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NoDa Veterans Welcome Changes 

Occasional visitors gripe about gentrification

For many years -- going as far back as when grunge rock was still cool -- there has been talk (and talk and talk) of the North Davidson area turning a corner. That the area known as NoDa was destined to become the next Southend, the next Dilworth, but without the snobbery and white bread mentality. That it was going to become a thriving urban center, but retain its funky edge and artistic integrity. However, here we are in 2002, and NoDa's handful of art galleries, smattering of bars and restaurants and the occasional weekend drum circle doesn't exactly constitute ground zero for all things cool, not even for Charlotte.

This summer, however -- over 20 years after Pat Nevitt got the ball rolling when she opened Pat's Time For One More -- it looks like real change is finally on the way. Ironically, the revolution will begin when the beloved Pat's is torn down to make way for a three-story, mixed-use development with condos, shops and restaurants.

Does this mean the end of hip and funky NoDa? Will Gap stores and khakis displace contemporary art galleries and tattooed rockers? Despite the recent worry and hype about imminent gentrification, most folks who actually live and work in the area say the upcoming changes are a good thing and are long overdue. Moreover, these folks say it's mostly clueless boho wanna-bes who might venture into the neighborhood a few times a year who are making all the noise about how their beloved NoDa is being destroyed.

"I've been working in NoDa a long time," said Babak Emadi of the urban design and architecture firm Urbana. Emadi helped design the upcoming Crosland project that is replacing Pat's, and is involved in several other new NoDa ventures. "The people who are complaining that NoDa is dying are either the artists who were offered an opportunity 10 years ago to buy into the area and didn't, or people who have never had a beer here or gone to a gallery crawl. They're saying, 'Well, we like the scruffy little art places.' Go do that in your own neighborhood. We're turning things up a notch up here. If you want scruffy artwork, buy one of the new bays, subsidize it, and show what you want. You have to seize the opportunity. I took chances, and I paid the price to some degree, but now I have a wonderful place and investment here."

The original risk takers in the area are atists Paul Siers, and his wife, Ruth Lyons, who pioneered the NoDa arts scene in the early 90s. At the time, NoDa was a part of Charlotte that, after the collapse of the textile industry in the mid-70s, had been largely forgotten, and was struggling with drugs, prostitution and economic stagnation. Nonetheless, Paul and Ruth bought an old 14,000-square foot building across the street from Pat's in 1986 -- just about the only other business in the area at the time -- and started renovating. About five years later the couple opened Center of the Earth Gallery.

"In terms of art, you can't really wait for other people to make it happen," said Siers. "We saw it as an opportunity for people like us who didn't have a whole lot to get a foothold, to create something interesting, and establish a good base of operations."

Siers says that, overall, he thinks many of the upcoming changes will be good for NoDa, but he's still taking a wait and see attitude. "When we first came out here, there were a lot of people who had lived in this neighborhood all their lives, and were faced with having to sell their house for $20,000 and moving into a retirement home. The neighborhood joke now is that we've finally made it. The agencies that are showing houses are the same ones that wouldn't touch us five years ago. Nobody, including the realtors, wanted any part of NoDa. It was untouchable. It's just been during the past couple of years that that has turned around. So for those long-term residents, it's (new development) certainly a good thing. For the neighborhood as a whole -- it's good to see things being renovated. Nothing is abandoned anymore. But there is still a long ways to go. The business district needs more critical mass, and that's not going to happen with the existing infrastructure. People will be much more accepting and lenient with the first few projects that get off the ground. But after that first round, I think we'll be more savvy, and there may be more resistance."

Jim Sack and his wife, Patti, moved to NoDa about four years ago when they bought a house from Paul and Ruth. Two years later Sack moved his company, carbonhouse, a branding and marketing firm, into the office space above Paul and Ruth's art gallery. Sack says he's in favor of the upcoming changes coming to his neighborhood.

"This area was ignored for such a long time," Sack said. "So I think what's going on is very positive. It's a natural progression. The people that have been here for awhile aren't going anywhere. It's true that if you're a starving artist, maybe this isn't the place to be, but what's happening is supply and demand. It's still one of the most affordable neighborhoods in the city, and it's right next to downtown. I think the change is going to be good. Things had grown stagnant."

Anyone who frequents the area on a regular basis knows that NoDa isn't all spike-haired hipsters mingling with tattooed young artists. During the week, exhaust-spewing semis come barreling down North Davidson every five minutes; crime is still an ongoing problem; and other than during gallery crawls, the area is relatively deserted at night. Indeed, some folks -- even NoDa's biggest fans -- say there is still much to be desired, and feel that without the new projects, NoDa would gradually deteriorate.

In addition to the Crosland development replacing Pat's, there are several other mixed-use projects in the works. These include NoDa Lofts, also designed by Emadi of Urbana. This 10,000-square-foot structure will include residential, retail and office space. Gateway Homes has two big projects going -- The Colony and The Renaissance -- both of which will offer a residential/retail/office mix. Finally, the historic Highland Mill is being transformed into a mixed-use development, offering non-traditional loft offices, residential live/work and retail space. With all these new developments in the works, NoDa's demographics and atmosphere will certainly change, but will it become Yuppie City as some have charged.

"I can't stand this term 'yuppie,'" said Dana Parker, an agent at NoDa's Neighborhood Realty who also lives in the area. "I mean, I make good money, I have a brand new Volvo, but I also want a tattoo. You can work hard and earn a good living, but that doesn't mean you don't want a cool, eclectic neighborhood. That's what people come here for. It's a natural progression. A neighborhood has got to grow. When you're this close to a major city you can't remain stagnant."

Jeff Ames, who co-owns Boudreaux's Louisiana Kitchen with his brother, Greg, also agrees NoDa has to move forward. "I'm 100 percent behind the activity that's going on," Ames said. "I can understand some of the objections people might have, and I don't mind when it comes from people within the neighborhood -- that kind of discussion and debate is good, and those people have a legitimate concern. But I do have a problem when people who don't have stakes in the area are complaining that we -- the people who work and live here -- are messing up our own neighborhood. It's a lot of armchair quarterbacking."

"This gentrification argument always comes up," says Dan Morill of the Historic Landmarks Commision, which has helped renovate several of NoDa's homes and buildings. "Once something becomes fashionable, the market is going to do what the market is going to do. It's the same thing that happened to Dilworth and Southend."

"The final result of all these changes remains to be seen," said Paul McBroom, owner of The Neighborhood Theater and Neighborhood Realty. "We have so much heart and soul here. We're not the result of some big corporation's business plan, we're the result of a number of small people doing the best they can to make it."

Contact Sam Boykin at (704) 944-3623 or sam.boykin@cln.com.

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