Friday, August 01, 2008

The end of uptown hamster tunnels?

Some folks are aghast that Charlotte Center City Partners President Michael Smith would cast aspersions on the Overstreet Mall system uptown of sidewalks and hidden shops. In an Observer article published Thursday, Smith said the overstreet system “is dilutive to creating a vibrant center city.”

One of those aghast is Bill Little, who owned the BB&T Center -- home to many interior retail spaces -- until selling to an REIT a couple of years back. He consistently defends it. Here's a portion of a letter he wrote to the Observer:

"Mr. [Michael] Smith fails to see the big picture. Overstreet Mall is more than a series of pedestrian bridges connecting coffee shops and newsstands. Think of it, rather, as effectively bringing millions of square feet of office space under one roof. I know of no other U.S. city east of the Mississippi where more office space -- not to mention hotels, parking, retail, performing arts centers, and residential buildings -- can be accessed under cover."

I'm on Michael Smith's side. People who say they want more stores downtown aren't going to get them until at least three things happen.

First, better designed retail space has to be available -- the kind where you can walk past the store windows, see inside and go right in. You know, like old storefront buildings (example: inside the Latta Arcade) and like stores in shopping malls. Those mall folks understand window shopping. Architects who design office towers and grudgingly throw in required ground-floor retail space do not.

Second, uptown needs a retail cluster. People like to shop where other shops are. Again, the shopping center developers understand this. Uptown not only doesn't have this cluster, there's little hope it will get one. The retail spaces built in recent years (required by the uptown zoning) are too scattered. The older retail spaces that might have served to link them together have almost all been demolished for the new towers. The only solution would be building a sort of outdoor-air shopping mall uptown. That's expensive.

Finally -- you knew I'd get here -- Overstreet Mall should transition to business support tenants: Printing companies, shoe repairs, cleaners, etc. I'd say it has to go, but the city in its infinite wisdom granted what amounts to perpetual rights-of-way over the streets. So the tunnels will be with us for years to come.

Why do you think shopping malls locate at interstate interchanges? Traffic. Uptown, the traffic is feet. In Charlotte too many feet are diverted into the overstreet system. Or conversely, too many feet are people on the sidewalks with no clue the overstreet system exists or how to get there. In either case, potential retailers suffer.

Yes, I confess I use the overstreet system when it's pouring rain or I need to get into one of the buildings. I understand some symphony-goers were shocked and appalled that they were expected to -- gasp! -- set foot on the sidewalks and walk when the overstreet passage between the Blumenthal and its deck was taken down. But it's perfectly possible to have an excellent shopping district without those tunnels.

If you want strong retail uptown, not the half-hearted retail we now have, eventually Overstreet will have to change.


Uncle Dennis said...

AMEN! The one thing to keep in mind is that retailers are like spiders. Spiders build their webs where they can attract the most bugs flying by. As our foot traffic patterns solidify, those retail webs will begin to appear, regardless if the space is perfect or not. I believe you will find most of those locations on the way to the LYNX line.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I see, Mary. You like the Overstreet Mall when it's convenient for you, such as when it's raining or freezing cold or burning hot outside. But beyond that, you think it needs to go. This is just the sort of blatant hypocrisy many of us have come to expect from you. It's all about what you want.

As a frequent user of the Overstreet Mall, not only for its ability to get me places under shelter but also for its wide variety of eating establishments and shops, I think it's great. I would even like to see it expand, if possible.

And Michael Smith is clueless. Not only about this, but also about the Hooter's and Coyote Ugly situations. He needs to let the free market work, instead of trying to manage it like some sort of Soviet-style apparatchik. If he can encourage more street-level retail, that's fine; but leave the Overstreet Mall alone.

Anonymous said...

There’s that word “vibrant” again.

Mary, can you or Mr. Smith please define that word for us in the context of “vibrant center city”? Why is dining and shopping at ground level “vibrant”, but not at any other level? Just what will it take to make an already humming uptown “vibrant”?

Can the Observer and Center City Partners erect a Vibrantometer visible to pedestrians and traffic so we can gauge how you’re doing?

I’ve noticed that whenever I see the phrase “vibrant center city” and substitute the word “domineering” for vibrant, it starts to make perfect sense.

Nigel said...

I no longer work uptown and haven't been in the Overstreet Mall in years, but I always found it comvenient and made good use of it.

The only time it became an embarrassment was when I took a wheelchair-bound friend there to look around. Maybe things have since been modified, but portions of the "tunnels" had steps. We had to find an elevator, go down, out and back up. Sure hope that's no longer the case.

Anonymous said...

Overstreet is fine in concept but absolutely horrible in execution.

Indoor malls often work in downtown areas, but only when they are visible from the street. That way people actually know the stores are there and can make use of them -- otherwise it's nothing more than an arm of the office tower.

Comments like:
You like the Overstreet Mall when it's convenient for you, such as when it's raining or freezing cold or burning hot outside. But beyond that, you think it needs to go.
are not constructive because they don't address the issue at hand. Mary is not demonizing Overstreet, she is actually being somewhat charitable toward it and publicizing its positive attributes. But from an objective and reasonable point of view, it is very clear that indoor underground enclosed hidden retail is NOT the best option for a growing central district.

Anonymous said...

Mary's own words:

"I'd say it has to go."

As soon as you, or Mary, or Michael Smith own property in any of those places, you can decide on what sort of businesses you'll lease your property to.

Until then, your opinion is as worthless as a promise from a politician running for re-election.

Anonymous said...

^ To extend the political metaphor, we all have equal freedom of speech so YOUR opinion of what WE think is also worthless, so long as I ignore it (which I assure you, I plan to do).

I see nothing wrong with discussing whether or not we like something uptown, particularly if we have a good argument to justify our opinions.

Sloan from SouthPark said...

Here's an idea to solve the lack of a clustered retail arrangement for center city:

Boot out the bars, bowling alley and night clubs from the EpiCenter. Replace them with retail. Complaint solved! In fact, how did Center City Partners allow this to happen in the first place, and just now start whining about the lack of highly-visible retail?

Based on an article in today's Observer, existing bars uptown are suffering from the EpiCenter's booze-oriented competition. Many may close. If the EpiCenter mix had been rethought, we'd still have enough bars uptown to attract the younger set from Gastonia, Rock Hill and other "suburbs", while drawing more shoppers to center city.

My guess is that the reason this wasn't done is because the developer wisely knew the demand for more uptail retail doesn't yet exist.

Jeeeeesh! Do I have to do all the thinking around here?

Anonymous said...

Several commenters have noted,and I will emphasize, that it's about visibility, or the lack thereof.

Can something be vibrant if it's invisible? I've lived here 20 years, and I'm not sure where this thing even is.


Anonymous said...

I've lived here 30 years and I don't know where most of those uptown nightclubs are. Yet I have no doubt that they are "vibrant".

Maybe that's what they mean by "vibrant center city", and why EpiCenter is party-oriented. We want our center city to be Party Town USA, where thousands of twenty and thirty-year-olds can party it up through the wee hours.

So, I've been trying to figure out what kind of retail stores would fit that atmosphere. All that comes to mind are those Wings or Eagle stores at the beach. You know, all those bright neon lights that draw the human night moths.If that isn't "vibrant", I don't know what is.

Or maybe smaller street-level stores so we can play video games, shoot baskets or get some taffy while we stroll along.

I just don't see the matrons from the suburbs flocking uptown to shop. It would take too long to get back to the club for tennis on the light rail or bus.

Danimal said...

As I said in another blog, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Overstreet mall has beena success over the last 30 years because it caters to the daytime workers and lunch crowd that surround it. The only people I ever hear complaining about Overstreet Mall are various city council folks and newspaper columnists. Everyone else that uses seems to love it. That said, seeing some of the retail in overstreet Mall, do you really want these stores on street level? I mean really, do you want a McDonald's or some last minute florist as your downtown retail choices? I know I wouldn't make the extra effort to go uptown for those kinds of items. As for now, leave Overstreet Mall as it is for the office crowd, leave the uptown bars on street level for the weekend party crowd. Having a Borders books, a Manifest Discs, and Urban Outfitters, etc. would be nice, but let's let the market decide when those things are ready to happen. In the meantime, quit trying to micromanage what is already happening.

Anonymous said...

The only people I ever hear complaining about Overstreet Mall are various city council folks and newspaper columnists.

That's because nobody else even knows it's there. For all the times we have discussed the lack of retail uptown, Overstreet is hardly ever even brought into the discussion. That speaks volumes about the lost opportunities that Overstreet symoblizes.

Certainly it's not a "broken" mall, but it occupies a very significant retail/restaurant niche that is currently missing at street level -- to the detriment of visitors and residents alike. Witness how often uptown is lampooned for being a haven of elitism, yet there are plenty of middle-class dining and shopping options available. If those were streetfront stores, or even part of a visible and welcoming indoor plaza, uptown would be attractive to a much broader demographic and probably generate more middle-class housing options.

Anonymous said...

Overstreet has apparently worked for both the investment of the property owners and the income of the business owners for more than 30 years. That would suggest that market forces are efficient at shaping business development to suit consumers, investors and business owners. That's fairly logical since naturally evolving large group consensus involving all of the economic players is far more efficient at producing desirable outcomes than is small group dominance. Neither city council, the Chamber, CCCP (who can resist)nor any other group of power elites are capable of generating similar outcomes. That's why City Fair failed and Overstreet did not.

Rick said...

...but let's let the market decide when those things are ready to happen.

What did you do with the real Danimal, and where did you hide the body?

You had better be careful of such heresy or they will throw you out of the local Democratic party.

Anonymous said...

Overstreet was a product of 1980s market conditions, not current ones. When Uptown was nothing but a canyon of office towers, with no population of residents our tourists, it made sense to have an underground mall for the convenience of office workers.

But under 2008 conditions it would make MUCH more sense to place those stores/restaurants at street level. Problem is, you can't just dig them up and shove them into the ground floor of adjacent office towers. The mall is more or less a permanent fixture, no matter how anachronistic it becomes. Meanwhile Overstreet saps the demand for street-level stores, and the streets above it are the most dead and unfriendly in the district.

Market demand may keep the stores open, but the presence of Overstreet retards the overall economy in the center city.

Michael said...

Overstreet Mall should transition to business support tenants

It already is exactly that. It contains every example you mentioned plus some others. Leave it in place and let it continue to thrive and build your new street level retail.

Frankly I wouldn't shop downtown at street level until the bums get cleared out. Paying to park and getting hit up by beggars does not make for a pleasant shopping experience.

Anonymous said...

^ Currently the bums congregate in the dead, windowless streets directly above Overstreet Mall. It's not a coincidence that underground retail leads to overground problems.

Put some stores at the bottom floor of the Wachovia buildings and you won't have bums sleeping there anymore.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:23
You're dead wrong on the genesis of Overstreet.

The Overstreet Mall is actually a product of the 70's when dowtown Charlotte was anything BUT a canyon of office towers. When it opened downtown Charlotte was absolutely not a dead zone. There was an Eckerds on the square, Belks and Iveys were both fixtures, there was all manner of street level retail within a block of the square, from National Shirt Shop, to Garibaldi and Bruns, to Brownlee Jewelers, to Ratcliff Florists. There were cafeterias, a movie theater, shoe repair shops: you name it and it was there when Overstreet was concieved and opened.

Virtually everything lacking to which you attribute the genesis of Overstreet was there. It wasn't designed to fill a gap in an empty city, and it didn't cause the demise of downtown retail that came later. It simply survived it because it worked.

Part of that equation, by the way, is cost: it works WHERE it works. Take some -probably ALL, except McDonalds- and put them at street level and the rents would drive them out of business.

Anonymous said...

early 1970s - First Ward cleared to make room for public housing
1970 - SouthPark opens
mid/late 1970s - Small businesses pushed to suburbs by demolition/construction practices
1975 - Eastland opens
1977 - Overstreet opens
1983 - Barringer Hotel converted to public housing
1988 - Downtown Belk closes
1990 - Downtown Iveys closes

It is irrefutably clear that Overstreet was part of the "auto-city" culture of the 1970s and 1980s. In that economic climate -- one which shifted retail to the suburbs and replaced centrally-located homes and businesses with corporate centers -- an underground mall made sense as a retail nerve center for the 'New Charlotte'. For the most part, uptown residents were not a factor in the retail environment (they were increasingly attached to public or substandard housing, not much of a market for upscale retail) and the office population was a juicy target for retail developers.

But that entire mentality was by nature a short-lived trend. Middle-class malls themselves are no longer considered a stable investment (note the demise of Eastland and the persistent concerns about Northlake), underground/elevated retail is no longer considered cutting-edge or even attractive, and demand for street-level retail is on a steady rise due to the rebounding uptown economy. There is now a significant and growing residential population, and Charlotte's tourism has grown several times over since the 1970s. To put it simply: there is now a demand for street-level retail where there was none in the climate of the 1970s/80s.

More importantly, it is very clear that Overstreet has a retardant effect on center-city retail. While the point about rent levels is valid (at what point is the city going to address this issue?), it is not the primary roadblock to healthy uptown retail. For a street-level business to succeed in the city center, it must have the business of BOTH commuters and the "window shopping" markets.

As long as Overstreet monopolizes the tens of thousands of office workers who can use it to shop for upscale clothing, fast food, and "impulse" purchases, there will not be a sufficient market to justify starting large new street-level businesses on the basis of visitors and residents alone. Therefore the residents and visitors will have to leave the center city (often unwillingly) to do their retail shopping, which in turn saps from the likelihood of retail entrepreneurism on uptown streets. The cycle is vicious and has been in place for over 30 years -- see the timeline above.

Bottom line: Overstreet is outdated by nature and no longer serves the needs of the uptown retail market. Instead of providing opportunities for business growth it detracts from the retail appeal of uptown and very strongly favors cheap chain-retail establishments (Belk Express, McDonald's, etc.) rather than local small-business entrepreneurs. Knowing this, the problem of Overstreet reduces to two questions:

1) How can the city as a whole encourage lower rents for street-level retail? Can it be done privately or will it require updated public policy?

2) Given the lack of current street-level retail windowspace and Overstreet's irremovable nature, what can be done on a physical basis to provide room for new uptown retail establishments?

Answer these questions and central Charlotte will take a much-needed turn for the better in regard to economic balance and health.

Jackson said...

A better question would be who is Michael Smith and why is his opinion worth more than mine?

Anonymous said...

Worked downtown for many years and used the Overstreet Mall for this main reason:

At lunch, I could walk the equivalent of several blocks without looking like I ran a marathon.

It's that simple. Put all those restaurants/shops at the outdoor street level and people won't go there during May-September.

Anonymous said...

Oh please. Every block in the area of Overstreet is shaded by towers and trees, and for goodness sake how much energy do you expend window-shopping? You must have some kind of gland problem if you can't walk a couple of blocks in the summertime without sweat stains.