After years of trying to find a buyer for 917 Central Ave., commercial real estate agent Mike Sullivan began to think he might go to his grave before it sold.
The curved corners of the red brick building — squeezed between Two Scoops Creamery and Seventh Sin Tattoo — paired with the “Nine 17 Central” marquee hanging off the front made the 1937-built structure stand out. Positioned in the Elizabeth neighborhood right on the borders of Plaza Midwood and Belmont, its location was more than desirable. But its musty, dilapidated interior and tight footprint scared away even the most inspired entrepreneurs.
There was no shortage of interest; Sullivan estimated that he showed the property a few times every week between 2015 and 2021, and more than 200 clients went as far as bringing a general contractor out to the site. But no one would take a chance on the building.
“It’s in a great place,” Sullivan said. “It’s sort of combining the area just outside of the downtown loop with Plaza Midwood and that area is obviously starting to experience a lot of growth.”
The surrounding neighborhoods of Plaza Midwood, Elizabeth and Belmont have been home to a bevy of changes in recent years from the CityLYNX Gold Line extension to new construction, restaurants, apartment complexes and retail shops. Meanwhile, the dark, empty windows at 917 Central grew darker and the “For Sale” sign, plastered above, became a seemingly permanent fixture on the building.
It would take Sullivan’s boss, real estate developer John Nichols, purchasing the property at the end of January 2022 to finally free Sullivan of his most difficult listing. But as Nichols would soon find out, it wasn’t the property that was difficult, but the ability for others to see what it could become.
A rich history on Central Avenue
Nichols was initially drawn to 917 Central’s rounded corners, characteristic of the Art Moderne architectural style, also known as Streamline Moderne, that developed out of 1930s Art Deco trend. Head of the boutique commercial real estate firm The Nichols Company, he owns a building of similar style at 1212 Central Ave. That one was built in 1945 to serve as the Queen’s Pie Company’s wholesale bakery but is now home to The Kilted Buffalo bar.
“I’ve always liked capturing the history of these old buildings,” Nichols said. “They’ve had so many things happen in them and so many intriguing stories and if you could go back in time and just sit through the life of a building, it’d be amazing.”
The building at 917 Central was constructed in 1937 in a neighborhood known as Piedmont Park that has since become part of Elizabeth. It’s approximately 4,180 square feet split into two 2,090-square-foot units that each have their own addresses: 917 and 919 Central Ave.
Among the first recorded tenants were a home appliance store called The Good Housekeeping Shop, and LOIS Beauty Salon. According to advertisements in the Charlotte Observer, both businesses were operating there in 1946, with The Good Housekeeping Shop in one unit and LOIS Beauty Salon in the other.
Both stayed open for decades, though the beauty salon changed its name over the years to Hemby’s Beauty Salon then Two Sisters Beauty Salon.
In 1965, The Good Housekeeping Shop announced it would be moving to the since-demolished Coliseum Center on Independence Boulevard.
Sometime after The Good Housekeeping Shop left Central Avenue, Quality TV Service moved in at 917 Central. The electronics sales and repair shop remained there until owner Donald Metcalfe, who had purchased the building in 1981, retired in 1989.
One of the last known tenants was Retro Eyecandy Vintage, which opened in May 2008, according to an article in the Observer. It’s unclear when the clothing store left the space, but a few years later someone tried to open a martini bar there. They were forced to halt construction because a lack of parking prevented them from acquiring the proper permits. The building has been vacant since.
Metcalfe’s wife and children have been the property’s primary owners since 2015. They hired Sullivan to help them find a buyer, but that was easier said than done.
Despite the location’s increasing walkability, one of the biggest hurdles Sullivan faced was parking; the 0.147-acre site only has room for about seven or eight spaces in the rear. Most clients who showed interest in 917 Central wanted to turn the entire building into either a bar or restaurant, Sullivan said, which would require more parking based on the square footage.
A restaurant at the site would require 33 parking spots, according to city code (at least one parking space per 125 square feet). One potential client proposed leasing spaces from Piedmont Middle School on East 10th Street, but it was a solution Sullivan had heard before and he already knew the answer.
“The school has zero interest in sharing their parking or encumbering it,” Sullivan said. “And to the lady I said, ‘To be honest with you, unless God opens up the Earth and creates more crust, you’re going to have this parking problem.’”
Sullivan said he heard hundreds of creative proposals over the years. At one point, he even looked into the feasibility of installing a vertical parking system, but that would have required an 8-foot setback from the sidewalk and a wider sidewalk, which wasn’t possible.
Another group wanted to tear part of the building off to create more parking spaces.
“Then you start running into the problem, what can you build back? Because it’s so close to the corners,” Sullivan said.
“If you tore it down, you couldn’t build anything back because of the requirements for the setbacks, widening of the sidewalks and also then the building standards — how wide is your building?” he continued. “What is there is by far the biggest piece of real estate or improvements you could do to the site.”
A rejuvenation for 917 Central
Nichols purchased 917 Central from the Metcalfes at the end of January 2022 for $850,000. Despite its known challenges and the fact that it had been vacant for so long, he said the property wasn’t in as bad of shape as it appeared.
“When people went in there, it was wet and kind of musty smelling and they’re like, ‘Oh my god, it’s horrible,’” Nichols said. “And then I get a guy in there who works for me and he’s checking all the outlets and stuff and the outlets are working. There’s just a leak in the roof and it needs new HVAC. So we started peeling back the onion, so to speak.”
Ripping up the old carpet revealed solid concrete floors beneath it. Tearing down the warped wood paneling on the walls exposed nice-looking brick and stucco. The building had “good bones,” Nichols said.
He admitted the property was probably overpriced when Sullivan was trying to sell it, but eventually the market caught up.
“I love it when there’s buildings that have been on the market forever and then you kind of look at them in a new light like, ‘Wait a minute … Now this building makes sense,’” Nichols said. “But everybody and their brother thinks there’s something wrong with it because it sat there for so long.”
In recent weeks, Nichols has painted the building green, fixed the leaking roof and started cleaning up the inside. He plans to replace the doors and windows and revamp the existing marquee with a new design, but make no real structural changes.
Unlike many potential clients interested in the property in the past, Nichols intends to keep the building as two separate units. He said that provides more flexibility to meet the area’s parking requirements, even if he ends up leasing one side to a bar or restaurant tenant.
The property is currently zoned B-2 (general business) with a Pedestrian Overlay District (PED), which dictates parking minimums, setbacks, design requirements and development standards for permitted uses within the B-2 zone.
City code requires bars and restaurants in a B-2 with a PED to have one space per 125 square feet. All other non-residential uses besides religious ones need at least one space per 600 square feet.
Turning the entire 4,180-square-foot building into a bar or restaurant would thus require a minimum of 33 parking spaces, but only 17 if the same business wants to stick to one of the 2,090-square-foot units.
The other unit could then be some other non-residential use, which would only need three spaces.
While that would still leave a restaurateur short of what they need, a recent discovery might be the saving grace for 917 Central. In addition to the seven or eight parking spaces in the rear, there are about a dozen on-street spaces along Central Avenue that were only recently reinstated.
New crust is discovered
In the 1990s, Nichols was president of the nonprofit Plaza Central Development Group, which spearheaded the rejuvenation of Plaza Midwood’s main drag. He said he remembered that the city allowed on-street parking back then on a 50-yard stretch of Central Avenue in front of 917, but when he purchased the property, the signs were not there.
At his request, the city reinstalled the signs, which permit two-hour parking from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“Something happened to the telephone polls and the signage came down and since some of those places were vacant, nobody ever replaced them,” Nichols said. “It’s been there 20 years or so.”
And without God opening the Earth to create more crust, Nichols suddenly had the parking he would need to lease the building.
He said he may eventually propose a rezoning of the property to a Transit Oriented Development (TOD) district or Mixed Use Development District (MUDD) due to its proximity to the CityLYNX Gold Line streetcar, which would allow for a greater parking reduction.
TOD encourages high-density, transit supportive development within a half-mile radius of transit stations. There are no minimum parking requirements in a TOD, only maximums, though bar and restaurant uses are held to a different standard.
“Everybody always thinks there’s a parking shortage, but there’s really a parking sharing shortage,” Nichols said. “The PED overlay district was built in order to share. When the TOD came along, the TOD zone was to force you out of your car completely to ride the light rail and to try to eliminate cars in the center city.”
MUDD zoning is similar except that property owners can opt out of providing parking entirely with the approval of a conditional rezoning request by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission and Charlotte City Council.
With these workarounds, Nichols is optimistic that he can finally breathe new life into 917 Central despite its long vacancy. He said an ideal tenant would be a pedestrian-friendly commercial business, such as retail or a takeout restaurant, but the opportunities are endless.
For Sullivan, seeing 917 Central revitalized after years on the market brings a sigh of relief. For everyone else, it’s proof that with a clear vision, a little elbow grease and an understanding of city code, even the most dormant building can be brought back to life.