Uptown Charlotte is not the “ghost town” it was after business hours 25 years ago. Numerous bars and restaurants keep its streets busy well into the evening. But walk around uptown at any time and you won’t find many retail stores. WFAE’s Duncan McFadyen explains why, and what one group is trying to do to change it.
Unless you work uptown, you probably haven’t heard of Charlotte’s Overstreet Mall. It’s a network of storefronts inside several high-rises, connected by sky-bridges. It started in the late 70s as a way for workers to get around, and it’s grown with uptown. You can walk from 2nd and Tryon to 6th and College without going outside—that’s five blocks.
Much of the walkway is lined with restaurants and coffee shops that bustle with activity during the day. Scattered among the eateries are a drug store, a dry cleaner, bike and shoe repair shops, and a place called the Beehive.
Teresa Farson has owned the eclectic gift shop with her sister for nearly three decades. She says the mall has changed a lot over that time.
“When we started out 28 years ago," she recalls, "it was a lot more retail--mostly retail--in this mall, which was great, and we’ve slowly watched it transition into mainly food.”
Part of the reason that’s happened, Farson thinks, is that the mall is hard to find, if you don’t work in one of uptown’s high-rises.
“People have a very hard time, and even if they try to google us and everything, still being inside, they have a hard time finding us,” she says.
You can get to the over street mall from a number of buildings; the BB&T Center, Bank of America Plaza, the Hearst Tower, and the EpiCenter. But some of the entrances aren’t marked at all.
The easiest way to get to Farson’s store, for instance, is by walking into nondescript doors set back from the street between Bank of America Plaza and the Omni Hotel. It looks like the entrance to an office building. There’s a reason for that.
“The 70s and 80s were a really tough period for great, walkable urban space. That pedestrian scale just went away,” says Michael Smith, CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners.
That’s left us with some blocks of uptown that are windowless at street level.
“You have these buildings, like Bank of America Plaza, where the entrances are around the back. It doesn’t create that openness, that reception, that hospitality,” he says.
In addition to the lack of pedestrian-friendly storefront space, the thriving uptown restaurant scene prices many retailers out. Some restaurants will pay up to twice as much as shops for prime locations. Retailers can get just as much business and pay less rent outside of uptown. According to Center City Partners, their absence leaves an un-met demand for retail uptown of as much as $120 million a year. But the group has a plan it hopes will change that.
Smith recently presented the Charlotte City Council with recommendations for growing the uptown retail market. It’ll take 10 years or more to reach some of the goals; converting high-rise facades to accommodate street level retail space and luring national retailers such as Target. But smaller changes could happen more quickly. The plan suggests creating a business incubator where local companies share space. It also calls for kiosks and pop-up retail on Tryon street’s busy sidewalks.
“There’s no one thing that we can do to create this healthy, robust economy. The beauty of retail when it’s done right is that when it’s done right, it’s really a reflection of the community,” Smith says.
To help facilitate this uptown retail Renaissance, Smith says a few things need to change. Current uptown zoning ordinances call for any new construction to include “street level activation,” but he thinks there should be more specific language that calls for retail space. The city will also have to keep parking for retail customers in mind.
That’s now being reviewed by the city’s economic development committee.