In its heyday, the huge brick Johnston Mill on North Davidson Street spun cotton to make into various textile products, from soldiers’ uniforms to tents.
The plant opened in 1916 to meet growing wartime demands in Europe.
It was among 13 manufacturing facilities operated by textile magnate C.W. Johnston, a local household name at the time, and the person for whom the Johnston YMCA is named today. Nearby on North Davidson, Johnston also ran Highland Park Manufacturing Company Mill No. 3, once the largest textile mill in Charlotte that’s now home to Heist Brewery.
“NoDa would not be NoDa without the Johnstons. The Johnston Mill is a symbol of that,” says Tom Hanchett, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library’s historian-in-residence.
Mills in the North Charlotte area gave birth to whole communities around them. Little mill homes sprang up to house the thousands of workers who manned the plants. In NoDa, many of those little houses still stand.
When the Johnston Mill closed in 1975, it was one of the last of Charlotte’s major textile mills, city records show.
For most of the years since then, the mill building has sat vacant, its tall windows boarded up, though its imposing facade held strong. Over the years, a few proposals have come up to repurpose the old site, though nothing stuck.
Now, the plan is to add hundreds of new rental units to the site, a few of which will be affordable.
Behind the roughly $40 million project is The Community Builders, a national developer that specializes in mixed-income housing.
TCB will renovate the 110,000-square-foot Johnston Mill building to make way for 80 to 85 apartment units, says Juan Powell, TCB’s vice president for development in the mid-Atlantic region.
The developer will construct a new, 145,000-square-foot building, along 36th Street adjacent to the light rail, that will have roughly 150 apartment units, plus another 3,000 square feet of retail space. Currently, the property where it’s going houses a small abandoned building and an empty plot of grass.
Additionally, the new building will have a transit lounge on its ground level. There, residents can sit and have a coffee while they wait for the light rail, Powell says. The new building will also have a fitness center, an exterior lounge space, and a swimming pool.
Between the Johnston Mill and the new building, 15 apartment units will be for residents who make up to 80 percent of the area median income (AMI). That’s about $66,800 for a family of four. (Here’s the full 2020 AMI chart from the city).
Preserving the integrity of the mill building is something the neighborhood has wanted, Powell says.
“Retaining those mills has been part of our plan since the beginning,” Powell tells the Agenda.
Old textile facilities endure today because the buildings were well-built, Hanchett says, in order to survive fire (the textile industry put a lot of lint in the air) and the clanking around of heavy machinery that literally shakes buildings. “These things are built like tanks,” Hanchett says.
Another key reason to preserve the NoDa mill buildings: TCB is trying to secure historic tax credits. In order to do so, it has to design its project so that it’s consistent with the expectations of the state historic preservation office and National Parks Service, Powell says.
Within the next few weeks, TCB will file building permits for the project. The hope is to start the 19-month construction project in early 2021, Powell says.
Powell considers the restoration of the Johnston Mill to be a piece of a larger transformation in the old mill neighborhood.
Property records show that the city of Charlotte sold the Johnston Mill and the Mecklenburg Mill (which sits next to Johnston on North Davidson) to TCB in 2011 for $1.24 million. TCB refurbished Mecklenburg Mill and turned it into 48 affordable housing units. That project opened in 2015.
On the other side of the light rail, Grubb Properties is acquiring the Herrin Ice property and has plans to redevelop the site into apartments and offices. Down 36th, closer to North Tryon, Aston Properties is redeveloping the old Hart Witzen art gallery into the new home of Amelie’s.
Closer in to the Johnston Mill property on 36th, Bistro La Bon chef Kevin Samuel is renovating the old Behailu Academy spot and turning it into a market called The Exchange. Eventually, Samuel also plans to open a restaurant in the same building, too.
A restoration of the Johnston Mill property has been a long time coming. In early 1990s, before it sold the buildings, the city partnered with a developer to spent more than $6 million to convert the old mill buildings into affordable housing, according to a 2007 Charlotte Observer story.
By spring 2006, after the developer declared bankruptcy, the city had to evacuate the buildings because of termite damage, which rendered the property unsafe.
In 2007 another developer, Tuscan Development, won a bid to redevelop the site, with plans for for-rent and for-purchase units. That plan fell apart, though.
In 2012, Charlotte City Council approved giving $1.25 million to TCB for the restoration of the two mills on the site. TCB had asked for $2.35 million, but trimmed its request when it became clear the city wouldn’t support giving that much.
As the Observer reported last month, TCB is not seeking additional public funds for the project.
“The reason it’s difficult is because it’s been neglected, abandoned, deteriorated and it’s very, very costly to rehabilitate it,” local historian Dan Morrill said in a 2012 interview with UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute. “The city has also chosen to put a lot of expectations on the redevelopment of the property.”
The Johnston Mill project comes as demand rises for affordable housing in Charlotte. Around town, a number of new projects planned or underway.
In First Ward, the city of Charlotte and Little Rock AME Zion Church are donating land for a 105-unit affordable housing project. In east Charlotte, Roof Above is purchasing a 341-unit apartment complex, a portion of which will be specifically for Charlotteans who are experiencing homelessness. This spring, the city voted to approve spending about $19 million in public funds on affordable housing projects, which will include shelter beds and new projects, the Charlotte Business Journal and others reported.
These developments only begin to chip away at the crisis: The city has said that we need an additional 34,000 units of affordable housing given the current growth. And the need is most urgent among residents who make far less than 80 percent AMI.
“I commend both the city of Charlotte as well as my colleagues … who had the foresight to really work really hard to acquire the property,” Powell says of the mill property. “Over 60 units of affordable would stand on this site. It’s really very forward-thinking.”