The $25 Million Hood

The redevelopment of Double Oaks is the city's largest urban renewal project ever. And maybe, just maybe, the city will get it right this time

Church service started twenty minutes ago and it's only a little more than half full on this first Sunday. People are still making their way in and taking their seats. Eighteen young adult choir members, mostly dressed down in jeans, are on stage behind the pulpit. To their right is a seven-piece band, including two on guitars, a keyboardist, a saxophonist, and a drummer wearing a Yankees cap.

As the choir sings and the band plays on, the congregation is being treated to some of the best gospel music around. This is the praise and worship portion of the service. It lasts for an hour. Before this segment ends, the church will be full. About 600 people are inside New Life Fellowship Center.

New Life's dynamic pastor, John P. Kee, tailors his sermons to meet the needs of the people he serves. He takes the pulpit and tells everyone to "get up and high-five three people and say ‘I'm already successful.' "

Everyone in attendance seems to latch on to Kee's message of hope during difficult times. He speaks of how the government was quick to bail out the rich folks on Wall Street, but has been slow to help regular people losing their homes to foreclosure. He talks about Wachovia's problems, "Didn't I tell y'all you gotta treat God's people right?"

New Life is far from your well-appointed church building. It doubles as a church and recreation center (near the ceiling you can see the raised basketball goals). There aren't likely any business leaders or elected officials seated here. Many in the congregation are from the surrounding community, and the church sits right behind a swath of low-income houses in Double Oaks, one of Charlotte's poorest neighborhoods. There are 576 one- and two-bedroom bungalows in front of New Life. They're all empty. Not because the residents are in church, but because the people have all left.

These homes have provided housing to low-income residents since 1949. Traditionally, it had been nearly all African-Americans who lived here, but the past few years saw an increasing number of Hispanics. Generations of families have passed through here. Today, though, it's a ghost town. The last residents were moved out in early October, and the homes are scheduled to be torn down by year's end.

The city has big plans for Double Oaks. Many of the residents are suspicious of the government's motives. You can see bank towers from the porches of many of the homes that will be torn down. Gleaming condo towers are a five-minute drive away. This is nothing short of urban renewal, which has been common throughout the city over the years—it's what has made some of those condos possible.

This country has been struggling to figure out how to effectively provide affordable housing since the 1930s and 40s, which saw the creation of federal housing acts and agencies and led to a post-World War II housing boom. Charlotte, like most cities, has made mistakes along the way, but this time, the city says it's getting it right. 

Urban renewal. Neighborhood redevelopment. Community revitalization. These are all terms used by city planners and private developers to describe—sometimes mask—what has come to be seen by many as a dirty word: gentrification. By definition, gentrification is "the restoration and upgrading of deteriorated urban property by middle-class or affluent people, often resulting in displacement of lower-income people." That's what's taking place in Double Oaks. If you've driven through this part of Statesville Avenue over the years, you've noticed the houses are eyesores and there are very few businesses that cater to a large population (not a Harris Teeter in sight). You might think that redevelopment would be welcomed with open arms.

Inside Harris Barber Shop, which is on Statesville Avenue, owner and barber Johnnie Harris knows all about the neighborhood. He's been running the barbershop for thirty-three years, cutting the hair of many Double Oaks residents. "That's a straight shot to downtown," says Harris, pointing to Double Oaks and the nearby uptown skyline. "They might be saying they're doing it to fight crime, but that's not it. It's the same thing they did to Piedmont Courts, Westwood, Earle Village." The neighborhoods Harris names were all predominantly African-American areas in or near uptown that no longer exist due to redevelopment. 

Harris is blunt about his suspicions (if there's ever a place you'll hear straight talk it's in a barbershop). He believes that the city is only interested in redeveloping Double Oaks because of the growing number of people who want to live near uptown. And he doesn't believe that when the redevelopment is completed that the housing will be affordable for the former residents. "When they put something over there, it's going to be something people can't afford. They tell them they can when they move them out, but they won't be able to when they try to move them back in."

Harris's suspicions are shared by many African-Americans. And while they may sometimes seem exaggerated or borderline conspiracy-theoryesque, they aren't completely without merit.

"The mistrust of African-Americans of government's motives is well founded," says Tom Hanchett, staff historian for the Levine Museum of the New South. "For many years, black neighborhoods were systematically demolished. Not to improve them, but to do what was deemed as better use of the land," he says. "An awful example of that was the old Brooklyn neighborhood [near Davidson and Third streets in First Ward] that was demolished in the sixties to make room for the government center. The old First Ward High School, when it was demolished, parents were ensured that a new high school would be built downtown and it never happened. And those kind of broken promises have left many African-Americans with a sour taste."

Unlike many of the African-American neighborhoods that grew out of public or low-income housing, Brooklyn was a thriving community. Today, if residents want to experience it, they have to go to places like the Levine Museum or the Charlotte Museum of History.

Hanchett sees the situation with Double Oaks as something that Charlotte, as well as the rest of the country, has struggled with for years. "It seems like America has always had an ambivalent relationship with low-income housing," he says. "We all talk about the need for better housing for the least well to do among us, but how do we provide that?"

It's David Howard's job to try and figure that out—and to convince the residents to trust redevelopment. As vice president of special projects and community affairs for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, the nonprofit entity that is in charge of the redevelopment of Double Oaks, Howard meets often with residents and community and business leaders. The Housing Partnership collaborates with the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County on housing developments but is not a part of either government.

By using federal and state grants, local tax dollars, and money from developer's fees, the Housing Partnership buys land to build affordable housing. It has done work around the city, but its labor of love has been the neighborhoods it has redeveloped in what it calls the Greater Statesville Avenue Corridor, all within a mile and a half of uptown.

The first was Greenville, where redevelopment began in 1990. The Housing Partnership built or renovated ninety-three homes in the declining neighborhood. With this success, it moved on to the adjoining neighborhood called Genesis Park. "Crime was legendary in Genesis Park," Howard says. "It was the drug capital of the Carolinas." 

The Housing Partnership renovated nearly half of the 200 homes in Genesis Park. Crime dropped dramatically, and the organization's Web site boasts that "there are about forty existing homeowners who have lived in Genesis Park for more than thirty years."

The group next worked in Druid Hills—skipping over Double Oaks—renovating nearly fifty rental units and constructing a sixty-three-unit apartment complex for seniors. (There are more revitalization plans for Druid Hills, where there are a significant number of homeowners.)
In 2001, Fairview Homes, a public housing complex, would become the Housing Partnership's largest project to date. When the entire development was finished in 2005, it would be called the Park at Oaklawn, a neighborhood consisting of 178 family apartments, eighty-three one-bedroom elderly apartments, seventy-one single-family homes, and a community center. "When pizza started delivering there again, we knew it was a success," Howard says. "If you held up a map, you would notice that the only thing missing in the redevelopment was Double Oaks. Trying to figure out how to bite off seventy-eight acres and 500 units was daunting."

Howard says his organization was hesitant for years to take on Double Oaks because of its size. But the success of the Park at Oaklawn gave them the confidence boost they needed. "After finishing Oaklawn, a lot of interest happened, what you call in-flight. Oaklawn became a mixed-use development, and the houses sold briskly. That gave us more enthusiasm."

Oaklawn's circa-2000 construction was met with people's renewed interest to live near uptown again. There was so much demand that Saussy Burbank Homes was brought in to build the single-family homes. The homes became more stylish, and in some cases larger. The houses sold for as much as $200,000. This fueled some residents' suspicions about whom the homes were being built for.

"I don't have the attitude that we should leave things alone for years just to worry about perception," says Howard, whose father grew up in Double Oaks. "The fact is, those neighborhoods sat there for years without any improvements. The people who live in the area deserve to see their property values appreciate just like anybody else. People may beat me up for saying this, but gentrification is not always a bad thing. And that means something coming from me—someone who is a native of Charlotte and grew up on West Boulevard."

The Housing Partnership closed on its purchase of the Double Oaks property in September 2007 and immediately began the large task of relocating the families who lived there. The residents were given a moving allowance, and the Housing Partnership is also paying some residents a housing allowance for up to six years. Many of the residents moved into apartments around Charlotte and some took the money and used it to make a down payment toward buying a house, Howard says.

"Because we're a private nonprofit, we could do things that the average market developer wouldn't care about," he says. "Like making sure people are relocated. A large part of our financing is to make sure those people are treated right. A lot of developers would be like, ‘I bought this property, now you have this amount of time to move.' And they're in a lot better situation then they were—those bungalows were sixty years old. Secondly, we're committed to putting back a component of affordable housing."

The Housing Partnership hasn't unveiled its renderings yet for the mixed-use redevelopment, but Howard says it will include 300 income- and rent-restricted units. More than 200 other homes will cost less than $150,000. Still others will go for as much as $300,000, thereby achieving the desired mix of incomes. "What you don't want to do is put back 1,000 affordable units. That's been done. It's called low-income housing, which comes to be known as ‘the projects.' " 

While new developments like the Park at Oaklawn and the plans for Double Oaks have been met with criticism, they have strong supporters. One of its biggest proponents is City Councilman James Mitchell Jr. All of these neighborhoods along Statesville Avenue are in his district, District 2.

"Double Oaks has had a negative name in the community," Mitchell says. "There was a large criminal element. When you talked about it, people would say ‘Oh, you live there?' Hopefully, in another three years, when people think of Double Oaks they say ‘Wow! You live over there?' So we're hoping to change the perception of Double Oaks with this redevelopment."

Mitchell points out that this project is different from those in the past. This time, the city (i.e., taxpayers) is providing a lot of the funding. In the past, the partnership relied mainly on federal grants—$34 million in the case of Oaklawn.

"So many times people say, on our side of town—predominantly African-Americans—that the city doesn't put a lot of money into redevelopment. But that's not the case in Double Oaks. Twenty-five million dollars is probably the largest city project, neighborhood project that we've ever done."

It's a typical day at Double Oaks Nursery for Executive Director Angela Young. The nursery, which offers day care and an after-school program, opened in 1968, and Young has worked there since 1993. Her face lights up when she brags that "We produce ‘A' students here. Patrick Cannon [a former six-term city councilman] graduated from here." It's comfortable and very welcoming inside the day care. If you didn't look out the window, you wouldn't even know that the center is surrounded by the hundreds of vacant Double Oaks bungalows that are scheduled for demolition.

Young is torn. She's happy that the neighborhood is getting much-needed revitalization, but she's sad to see the loss of the sense of community. "There's no one out here but us," she says. "But it's long overdue."

Since the families in the neighborhood were relocated, Young has seen her enrollment, which includes infants to twelve-year-olds, decrease from forty-five to twenty-seven. But she's excited about what the future holds. Double Oaks Nursery is operated jointly as a nonprofit organization by Presbytery of Charlotte and Myers Park Presbyterian Church. The nursery is selling its land to the partnership and will lease a new building in the redevelopment.

"I've made the argument that the people in Double Oaks were happy to get out of there," Howard says. "With the assistance we gave them, they could go anywhere they pleased. Some of them stayed in the area, but they're all in a lot better conditions." 

Even the harshest critics of gentrification would have to concede that something needed to be done about this neighborhood.

"When I first came here, people would leave here then go to home ownership," says Harris, the barber. "But then it became where they lived here almost all of their lives. The people changed and the neighborhood changed. A lot of good kids came out of here. It wasn't all bad."

A few years from now, when the new apartments, townhouses, and single-family homes are up and running in Double Oaks, many of the new residents may not know what came before. But Howard says the Housing Partnership will make efforts to honor the past, such as keeping the Double Oaks name and naming streets and buildings after people from the neighborhood. This was done at The Park at Oaklawn, where there's a Geraldine Row Drive, Ethel Guest Lane, and Anita Stroud Senior Complex. 

Figuring out how to provide affordable housing for low-income families in the Charlotte community isn't easy (the thirty-eight-page feasibility report the city conducted on the redevelopment of Double Oaks alone shows that). There will be critics when something's done, and there will be critics when nothing's done.

"Better housing for the least well to do is an important goal," says historian Hanchett. "A more beautiful city is an important goal. Preserving the links that exist in an established neighborhood is an important goal. And it's hard to balance all of those goals. But it's something Charlotte can do better at."

If Double Oaks turns out to be a success, the city just might have.