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They’ve come, now build it: Uptown ripe for retail after apartment boom

There was a time when shopping was plentiful in uptown Charlotte. The 1940s and ‘50s saw a bustling retail scene at the center of the Queen City.

Flash forward to the 21st century and, outside of Overstreet Mall, today’s uptown is almost devoid of dedicated retail options.

A crowd of about 150 attended the CREW luncheon on Tuesday for networking and to discuss retail in Uptown.

A crowd of about 150 attended the CREW luncheon on Tuesday for networking and to discuss retail in Uptown.

But Chris Hemans, director of retail for Charlotte Center City Partners, is convinced that the best shopping days for Trade and Tryon are in the future, not the past. And thanks to explosive apartment growth, that future is now, according to Hemans.

“Bringing more retail to uptown takes time and space,” Hemans said as he took to a podium Tuesday to address the Charlotte chapter of Commercial Real Estate Women for a luncheon event at Charlotte Country Club. “Creating space is the essential need for uptown. If we don’t have space to recruit the retailers to, we are going to have a hard time drawing in new retail.”

As a success story, Hemans points to the Hines Charlotte Plaza building at 201 S. College St.  “Because they landed a Panera Bread, and then the Ale House, they attracted the Charlotte School of Law,” he said. “This shows that retail is important on its own and that it can draw in other kinds of growth along with the law school.”

Hemans’ presentation to CREW kicked off with a retrospective about where retail once was vibrant in uptown. The crowd of about 150 attendees saw snapshots of Trade and Tryon in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Decades ago the center city shopping scene included boutiques and three major department stores: Belk, Sears and the venerable Ivey’s. Many of those buildings are gone now, but Ivey’s remains as a residential space.

But it is that very residential growth that Hemans said means uptown is ripe for retail.

“With all of the apartment construction in uptown, you have one of the main things that retailers say they want – a built-in audience,” Hemans said.

According to Charlotte Center City Partners data presented at the meeting, uptown currently has 2.1 million square feet of leasable retail space. Of that, 48.5 percent is for food and beverage outlets – which Hemans said is a real draw to crowds coming inside the Interstate 277 loop.

There are also 100,000 employees inside that loop, he said, and 13,500 people living there. The area gets 12 million visitors annually and the average household income is $74,499.

“All of these things add up to an attractive atmosphere for retailers, as well as the fact that the area is very transit oriented,” Hemans said.

The focus on walkability and even bikeability was not lost on Sarah Funkhouser, lead title examiner for First American National Commercial Services and past CREW president.

“I do expect improvement in the center city retail options with all those apartments being built,” she said. “It is a walkable community and that means you need department stores, sporting goods stores and some other key tenants. I think they might be good on grocery stores for now, but other sectors, they need options.”

Chris Hemans, director of retail for Charlotte Center City Partners, addressed the CREW Luncheon event Tuesday.

Chris Hemans, director of retail for Charlotte Center City Partners, addressed the CREW Luncheon event Tuesday.

But where can this new retail be built? Hemans said he would expect interest near the intersection of Trade and Tryon streets, just as it was in decades past.

Funkhouser also said she expected retail activity near the Tryon area.

“Almost any of that land off Tryon Street would be great for retail, and I think would give them the visibility they want,” she said. “A big retailer might want to be visible at Overstreet Mall, but I think anywhere along that corridor would be good for visibility.”

Hemans said the benefits of retail go beyond the jobs generated, and can include increasing the tax base and adding to the quality of life in the nearby neighborhoods.

Adam Rhew, director of communications for Charlotte Center City Partners, also said he expected retail growth to follow the residential growth in the area soon.

“We have had tremendous investment in the residential area in uptown with the SkyHouse apartments and SkyHouse 2 announced,” Rhew said. “We have had billions of dollars invested in that area since the Blue Line transit project was announced.”

Rhew said many millennials, including himself, who lived in uptown were drawn by the walkable urban core as a place to live, work and shop all in one area. He said he walked to the grocery store and was very excited when the Whole Foods project for uptown was announced by Crescent Communities earlier this year.

“That’s going to be my grocery store,” Rhew said. “But Chris and I also see opportunities to go after women’s clothing stores, accessories shops and even makeup boutiques in uptown retail spaces. For our generation, it is also very much about authentic retail options. One of the reasons that Anthropologie (in South End) has been very successful is because it is that authentic kind of shopping where you can interact with the employees and they curate that kind of merchandise that is real. It isn’t such a big-box, corporate kind of experience.”

But as with most other recruitment efforts around the city, Hemans said that talks between potential retailers and the city on possible incentives are ongoing.

“Providing an incentive or even $1 million for a retailer isn’t enough of a reason for them to move into uptown these days,” Hemans said. “It takes more than that, so we are having those talks with the city.”

Hemans declined to name any specific retailers the city was courting. He reiterated that the focus is on not just monetary incentives, but on making sure there are spaces in uptown that are attractive to retailers.

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