There’s no denying it: The buzz surrounding Charlotte, North Carolina, continues to get louder and louder. Developers are working to meet millennial demand while upholding Charlotte’s historical value and innovative character. There is one part of town that locals and newbies alike have oft mindlessly passed on the direct route between four already flourishing neighborhoods. This borough is making a name for itself in both the literal and figurative sense. Optimist Park is the sliver of land nestled in among Uptown, NoDa, Belmont, and Villa Heights: neighborhoods evolving in their own ways as destinations for food, arts, culture and business development. Because of the growth on every side, it’s only natural (and strategic) that Optimist Park has poised itself as a worthy locale in the valley of many burgeoning communities.

optimist park map

Wide train tracks hug the North edge of Optimist Park, NoDa is to the East, Villa Heights and Belmont to the South, and Uptown Charlotte to the West. Image: Google Maps

Some Charlotteans believe that Optimist Park is on the verge of getting what locals call the “South End treatment” — a substantial injection of growth with housing, transportation access, retail, restaurants, and amenities that pique millennial interest and, in turn, lots of new business. We checked out Optimist Park, spoke with one of its developers, and uncovered how important its history is to Charlotte and beyond.

A Blue-Collared History

We spoke with Erik Johnson of White Point Partners, the Charlotte-based developers that were part of the Optimist Hall project. “Optimist Park and the surrounding neighborhoods of Belmont, Villa Heights and NoDa were once at the epicenter of Charlotte’s textile boom that fueled the city’s growth and transformed it into the economic power it is today. These neighborhoods exude history and authenticity, and the seven intact mills that remain are part of a dwindling number of structures left standing in Charlotte that help tell this important, but often forgotten, story,” Erik tells us.

D. A. Tompkins designed and built a series of mills on the Southern tip of Optimist Park in 1888. This solidified the surrounding area that would house and become synonymous with blue-collar residents who worked at Highland Mill and its neighboring factories. Very few of those houses still exist, as many of the original homes were demolished during Jimmy Carter’s presidency to land Optimist Park as one of the banner Habitat for Humanity communities of the 1980s.

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This rendering from 1899 shows how much was kept in the current structure of Optimist Hall. Image: UNC Charlotte’s Wilson Library

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A photo of Highland Park Mill workers, from July 31, 1916, in the Charlotte Observer | Image: Mary Lois Moore Yandle Collection, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room

In 1987, The Washington Post reported that former President Jimmy Carter “traveled … to a hot and sticky inner-city slum” to spend “a week as a volunteer carpenter on a housing project for the poor.” That “slum” was Optimist Park, and the ambitious project resulted in 14 new homes, covering an entire city block, in just five days. But because Optimist Park was still considered to be a struggling section of the city, with most houses deteriorated or dilapidated, more than 350 Charlotteans showed up to the Habitat offices after Carter’s visit to help build the neighborhood back up. Many of the original residents are growing old, and some are finding a bit of friction with the new development.

As for the old mills, Highland Park Mill — one of Charlotte’s few remaining historic structures — has been given a chance at a new life as Optimist Hall. Built at a time when the industrial sector was the backbone of this country, these structures were crafted to exist for centuries, outfitted with hardwood flooring, intricate brickwork and floor-to-ceiling windows to let in natural light.

Optimist Hall: The Cool New Kid

Optimist Hall (officially opened on August 1) was a $60 million renovation of the former textile mill that spans 147,000 square feet of food stalls, shops, restaurants, creative office spaces, and ample outdoor seating, parking and green space. A completely new concept and venture for the Queen City, Optimist Hall was developed by a collaborative team from White Point Partners and Atlanta-based Paces Properties (which also developed Krog Street Market in Atlanta). The vendors haven’t all moved in yet, but our Saturday visit in October to Optimist Hall proved delicious and vibrant. It gives the whole neighborhood a center of gravity that has begun to attract both Charlotteans and visitors alike.

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Optimist Hall boasts many original facets of the mill building, plus manicured green spaces and communal outdoor seating. Image: Optimist Hall

RELATED: How Charlotte’s Urban Food Halls Foster a Sense of Community

undercurrent coffee - optimist park

Undercurrent Coffee fuels many optimists. Image: Zoe Yarborough

Boa and Broth Charlotte

Boa and Broth, a concept by the famed Moffett Restaurant Group, offers tasty buns and ramen. Image: Zoe Yarborough

RELATED: 10 Free Things to Do in Charlotte

Location, Location, Location

The developers of this neighborhood see it as a destination that will serve all of Charlotte. Optimist Hall is only three blocks from Interstate 277, one mile from Trade & Tryon (the literal center of Uptown), and two blocks from the Parkwood Station stop on the LYNX Blue Line Extension — a 9.3-mile light rail alignment that extends from City Center, through North Davidson, and all the way north to UNC Charlotte. Optimist Park is easy to get to, and it’s reaping those benefits.

Additionally, Optimist Hall has proven to be even more of a catalyst for developers to build luxury apartments than the new light rail stop had. Now, townhomes sell for more than $500,000, while just four years ago, the average Optimist Park home sold for just over $180,000. All of this growth is happening within blocks of Habitat for Humanity homes, once built for low-income residents. More than 1,300 apartments and 500 townhomes are either move-in ready or under construction. Optimist Park is no longer the no man’s land you pass to get to NoDa. It’s beginning to draw people from all over to live, work and explore.

Charlotte light rail

Charlotte’s light rail system was smartly built before the demand picked up. Now, it’s treasured by locals and connects many different neighborhoods throughout the city — all the way north to UNC Charlotte. Image: sganwdesign.com

Duke Energy Moves In

One of the nation’s largest utility companies, Duke Energy, recently moved 400 employees into an Innovation Center at Optimist Hall. It’s a sleek, collaborative workspace filled with natural light and an open, side-by-side seating plan — a work environment that sits in stark contrast to their corporate headquarters, just minutes from Uptown in the second-tallest building in the Carolinas.

This development joins a countrywide trend of refurbishing and transforming historic mills and factories into creative office space for startups and high-profile companies alike. Duke Energy’s Optimist Hall space reflects a shift in work culture we’re seeing everywhere, removing physical barriers and the siloing of employee workspaces to encourage collaboration between many departments. In Duke Energy’s case, everyone from customer service reps to nuclear engineers to HR managers cycle through the Innovation Center at Optimist Hall. These new Optimist Park offices have also brought in a wave of diverse workers who now have access and impetus to support other local businesses.

A Guide For Your Optimist Park Adventure

SB TIP: There is a lot to do, eat and drink in NoDa above Matheson Avenue, as well as in all of Optimist Park’s surrounding neighborhoods, but this list stays closer to Optimist Park itself.

To stroll and explore:

  • Optimist Hall — Food hall and shops. Already open: Undercurrent Coffee, Zukku Sushi, Bao and Broth, Pet Wants, Honeysuckle Gelato, The Spindle Bar, The Dumpling Lady, Papi Queso, Village Juice, El Thrifty Social and Archer Paper. Stay in the loop about new openings here.
  • Area 15 — Small business/DIY incubator since 2002. Businesses open: Mac Tabby Cat Cafe, NoDa Escapes, 15th Street Market, Coast II Coast Tattoo, Dragon Moonshine, Charlotte Re-Cyclery/ Trips for Kids, The North Carolina Academy of Arts, The Green Bunny, Sweetwater Botanica and Apothocary, Art by Able, Timmy Hord Studio, Inner Strength and Rising Sun Acupuncture
  • McGill Rose Garden — Huge rose garden with more than 1,000 roses and 230 varieties (Free admission!)
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Archer Paper plops you right into the set of a Wes Anderson film with its minimalist, colorful designs and knickknacks. Image: Optimist Hall

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Trips for Kids provides transformative cycling experiences for underserved youth, and the refurbed, highly discounted bikes sold at Charlotte Re-Cyclery help fund the initiative. Image: sganwdesign.com

For a bite to eat:

Amélie's French bakery- Optimist Park

Amélie’s is open 24/7/365 — a rarity in Charlotte. This original location is moving down the street in 2020. Image: Facebook

For an adult beverage:

  • Rosie’s Wine Garden — Quaint wine bar adjacent to McGill Rose Garden (walk the gardens with your wine)
  • The Hobbyist — Hand-crafted coffee and tea beverages, beer and wine
  • Idlewild — Cozy cocktail bar
  • Abari Game Bar — Arcade venue serving craft beers, cocktails and handmade sodas
rosie wine garden

Grab a glass at Rosie’s and meander through the expansive rose garden. Image: Twitter

Idlewild cocktail bar

Idlewild cocktail bar is a delightful meeting point for residents and visitors of Optimist Park and its adjacent neighborhoods. Image: Facebook

For the beer lovers:

Ready to move there?

wooden robot the chamber

Wooden Robot smartly chose NoDa for its second Charlotte taproom. Image: Instagram

Developer Erik Johnson says, “Our goal is to pay homage to the rich history of these neighborhoods through projects like Optimist Hall, where we aim to not only preserve our roots but also usher in a new era of growth and community in Charlotte.” While Optimist Hall has anchored and transformed Optimist Park, the list of reasons to visit this slice of Charlotte continues to grow. From natural spaces to historical buildings, it’s worth a hop on the LYNX Blue Line next time you’re in the Queen City. With the already evident growth and projected businesses opening, Optimist Park is just at the beginning of its “moment.” Charlotte’s bright, growing young professional population is eager for culture and community, and that should keep this city ever so optimistic.

SOURCES: guides.library.uncc.edu, charlottemagazine.com, illumination.duke-energy.com

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