch-hour excursion,” says Mitchum.
“We will still go to Atlanta for design shows, but we can work within the South End neighborhood to choose cabinets, appliances, lighting, fabrics and other products for our clients. It makes the designer’s job easier,” adds Sarah Fritz, interior designer and public relations/marketing director for Gaye Mitchum Interiors.
“Designers don’t have to go to Atlanta to shop for their clients,” Vieregg says. “The concentration of design businesses in South End makes it a convenient resource for them.”
How does Charlotte differ from such internationally recognized design cities/centers as New York, San Francisco and Chicago?
“I haven’t seen all of the design centers in the United States, but I have visited several and studied the industry,” notes Pressley. “Most design centers are concentrated in one or more contiguous buildings. South End is a district, not a building or series of buildings. It is one-and-one-half miles long and three-to-five blocks wide. At its heart is the Design Center for the Carolinas (DCC), which includes three buildings with 200,000 square feet. By comparison, the Design Center of the Americas (DCOTA) in Florida consists of three connected buildings with 750,000 square feet and 150 showrooms.”
“Charlotte’s Design District is developing more slowly than in some other cities, due to the size of our city,” Narmour says. “Charlotte differs from other design cities not in the quality or substance of our offerings, but in the level of variety and specialty. For example, in Atlanta, you’ll see many of the same products that you find in Charlotte. You’ll also see more foreign products and more unique products, such as Italian light fixtures. We don’t have the depth of variety that’s currently available at major design centers.”
“South End’s roughly 200 design-related businesses adhere to a broader definition of design than is followed in most design centers. Those centers are typically product-oriented. We view design products and services equally,” says Pressley.
In these early stages of Charlotte’s design industry, national trends are being felt. While traditional design centers have been “to the trade only,” many are now finding ways to open their doors to the general public to meet consumer demand.
“As an emerging design district, we have built our neighborhood on businesses that exclusively serve the trade but also those that are open to the general public. As I travel and talk with professionals at major design centers like the San Francisco Design Center and the DCOTA, I’ve discovered that they are exploring ways to open their doors to the public. They are still a resource for professionals, but recognize that they need to create consumer demand for their products,” says Pressley.
For example, the DCOTA, which is located between Ft. Lauderdale and Miami, has instituted two programs to become more accessible to the general public. The Designer on Call program, which is staffed by members of the design community, arranges for designers to escort members of the public through the building and into showrooms. The Group Shopping Tour Program invites charity, business, social and community organizations to visit the DCOTA for a shopping experience.
The San Francisco Design Center (SFDC) includes over 1.2 million square feet of space in three buildings with 100 showrooms. It is open to the public for browsing during the week days. In addition, members of the public may schedule a designer-led tour to enhance their access to showrooms. The SFDC’s Design Studio program provides designer-led tours by appointment. Design Studio tours may focus on areas of specific interest to the consumers or may provide a more general overview of the Center. The SFDC offers several buying services that allow visitors to make purchases from showrooms and enjoy discounts.
The Chicago Merchandise Mart includes Chicago’s design center with over 130 residential design showrooms covering 730,000 square feet. Public tours of the Mart’s showrooms are 90 minutes long and are conducted at noon on weekdays. The Chicago Kitchen & Bath Center, which occupies the Mart’s thirteenth floor, is open on weekdays to the public and trade professionals. A variety of public special events are held at the Mart each year.
While South End’s Design District may never look exactly like the design centers in Chicago or New York City, community leaders see many opportunities for the District to grow and distinguish itself in the national design scene, and to become a major ingredient of Charlotte’s economy.
“Major design centers tend to be in major cities like San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Miami. Charlotte is an emerging city, so much of our growth is still ahead of us,” Pressley maintains. The charm and appeal of the South End district becomes more apparent with each passing day, as new businesses continue to be drawn to the design aggregation, striving to meet the high standards being set by the community. The restoration of Charlotte Trolley Number Eight-Five, the last operating streetcar in Charlotte retired in 1938, and reinstitution of the historic trolley line running from center city through the South End district has also provided a boost to the community, making for easier access without the need for a car, and providing a unique and historic look at the design of Charlotte.