A Charlotte architect on a mission to improve poor neighborhoods is The Charlotte Post Foundation “Luminary – Lifetime Achievement” award winner for 2017.
Darrel Williams, principal and founding partner of Neighboring Concepts, said he feels a calling to help those in neighborhoods similar to the “physically and socially challenged” area he knew as a youth in Baton Rouge, LA.
“God allowed me to become an architect so I could give hope to people who live in communities like the one I grew up in,” said Williams. “I want to let them know they can be part of helping change their situation. I want them to become more empowered and be able to sustain their lives.”
Williams will be honored at the 21st “Post Best” banquet on Saturday, September 16, at the Hilton Center City.
After feeling inspired as a high school senior to be an architect, Williams, 60, attended Southern University and graduated Cum Laude. He moved to Charlotte in the early 1980s and shortly joined Gantt Huberman Architects where he worked from 1985-1996.
“Harvey (Gantt) allowed me to work on everything,” Darrel recalled. “I got to work on programming and construction documents and understand construction and how drawings related to it.”
Gantt called Williams “an outstanding young man” concerned about community uplift.
Through the Queen City Optimist Club, Williams started mentoring youths in First Ward’s now-replaced Earle Village. Taking them on field trips, he discovered many parks in poor condition. When a new position was created on the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, the body overseeing parks, Williams ran and won.
“He was following a pattern that I talked about substantially,” Gantt said, “which was architects getting involved in the public life of their communities.”
Williams championed a $220 million Land Purchase Bond. It facilitated parks improvement and brought better coordination in land use for schools, libraries and parks as well as better protection for Mountain Island Lake, Charlotte’s drinking water source.
“Darrel’s a man of integrity,” said NC Rep. Becky Carney of Charlotte, who served with him on the county commission. “He worked hard, got the bond on the ballot and campaigned for it and it was a very big success.”
While serving on the county commission from 1994 to 2002, Williams worried that he possibly wasn’t working as much as others at Gantt Huberman. In 1996, he left to form Neighboring Concepts. Soon his staff that now numbers 18 became diverse.
“Diversity is power,” Williams said. “When you have people of different economic levels, who come from different backgrounds, cultures and races working together, they can provide a much better solution to a problem. They have a broader perspective.”
A high-profile project for Neighboring Concepts was Mosaic Village. The multi-million dollar mixed-use development adjacent to Johnson C. Smith University includes student apartments, retail space and a 400-car parking structure. The firm makes its home in that complex that promises to help transform the Northwest Corridor.
The Griffin Brothers Companies joined JCSU as a Mosaic Village client. Partner Mike Griffin said Williams fits the definition of luminary: “a person who inspires or influences others, especially one prominent in a particular sphere.”
“Darrel is the visionary behind Mosaic Village and he inspired and influenced my family to be a part of this great project,” Griffin said. “Darrel is a true friend and great role model for me and many others.”
Though reluctant to pick what he’s most proud of, Williams speaks glowingly of his firm’s involvement in the transformation of Boulevard Homes into The Renaissance, a cutting-edge educational village seeking LEED and EarthCraft certifications.
An impressive though incomplete list of other projects includes CATS light rail stations, the streetcar extension, the Gantt Center and Romare Bearden Park. The firm put together a master plan for St. Paul’s Baptist Church in the Belmont community. Williams and his wife, District Court Judge Karen Eady-Williams, attend services there.
Williams recently agreed to serve a second time on the board of Charlotte Center City Partners. CEO Michael Smith said “Darrel’s efforts to build this city have inspired and framed the lives of people here and shaped how they experience life.”
Williams is on numerous other civic and professional boards. But what’s next?
Williams’ aspiration is directly connected to community betterment. “We have dabbled in some development,” Williams said. “One thing about developers and development is that you have more influence.”