Take a 10 minute drive around Charlotte and it’s hard to ignore the signs of growth. Cranes dot Uptown and the surrounding areas, apartments and mixed use is going up at breakneck speed and new developments are cropping up in the suburbs.
Ely Portillo, growth and development reporter for The Charlotte Observer, has been following the ins and outs of what he calls Charlotte’s “growing pains” for about three years. Before that, Portillo was on the business desk covering everything from Fortune 500 companies that were being acquired to the airport and retail. Through the years Ely has seen first-hand the changes in Charlotte’s commercial real estate, retail and growth.
“Well I think one of the things I really like about my current position is that it changes a lot day to day. Commercial real estate, development and growth are such rich fields—there’s really something for every aspect of our daily lives,” said Portillo.
Covering growth and development in Charlotte encompasses more than just breaking the news on a new high-rise. Portillo examines how we live, and the human aspect of development; the real impact development has on our lives.
“Where we live, how we play, where we work, how we move around, all those fundamentals that you don’t even think about are really shaped by the real estate and the built environment,” said Portillo. Even the less shiny aspects like data centers and distribution centers that are tucked out of the way enable the lifestyle we’re used to with services like Amazon Prime, he added. “You really have to have the physical space to do all these things and that’s really what we’re talking about here, more than just bricks and sticks.”
And he’s right—it is more than just bricks and sticks. Development can be a highly contested issue, especially when the growth is going faster than some would like. It all boils down to change is never easy. Talking about the issues with development is never easy, but the problems nevertheless need to be addressed, Portillo suggested.
“One of the most frequent ones you hear about for folks who are on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale are things like gentrification, rising rents. But also on the higher end you get a lot of complaints and worries about traffic. So it’s not like one group or another are the only ones affected,” said Portillo. “I think everyone worries about change and that’s the universal here. But one thing I like to tell people is it’s easier to deal in some ways with the problems of growth than the problems of decline—I don’t think a lot of people would trade places with rust belt cities.”
The key to Charlotte being different from these rust belt cities are the resources to overcome the growing pains of development. While other states like South Carolina are putting in measures, such as building moratoriums, to deal with concerns with development, Portillo doesn’t see this being an issue in Charlotte.
“I went to the Greater Charlotte Apartment Association’s forecast breakfast and for the last few years they’ve always said, ‘What inning are we in?’ This year they gave up. Nobody wanted to predict what inning this boom was in. But people were pretty realistic that it won’t go on forever,” said Portillo. “Any sort of red flags you can point out, there’s also a counter right now. So with apartments, what you can see is basically flat. So even though we’re building a ton, pretty much close to unprecedented levels, it’s all getting leased.
“I think whenever things do stop, it’ll probably be things we don’t see coming. If I could predict what was going to get us I’d probably be making a lot more money,” said Portillo.
While development in the city seems to be undeterred, Charlotte was caught off guard when it didn’t make the finalist list for Amazon’s HQ2. According to Portillo, part of the allure of Charlotte relied on the airport.
“One of the things I heard from folks I was talking to was, folks in market, in Charlotte, ‘They put Raleigh on that list instead of us, we’ve got five times the volume of travelers, and several times the number of daily flights.’ But people out of the market were saying yeah, but they can fly more planes out of Raleigh if they want. Amazon can get that fixed. The thing to never forget about planes is that they fly. They move. That’s my wisdom,” said Portillo.
Though the city missed out on HQ2, there’s plenty to look forward to. Portillo has a couple of developments that have caught his interest recently. The first is the Stonewall Street corridor in Uptown.
“When I moved here that mile in between Bank of America stadium and I-277 was nothing. It was completely blank. It was those extra parcels from the 277 on ramps that were created and nothing else. And now the latest figures I’ve heard there are something like $2.7 billion worth of private investment,” said Portillo. “Every one of those projects has some form of retail component.”
The second area of exciting development in Charlotte? It should come as no surprise that it’s along the Blue Line light rail extension.
“I’m curious to see if this comes true, for people like myself, some 100,000 or so who work Uptown, to take the extension and go to 36th street station and hop out, get dinner, get drinks in NoDa, hop back on and come back,” said Portillo.