'High-Tech' Housing May Lure North Carolinians to the Suburbs

Hoping to entice some of the younger work force priced out of Charlotte, N.C., Gastonia is investing in energy-efficient high-tech homes.

by Michael Barrett, Gaston Gazette, Gastonia, N.C. / September 14, 2016

(TNS) -- Though steeped in history, Gastonia’s Highland community has seen its share of economic struggles in the fast few decades.

But a plan on the table could help the neighborhood reclaim some of its former glory, with the construction of high-tech housing aimed at attracting young professionals from Charlotte.

“What we’re trying to do with this whole thing is just get young people here,” said Tom Cox, a local builder and designer who would lead the development of the Gateway community. “This land we’re talking about is a great piece of real estate. It’s like a closet that just needs more clothes.”

The concept of the Gateway community involves the city selling about three dozen vacant residential lots that it owns along Beatrice Costner Avenue and Grace Street, just off North Chester Street/U.S. 321. The buyer would then build 32 to 36 high-quality homes on the property, but in a way that they can be marketed and sold to people who have traditionally been priced out of home ownership in metro Charlotte.

The target market would include firefighters, police officers, teachers and people in important professions that don’t traditionally pay well. Incentives to draw them in would include paying a portion of their down payment, or perhaps even the entire thing.

A 1.5-acre park would also be built, with walking trails that would connect the property to the adjacent Gateway Village senior housing center.

Gastonia’s Central City Revitalization and Housing Committee will hear a proposal on the project Wednesday, and the full council will likely vote on it Sept. 20.

'Urban Homesteading'

Cox has emerged as the maestro who would conduct this unique redevelopment symphony because of the expertise he can offer. Last year, he bought the historic Standard Hardware building in downtown Gastonia and relocated his businesses, Charlotte Cabinetry and Green Apple House, here from the Queen City.

Through Green Apple House, Cox breaks from the norm of building homes with stick-frame construction and traditional insulation. Instead, his efficient design involves building with “structural insulated panels” (or SIPs) and metal roof systems. The SIPs essentially look like pieces of plywood with a rigid core of foam between the boards, and they provide enhanced energy efficiency by combining insulation within a series of floor, wall and roof panels.

Cox wants to use that technology to build high-tech starter houses with an eye for “urban homesteading,” which pertains in general to taking a step backward and living a more simple, efficient life. He has three different designs and layouts in mind, with one- and two-story models, and the exterior architecture would mimic traditional mill homes. Inside, they would feature open living and dining areas with hardwood floors and stainless steel appliances.

The homes would range from 1,200 to 1,700 square feet and sell for roughly $150,000 to $209,000, he said.

Cox has been building with structural insulated panels for 30 years. Because SIPs can be more costly on the front end, he has traveled across the country to design and build for more wealthy clients. But he wants to make the technology and the sustainable living concept available to more classes of people. And he believes applying it to the Gateway project would make it more marketable to millennials, particularly those willing to commute 25 minutes to Charlotte for work.

“I just want to offer a high-quality product to people who work hard for a living,” Cox said.

Back on the Tax Rolls

A number of houses were located on the site of the Gateway project more than 20 years ago. But after they fell into disrepair and foreclosure and were demolished, the city acquired the land there with the help of Community Development Block Grants, then laid out a plan for redeveloping the site in 2000.

The project struggled to get off the ground and came to a definitive halt after the economic crash in 2008. Then Cox began talking with city leaders about restarting the venture earlier this year.

If city leaders approve, the lots would be sold to Cox for fair market value. Most of them are about a fifth of an acre and have been appraised at roughly $6,300, said Vincent Wong, the city’s housing and neighborhood administrator.

The benefit to the city would be in putting property back on the tax rolls, and in helping to establish home ownership in an area where rentals have become too common, he said.

“This is something we also hope to piggyback on as he does this project,” said Wong. “There are a lot of other city-owned vacant lots in that area where we’d hope to put homes on.”

Wong and other city staff have hammered out the rough idea of the project, though the details have to be solidified. Should City Council approve the idea, they can move forward with that, Wong said.

Cox said he hopes to begin construction on the first homes soon and have the first ones completed within a few months. Building with SIPs moves quicker than standard construction, and the energy efficiency of the homes makes them more affordable to live in over time.

Cox also shrugs off notions that it might be hard to convince people to buy homes in a section of town still struggling to overcome longtime economic and aesthetic pitfalls. He sees it having the potential of the popular NoDa community north of uptown Charlotte.

“Take a walk through NoDa and a walk right around here, and it’s really no different,” he said. “It’s all in our heads.”

©2016 Gaston Gazette, Gastonia, N.C. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.