Project Camouflage

Innovative design solution blends a big box into a historic neighborhood.

M aking commercial projects compatible with adjacent residential areas during times of urban growth and infill development is a complex challenge. This task is particularly complicated when historic designations and active neighborhood associations are involved. Success requires sensitivity to community issues and innovative design solutions.

This scenario came into play in Charlotte, N.C., where urban infill is intensifying along the city’s new multibillion dollar light-rail corridor. The city created special transit-oriented zoning to promote development of high-density residential and commercial projects.

Southborough is an 11 -acre, $28-million mixed-use project underway along the rail corridor. The main anchor is home improvement retailer Lowe’s, which is building a 140,000-square-foot store with rooftop parking, a 16,000-sf rooftop garden, a 30,000-sf garden center, and a 4,200-sf outdoor living center.

Historic Concerns
When the Lowe’s project was announced two years ago, it immediately drew fire from the historic Dilworth neighborhood, which borders Southborough on two sides. The Dilworth Community Development Association opposed the site’s rezoning, arguing that a big-box store did not reflect the character of the neighborhood and surrounding areas.

Developed in the 1890s, Dilworth is Charlotte’s first streetcar suburb and features a well-preserved collection of cottages and elegant homes that now co-exist with carefully controlled adaptive reuse developments along its main thoroughfares. The neighborhood is listed on the National Register of Historic Places but has struggled in recent years to preserve its character amid rising development pressures. As a result, the rezoning for the Lowe’s store aroused concern and opposition.

Along with the project’s size, the community was concerned about the anticipated traffic, the impact of ongoing store operations, and whether such a structure could maintain the historic fabric of the neighborhood.

Community Input
In light of these concerns, representatives from Lowe’s and local developer Conformity Corp. initiated an extensive dialogue with community members, city staff, and other stakeholders. More than a dozen meetings were held to review plans, discuss options, and generate feedback that was integrated into subsequent plan r
evisions. The neighborhood association also formed a committee that assisted in designing and rezoning, which ultimately took nine months rather than the more common three to four months. A great deal of sensitivity was given to the project’s design including materials and building placement. The developers wanted to attain community support prior to taking the project to city council for approval. In order to accomplish this, it took around six months to design coordination with the neighborhood organization and gain its support. Issues to be addressed included making the project “feel” residential and reducing traffic concerns.

One unique element of the agreement involved how the property would be handled if the store should close. If necessary, Lowe’s and Conformity would accept responsibility for maintaining the site and placing it on the market for sale or redevelopment. The developers also agreed on opening and closing hours, and using shopping carts with brake systems. A donation was made to the neighborhood to support street improvements. Ongoing meetings provided updates to keep community members informed about Southborough’s progress.

Creative Design
Ultimately it was the inventive use of the plan’s residential components, combined with landscaping and green spaces that effectively camouflaged the big box and made the development work. The master plan was radically revised to place 67 townhomes and apartments, ranging from 650 sf to more than 2,200 sf, on the two sides facing Dilworth. The townhomes line the streets while behind them apartments wrap around the store and face outward toward the other residential units to create an urban village atmosphere. Each unit has a garage that ensures residential parking and minimizes visual impact. Fountains, generous landscaping, green spaces, and courtyards all contribute to the atmosphere and further screen the retail center from the surrounding neighborhood. A sculpted trellis with vegetation both shields the view and provides pedestrian access to Lowe’s through the store’s garden center.

Rhett Crocker

Rhett Crocker is a principal with LandDesign, which specializes in urban design, planning, civil engineering, landscape architecture, and branding. LandDesign provided master planning and entitlement services for the Southborough development. Contact him at (704)333-0325 or


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