Charlotte's growth spurt

by Graziella Steele

Demographics are changing, especially in the city's core

The increase in the number of people, including families, living in Uptown has resulted in more stores that sell groceries and other household staples. Photo by Graziella Steele

Demographic trends are changing the face of Charlotte as we know it. Driven by an influx of people from out of state, the city is becoming more urbanized, creating both challenges and opportunities.

Nationally, more young, educated and affluent people are moving to urban centers, including people with children, creating the need for new infrastructure, transportation investment, housing and schools.

More families are moving to urban centers, including along Central Avenue, where this woman and her child shop at Harris Teeter. Photo by Graziella Steele.

But it’s not just the big cities – think New York, Los Angeles, Chicago – you’d expect. Instead, the fastest growth is occurring in second-tier cities like Austin, Texas, and Raleigh and Charlotte.

The Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia metropolitan statistical area’s population grew by 2.6 percent between 2010 and 2013, according to the Census Bureau, making it the fifth fastest-growing metro in the country.

The availability of jobs and affordable housing, as well as quality of life, are the forces that make these cities more appealing to young professionals who have lived and worked in larger urban areas. As Charlotte experiences a population boom, New York lost 1.9 percent and 1.8 percent of residents fled Chicago, Census data show.

And increasingly, they are choosing to be closer to the urban core, the demographic data bears out.

Back to the city

“Charlotte is growing faster than surrounding counties,” said John Chesser, senior analyst at the UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute.

Chesser sees it as a convergence of demographic trends: older people moving out of big homes, empty nesters downsizing, young graduates with student-loan debt who cannot afford a home in the suburbs, and even a preference among some people to live closer to the urban center to avoid long commutes.

As a consequence, Charlotte is experiencing a boom in multifamily and smaller homes. More than 10,000 new apartments are under construction right now in the Charlotte metro area, according to a recent report by apartment market research company Real Data. Much of new apartment construction is in Uptown and in neighborhoods like South End, Midtown, NoDa and SouthPark. The research firm says developers plan to build an additional 11,000 units.

The city of Charlotte is also attracting a younger and better-educated population. While the number of young professionals moving to a number of major cities has fallen, the reverse is true in Charlotte. Between 2000 and 2012, Charlotte’s hipster population increased by 6.5 percent, according to Census data. At the same time, the percentage of young professionals with at least a bachelor’s degree in the city grew to 38.06 percent, according to the Urban Institute, while for Mecklenburg County as a whole, residents with a college degree aged 20 to 35 increased by 23 percent.

“There’s a very high concentration of college-educated people clustered in South Charlotte and Lake Norman as well,” said Chesser, which is not all that surprising given these are very affluent neighborhoods.

What was remarkable in the Urban Institute analysis of the young people moving to urban centers was the proportion of families choosing to live in the city core. The report found the number of families living in or near Uptown grew by 38.25 percent from 2000 to 2012. The growth of that urban population reflects, in part, the quality of the education offered by the city, said Megan Gallagher, a senior associate at the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center.

Many middle-aged married couples with children still prefer to live in the suburbs, said Shannon Binns, executive director of Sustain Charlotte, a nonprofit that promotes sustainability in the city. But younger people prefer to live in communities where they can walk to stores or work or use public transit.

“This is a major shift from the past,” he said.

Also, Binns said older residents are moving to areas where they can use public transit or walk to their doctor’s appointments or grocery stores so they don’t need to rely on cars as they age. The combination of this older generation and millenials outnumbers the demographic numbers of the dwindling middle age group that stills prefers to live in the suburbs. “We have more than enough single-family homes in Charlotte, but not enough condos and multifamily units to meet the need,” said Binns who expects that housing market to evolve.

Pressure on infrastructure

Among the many implications for a growing population is the need for new schools.

“We are a growing school district and have been for the last 15 years,” said Scott McCully, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools’ executive director of student placement, police, athletics and alternative programs.

In 2000, McCully said, CMS had approximately 100,000 students. By 2014, enrollment had risen to 145,000.

Many schools are already overcrowded and students are housed in mobile units. Last November, voters overwhelming approved a $290 million bond for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools to provide funds for new schools and renovations to old ones to help alleviate overcrowding, as well as for science, technology, engineering and math programs. McCully said that 78 of the 150 schools in the district are more than 50 years old and require extensive renovations. 

Additional population growth also will place more stress on the city’s already-challenged infrastructure, as well as the need for public services such as police and fire protection.

Last month a new study released by a national transportation research group called TRIP found Charlotte’s roads and bridges deficient, congested and unsafe. It estimated that traffic congestion, poor road conditions and the high number of traffic crashes resulted in costing the average driver in Charlotte $1,513 annually. The TRIP report found that 44 percent of the major roads were in poor condition, costing the average local driver $378 each year in car repairs.

In many ways, Charlotte is following the Atlanta model of growth, with large population increases and heightened demands on its infrastructure, said Rocky Moretti, director of policy research at TRIP, the Washington nonprofit sponsored by businesses involved with highway engineering and construction. Infrastructure always trails population growth, he said.

Even though people aren’t driving as much as they used to, Chesser said that the area’s roads will come under more stress.

“Clearly, as a region,” he said, “Charlotte will experience increased mobility issues and more demand for public transportation.”

Graziella Steele
Reporter, The Mecklenburg Times
Your Inside Source for Real Estate, Development and Construction Information
Office: 704.247.2911
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