The property has sat on Independence Blvd., abandoned for years. To look at it now, boarded up and graffitied, you wouldn’t think it was once considered a feat of engineering, ahead of its time, and a point of pride for the denizens of East Charlotte in North Carolina.
Now, a project is underway to have the area rezoned and brought back to life in a way fitting of its legacy.
Consultant Chris Mau, with Our Local, a Charlotte-based organization looking to revitalize the property to the tune of $8.6 million, all in private funding, says that creating stronger communities was at the heart of what the building’s developer, Charles Ervin, was trying to accomplish.
Ervin, who was in his day one of the largest commercial real estate developers in the southeastern U.S., was a strong believer in the concept of the society of the future.
When the building was erected in 1962, to the tune of $1.2 million — or roughly $10 million in today’s dollars — it was known as the Ervin Building. His vision for the structure that would be his offices included such breakthroughs as the ability to unbolt the walls and doors to reconfigure the entire inside of the building.
“This was an inspiration from Disney, as I understand it,” Mau said. “He was flying back and forth to Disneyland.”
“And he was having regular conversation with Walt Disney, and touring the parks, and trying to understand Walt’s idea of how you bring people together, and demonstrate [human achievement]. And he wanted to bring that to Charlotte.”
The plans have included neighborhood input from the beginning, with Mau and his business partner beginning the process by knocking on doors and asking those living in the area to provide input. He said there was a strong desire to see the property resurrected, with shopping, dining and entertainment options that are currently lacking in the area.
The plan Our Local landed on is ambitious.
Included in the two-building complex consisting of the tower and the single-story building next door are: a restaurant, bakery, coffee shop, retail space, an aquaponics research and development center, shared workspace, a business incubator, a boutique hotel, a tearoom and draft house and a rooftop patio.
The plans also call for an LED installation at the top, which would earn money, but would also be used, Mau said, to showcase local and national artists, as well as promote cultural events and those doing work to make positive change in the city.
“This project is viable and tangible,” reads a petition to Charlotte City Council created by Our Local for residents of East Charlotte to sign, requesting they get behind the plan.
“It demonstrates outside-of-the-box thinking, especially for Charlotte, but it is reflective of what we need and want as a community. It is the type of ‘place making’ that will allow our area to transform from a victim of circumstance to a leader in community-centric innovation.”
The road ahead
To move ahead with the project, the city must approve the property to be rezoned for mixed-use development.
Our Local is also aware that the LED display will bring some amount of light pollution and has to hope the overall benefits the project would bring to the city outweigh those concerns. In order to cut down on impact, Mau said darker colors would be used during evening hours.
He said that even if the project isn’t approved, he believes the ability to take the plan as far as Our Local has been able to do so far is a positive sign that East Charlotte is moving forward.
He pointed to recent renovation of the Bojangles’ Coliseum, as well as one planned for the nearby shopping center, and one in the works at Aldersgate Retirement Center as proof that East Charlotte has already begun to bounce back.
To hear the passion with which he speaks about what this forgotten piece of Charlotte history can become, it is clear to see how driven he is to see his efforts become a successful part of that effort.
At the start of qnotes’ interview, Mau shared an anecdote about how he got into this line of work in the first place.
He said he was trying to explain to his young daughter what a business consultant does, to little avail.
“Are you happy?” she asked, cutting to the chase.
“I don’t think she meant it as an intense question, as I took it,” Mau reflected.
But, he said, it got him thinking. It made him realize that he wasn’t as happy as he could be, and that what would make him happier was to reinvest himself in, and here’s that word again, the community.
Watching Mau present his vision for the property made another thing very clear; he loves this work, and while it won’t be easy if it doesn’t come to pass, it won’t be for lack of conviction or effort.
For more information on the project visit ourlocal.com.
Our place in its history
The Varnadore Building, as it was last known, was also once colloquially referred to as “Queer Tower” for the number of LGBTQ-owned and friendly businesses that once occupied the space, including Time Out Youth Center, Out Charlotte, Metropolitan Community Church of Charlotte, attorney Connie Vetter, Access (an AIDS services organization), and the qnotes offices.
In fact, qnotes was the final tenant before the building was shuttered in 2009, due to the prohibitive cost of needed repairs and upkeep.
Jim Yarbrough, qnotes owner and publisher, recalled the value of having so many LGBTQ businesses in the building.
“The environment was comfortable in that you knew a lot of people coming in and out, and you could just be comfortable interacting with people and sharing information,” Yarbrough said.