How Camp North End evolved from a missile assembly plant to a neighborhood hotspot

How Camp North End evolved from a missile assembly plant to a neighborhood hotspot
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Before Camp North End was home to one of Esquire’s best new restaurants in America, or the offices of a Fortune 50 health care giant, the huge site off of Graham was a wartime warehouse site, and before that it was a car factory.

Why it matters: Camp North End’s eclectic history is a big part of what drew current owner ATCO Properties & Management to the property in the first place. ATCO hopes to preserve that gritty character.

“We saw tremendous potential in these big old buildings that are a mile from Uptown Charlotte and convenient to the highway and light rail,” ATCO co-president Damon Hemmerdinger tells Axios.

Zoom out: A Detroit architect named Albert Kahn, renowned worldwide for designing Ford plants, led construction of the Charlotte Ford facility, which began in early 1924. It would become one of the largest Ford assembling plants in the nation, cranking out up to 400 cars a day, according to an Observer story from February 1924.

  • Ford made Model T and Model A cars at the old Charlotte plant.

As World War II ramped up, the U.S. government bought the 72-acre Ford plant in spring 1941 and turned it into an army quartermaster depot.

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Under wartime orders, crews quickly built several large warehouses on the site. They were single-story brick and steel structures, sturdy enough to supply a huge volume of goods — from pallets of uniforms to typewriters to canteens — by train to Army posts throughout the Carolinas and Virginia.

Those old factory buildings were “built like tanks,” says Tom Hanchett, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library’s historian in residence. “The industrial buildings from the last century were really good lasting examples of how to make a building that’s not obsolete.”

  • By 1944, the Army used the depot to receive the bodies of thousands of fallen soldiers before they shipped them off to grieving families all over the country, Charlotte magazine wrote in 2015.
  • The facility was deactivated in 1949, according to CMS Library records.

The Army remained on the site, though, throughout the 1950s and 1960s. There, crews assembled everything from Nike Hercules missiles to Gama Goat vehicles, or off-road trucks the army used.

Fun fact: In the early 1950s, as the Cold War was escalating, the army installed air raid sirens on the old depot’s water towers. They’d test them periodically. The sirens were so loud that you could hear them 45 miles away. The old siren loudspeakers remain there today, about three-quarters of the way up the water tower.

  • “It shrieks as though all doom had descended to swallow the world,” an Observer article from March 1953 read.
Camp North End

Water tower at Camp North End (Katie Peralta Soloff/Axios)

For almost 40 years after that, Eckerd/Rite Aid used the property as a distribution center for its East Coast stores. Rite Aid sold the property to ATCO in 2016 for almost $16 million, the Observer reported.

By then, investment in the site and the area around it lagged. When city council approved ATCO’s rezoning of the project in 2017, they saw it was a way to “breathe new life” into the neighborhood, per the Observer.

At the time, the development trend of repurposing decades-old warehouses — called adaptive reuse — was quickly picking up. It’s something companies all over Charlotte are doing these days, from the Krispy Kreme in South End to the Johnston Manufacturing building in NoDa.

Amid the pandemic, adaptive reuse is increasingly attractive to office users as companies figure out safe new work environments, developers say.

  • Camp North End, which has leased out space to tenants like Centene and Democracy NC, doesn’t have lobbies or elevators. It has tons of outdoor space, and tenants have their own A/C units.

“It just so happened that some of the characteristics of our buildings were conducive to what work might be like in a post pandemic world,” Hemmerdinger says.

The history of Camp North End, Hanchett says, underscores how Charlotte has always been a trading city.

“We get excited about banking or textiles or whatever is the star of the moment, but this has always been a space where people come to buy, sell and distribute things,” Hanchett says.

Camp North End Murals, Keswick

This mural is by artist Matt Moore. Full story: Your guide to 30+ murals in Camp North End

What’s happening: Camp North End is now in the second phase of a five-phase overhaul. The project is so big, Hemmerdinger couldn’t estimate how long it’ll take, nor what the final price tag will be.

Ultimately, the site have 1,500 housing units and 1.845 million square feet of commercial space, comprising 1.5 million square feet for office, 280,000 square feet for retail, personal service, food and beverage, and 65,000 square feet for light industrial and other uses.

ATCO owns four additional acres just south of the original army building that they could eventually also rezone, Hemmerdinger says.

Yes, but: Some worry that Camp North End’s development could push up property values around the site — and in turn push out longtime residents. Perhaps the most prominent advocate for North End neighbors was community leader Darryl Gaston, who spent years making sure the community’s voice was heard in the development process. Gaston passed away earlier this year.

Today, Camp North End is already home to a diverse mix of tenants, including: Leah & Louise, the nationally renowned Black-owned restaurant; art and design studios; coworking spaces; retailers like That’s Novel Books, a used bookstore; and Grow, a plant shop.

  • A team of local Black architects is designing the exterior façades of a new retail stretch of the development at 701 Keswick Ave.

The diversity of the tenant mix at Camp North End was intentional, Hemmerdinger says.

“Some of it is values-based and just about the inherent value of having lots of diverse points of view represented on the property,” he says. “But also there’s a business plan behind that. By having large spaces next to interesting smaller neighbors, it creates a vibrant atmosphere.”


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