Meeting the Needs of the West Sugar Creek Corridor

Thursday, March 28, 2024
How one Charlotte community is learning to navigate its changing and conflicting identities

Fifty years ago, Odell Witherspoon moved into northeast Charlotte’s Hidden Valley neighborhood, attracted by the nice houses and large backyards. “It was,” he said, “a destination neighborhood, an ideal neighborhood.” But that legacy is eroding, and Witherspoon is trying to protect it.

Seven years ago, after leaving the Dominican Republic and living in France for a while, Elena Peguero moved into an apartment in Hidden Valley. She hopes to one day buy a house in the neighborhood because it “feels like home.” There, she is working to improve communication between longtime residents and the growing Hispanic and Latino population. 

A mile away, along Sugar Creek Road near Interstate 85, families with nowhere else to go live in crowded hotel rooms. It is here, near aging hotels, convenience stores and the highway that others loiter, deal drugs and sell their bodies. 

“No other community matches ours,” said Veronica Washington, director of Life Project at Northside Charlotte church, an outreach program which coordinates and delivers social services for families in the area. “We have a melting pot of everyone, every nationality, every race in and around our corridor. We are a unique and complex area.”

Residents of the Sugar Creek/I-85 area, which is dominated by the historic, predominantly Black Hidden Valley neighborhood, have been working for years to revive the area and end years of city government disinterest.

Charlotte officials, a few years ago, designated the area as one of six Corridors of Opportunity, where the city is investing millions in infrastructure and services to improve the quality of life. Developers are building new housing, mostly apartments. A nonprofit funded by corporate investors is helping seniors repair and modify their homes to make them more accessible.

Another initiative is also underway in the community. It partners the imagination and resilience of residents and neighborhood advocates with the expertise and extensive research resources of UNC Charlotte faculty and staff. The goal: To come up with an innovative project to create a shared sense of community.

 “We hope for a very real, defined innovation, whether that’s a [physical] place, revised use of place or space,” said Byron White, UNC Charlotte’s associate provost of Urban Research and Community Engagement, whose urbanCORE office is coordinating the initiative. “We want a tangible blueprint for an innovative solution.”

The Sugar Creek/I-85 Community Innovation Incubator, comprised of 15 residents, representatives of organizations serving the area and UNC Charlotte researchers, began its work last fall and plans to develop a proposal by this summer.

The initiative follows a similar project from 2021. At that time, UNC Charlotte and Johnson C. Smith University partnered with residents along the West Boulevard corridor to develop a detailed proposal for a co-op grocery store in an area where no traditional grocery stores have operated for several decades. Last year, Mecklenburg County commissioners approved $3.5 million to help launch the estimated $10 million project.

UNC Charlotte officials are planning to expand the Community Innovation Incubators to the city’s remaining Corridors of Opportunity over the next few years. The Albemarle Road and Central Avenue corridor in east Charlotte is next on the list. The initiative is funded by a nearly $950,000 grant from Bank of America.

“We hope the city sees this as beneficial to its larger corridors agenda,” said White. “We see this as an opportunity to build long term relationships between the university and those communities.”

Developing a Team and a Strategy

Over the past few months, members of the Sugar Creek/I-85 Community Innovation Incubator invested in getting to know and trust each other and figuring out a strategy to guide their work.

They toured the area and huddled over a large map to identify neighborhood assets, liabilities and treasures. The first priority was to clarify for participants the establishment of the incubator as an equal partnership between residents and the university.

“I want this to be a model for how to interact with communities and empower them to interact with themselves,” said Toye Watson, director of community impact with UNC Charlotte’s urbanCORE. 

The Sugar Creek/I-85 corridor area is generally defined by the city as stretching from North Tryon Street/U.S.29 across I-85 to Gibbon Road and the Derita community. The corridor is a neighbor to UNC Charlotte, which is less than four miles away.

According to census figures compiled by the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, the Black population in the area has been declining over the past 20 years. Meanwhile, there has been a significant increase in Hispanic/Latino residents. Hidden Valley, originally built in the late 1950s to early 1960s as a middle-class neighborhood for white families transitioned to a predominantly Black community attracting middle-class families.

From 2000 to 2020, the Black population dropped from 60 to 51 percent in Hidden Valley and from 59.8 to 57.8 percent Black in other areas of the Sugar Creek/I-85 corridor, according to the data.

In contrast, the Hispanic/Latino population in Hidden Valley jumped from 11.8 percent in 2000 to 33.2 percent in 2020. Other areas of the corridor experienced an increase from 11.2 to 24.2 percent Hispanic/Latino. Three percent of the Sugar Creek corridor population was Asian and three percent was American Indian, Native Hawaiian or other races in 2020.

“I just want to maintain a stable community,” said Witherspoon, a retired finance manager and chairman of the Hidden Valley Community Development Corporation, which promotes economic development in the area. “If we can bring together the different groups the community would be much stronger.”

Incubator members have split into small working groups examining health and wellness, education and skills development and space and place issues in the Sugar Creek/I-85 area. They are consulting local and national experts, local business leaders and others in the community as they explore the role of these issues in restoring a shared sense of community.

Four UNC Charlotte students, who were trained earlier this year in community organizing, have been hired to work with incubator members by gathering research, conducting surveys and other tasks. The students will continue their work with the next corridor study in the Central Avenue/Albemarle Road area.

“Our biggest challenge is making sure whatever we decide fits everyone,” said Washington, who coordinates mentoring programs, an afterschool program and summer camp, and provides services to families who live in one of the hotels in the Sugar Creek area. “What is it that everyone, no matter the race or culture, can participate in?”