To take a walk along the Beatties Ford corridor with Ronald Ross is to recall battles lost and won, compromises collectively settled.
In a lot just south of the I-85 interchange sits two Wells Fargo ATMs with a drive-thru lane and a garden. “We tried to get them to build a regular bank branch but they didn’t think that was worth it, I guess,” says Ross.
Three large signs placed along the path leading to the ATMs educate drivers and their passengers about pollution, air quality and how to improve it through actions in one’s everyday life. Ross and other community advocates placed the signs and planted the garden, which they tend to regularly.
The next-door lot sits abandoned. Ross and other community organizers successfully fought plans to build a Popeyes on the property; instead, construction of a medical facility will soon get underway.
Across Gilbert Street, in front of the Allegra Westbrooks Regional library, pillars lined with brown vines wait for spring, when the Carolina Jessamine, two-row stonecrop and blue spruce stonecrop will bloom and fully bring to fruition a beautification project that Ross’ environmental community advocacy organization worked on with help from the city’s Placemaking Grant program.
Under the vines sits the logo for the Historic West End Green District, marking the territory where Ross, longtime community organizer Mattie Marshall and William Hughes, founder of real estate investment firm CGE Venture Group, have fought to hold developers accountable, push for green infrastructure and educate their neighbors on air pollution.
We tour the area just minutes after learning that Ross and his fellow community organizers have been successful yet again in their pushback against a nearby industrial development. Lakemont Property Investors LLC had filed a rezoning petition to clear the way for the development of “warehousing, warehouse distribution, manufacturing, office, and other industrial uses” on a 41-acre site behind the Wilson Heights neighborhood in the Beatties Ford Road corridor.
Just as I was preparing to meet with Ross at the property, a representative for the developer called to tell me that, following a virtual community meeting that saw about 40 people show up to oppose the development, plus a petition launched by CleanAIRE NC that garnered more than 150 signatures against it, the developer withdrew in December and was exploring other locations for the development. Because the petition was withdrawn just before the holiday, the community had not yet been made aware that it was off the table.
“I’m just tickled pink for lack of a better term,” Ross said, laughing as we settled in for an interview at Allegra Westbrooks Regional. “Just to know that we had the support of the community and the community showed up and the developer did listen … Hopefully the Wilson Heights community can get what they want. They would like to see more housing, a residential piece implemented, that’s what’s needed in Charlotte.”
Ross grew up in the Northwood Estates neighborhood across Beatties Ford Road from Wilson Heights. After living in California for much of his adulthood, he returned to Charlotte around 2010. While dealing with the smog in his former home of Pasadena had made him more aware of air pollution, coming home brought it to the forefront.
“Moving back to Charlotte and seeing it from a different perspective than I saw it when I was little, I came to the realization that, even in walking to and from school, we would walk through the woods, the creeks, play with the frogs, that doesn’t exist now … I do enjoy going outdoors, running and biking and that type of thing. So those are some things that need to be implemented, too, in our community. We don’t have the greenways. We don’t have the tree canopy.”
One of Ross’ first memories of community organizing came in the 1990s when Northwood Estates residents pushed back against plans by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) to build a bus lot for its transportation department behind the neighborhood.
It was one of 14 CMS transportation facilities located throughout the city, but Northwood Estates residents fought it because the street, Northpointe Industrial Boulevard, was already home to a high concentration of industrial developments, increasing the risk of pollution. While Ross was not involved at the time, witnessing the fight inspired him to become more engaged in community matters.
“CMS was looking at having the buses located in the back of our community, and I know our community showed up pretty strong for that,” he said. “They didn’t win it, but that sat with me for a long time. The voices were ignored.”
In 2016, Ross, Marshall and Hughes partnered with CleanAIRE NC to measure air pollution levels in the Washington Heights, Northwood Estates and Oaklawn Park neighborhoods along the corridor. They were concerned with the lasting effects of not only the nearby industrial development but the the city’s two largest freeways both being built right through or next to each of their historically Black neighborhoods.
CleanAIRE NC, then called Clean Air Carolina, established three permanent PM2.5 air-monitoring sites within the neighborhoods, then compared the data with that taken from more affluent, white neighborhoods in south Charlotte where industrial development was nonexistent and highways had not slashed communities in the mid-20th century.
Unsurprisingly, the data showed more air pollution in the three West End neighborhoods than what was found in sites in south and east Charlotte.
Ross, Marshall and Hughes continued the work, forming the Historic West End Green District, through which they continued their work with CleanAIRE NC to hold workshops with local residents and advocate for more green infrastructure in the West End.
The group advocates for the use of electric vehicles (EVs), helping to bring a PoleVolt electric charging station to the corridor in 2022 and hosting EV events at Northwest School of the Arts to make neighbors more familiar with EVs and their impacts.
In 2024, the group plans to advocate for more cycling- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure while pushing to preserve what’s left of the area’s tree canopy.
They will also stay engaged with development in the area, especially as developers begin to eye areas like the Beatties Ford Road corridor as one of Charlotte’s Corridors of Opportunities, where investment is encouraged by the city.
For neighbors like Ronald Ross, it’s important to keep an eye on just what type of investment that entails.
“A lot has changed in our community — a lot good, a lot not so good,” he says. “And whichever way it goes, we need to be involved in it and have a voice in what’s going on. People do feel left out. Things are happening and they’re not involved or engaged, so there’s that big skepticism about what’s going on and whether it’s actually a benefit for me. I live in the communities. Is it a benefit to me or is it a benefit for somebody else that’s coming into the community?”
He emphasizes that he’s not against all development, just the proposed projects that don’t take longtime residents into consideration.
“I don’t want us to be viewed as we don’t want anybody to build anything in our community,” Ross says. “We’re looking for developments and businesses that can provide services and amenities that our community sadly lacks, and businesses that are willing to contribute to the community’s economic and social development, to increase our accessibility to new technologies that are being developed so that we can contribute to the work force.
“We take the additional initiative to be engaged and voice our opinions,” he continues. “To the businesses that would like to come here, we can engage them along with our elected officials. We just want to be at the table.”
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