Put on a Good Face

This is an article about “community” and “development” … in a philosophical sense.

I moved to NoDa in 2007. I bought the last house that I could afford to buy in this neighborhood before everything got really, really expensive. And I was keenly aware that my house was already really, really expensive to the community who came before me.

I got involved in the NoDa Neighborhood and Business Association (NBA) pretty soon after we moved in. I could tell that there was a big social aspect to living in NoDa, and the NBA was a good way to meet my neighbors and get up to speed on how the neighborhood was changing. There was a plan for the LYNX Blue Line to extend this way, and if that happened, I knew NoDa would be in the position to grow into the type of neighborhood that I’ve always dreamed of: walkable, vibrant, diverse, urban, with a community village feeling.

The NBA asked if I would like to head up the Vision Committee and tackle a revised NoDa Vision Plan with an eye on the year 2020. I had no formal education in architecture, planning, or government, but I was interested in those things and thought I could contribute some ideas for the future of NoDa. The previous Vision Plan had been produced in the mid-1990s and it was clear that NoDa had already changed a lot between 1995 and 2008.  I knew it would continue to change as we approached 2020.

It seemed like the most NoDa thing to do: Why couldn’t we write our own Vision Plan? Why did we need the city planners to do it for us? After all, we knew what NoDa was like at ground-level on a daily basis.

NoDa has always been on the edge of the city’s influence. What I mean is that this enclave of North Charlotte and NoDa was built, run, and looked after by its community. From 1905 to 1995, the people of North Charlotte and NoDa were on our own as the City of Charlotte often looked away. That meant that we could get away with a lot of weird stuff in the ’90s and that we had every right to make our own Vision Plan.

In 2009 the market crashed, and we watched a lot of NoDa’s grassroots businesses close, including most of the galleries and a lot of the funky local shops. Momentum to upgrade and invigorate NoDa’s built environment stalled, and I wondered if we were backsliding into rougher days. But we plugged along as if the sky wasn’t falling, and with a group of NBA members and board members who had become close friends, we adopted a complete NoDa Vision Plan 2020. We identified much of historic life and charm that made NoDa unique including our village homes, sidewalks, streets, and historic downtown.

Vision Plans are meant to be a road map for the future, not a checklist. As we approach the year 2020, a new volunteer embodiment of the NoDa Vision Committee is working to create a new road map for the future. There is a lot more at stake now than in 2008. The LYNX opened NoDa’s enclave up to the city, and everyone’s eyes are on our community now.

Those of us who have been here since 2008, 1995, or 1905 know that we have only made it this far because of the community we built together. The way this place feels is unique in Charlotte; that’s why people flock here: our sidewalks, our street grid, our historic village homes, old bricks buildings, and even the occasional dilapidation and bizarre paint schemes. The tiny details shouldn’t be ignored, and with the care of our future community to recognize them, NoDa can be protected and guided to grow but not change beyond comfort.

In the past several years, I’ve witnessed a change in the community. Longtime residents and new neighbors get heated when discussing the future of this place that we all love. Arguments and frustrations about control of the future of NoDa are more common as developers are changing the fabric of our village. Everyone has an opinion about how NoDa is changing.

Hopefully, we can all stay united to advocate for the people at ground level—for dogs walks, and backyard parties, farmers markets and arts markets, locally owned businesses with sidewalk art, parties in the park, and sitting on historic front porches that have held this community together for a century through good and bad times.

I’m proud when a developer references the NoDa Vision Plan 2020. It means that we had some influence on their decision-making process, whether it shows up at street level or not. The 2020 Plan grew out of a collaborative and democratic process with dozens of people over several years.

One of my big advocacy points was to address the importance of good sidewalk design in NoDa. City Planning had a blanket policy to have wide planting strips and street trees but missed the boat to advocate for wider and better sidewalks. You may notice a patchwork of sidewalk widths and shapes and depths around NoDa. This is a result of years of developers being pushed and pulled by the Planning Department without looking at the historic fabric of our existing sidewalks. The Planning Department is now implementing a unified planning model that addresses issues like this, but planning occurs from the top down and not from dog walks and front porches. The NoDa Vision plan did a good job to shine a light on this small detail that is actually really important to how NoDa feels.

There is one regret about the NoDa Vision 2020 plan that I see now: The new Wooden Robot building that replaced the historic Newco Fiber Mill on 36th Street. I knew the Newco Fiber building very personally, as I was one of many artists and creators who rented space in the industrial lofts and basements. That building was never pretty and didn’t have a very good street-front presence, but it did have charm. I’m excited for Wooden Robot, Rush Bowls, and Jeni’s Ice Cream, and I think Novel NoDa is a good addition to the ‘hood. But I’m really disappointed that service doors and blank walls now face 36th Street. With all the moving parts and redesigns of the 36th Street Station, Novel NoDa, the 36th Street bridge “tunnel,” and the dormant NoDa Mills, we should have lobbied for a good face on 36th Street. I hope someday there will be murals and art on those blank walls, but that will never be the same as windows and shopkeepers and neighbors interacting.

That’s what it’s all about anyway: putting on a good face, being open and connected, and working together to protect and grow the community that we have built together.