Chris Edwards's Commentary

User submitted November 28, 2010

Uptown Charlotte, NC has benefited from literally billions of dollars of new construction in the past 20 years. As the city grew from a mid-sized city to one of the country's largest banking centers, sparkling new office towers and accompanying restaurants, condominiums, performing arts centers, a movie theater and more transformed its downtown into a sparkling showcase of the New South.

At its core lies the Bank of America Corporate Center, a Cesar Pelli-designed skyscraper that is one of the tallest buildings in the South and is built to impress, with its marble lobby, Ben Long frescoes, massive ceilings, and accompanying mall and event space, Founders Hall. Founders Hall is also breathtaking, with its marble floors and walls, massive vaulted glass roof, and stunning architecture, and now with a glass wall on its south end, connected by skywalk to a new Ritz-Carlton.

Until the late 1980s, uptown Charlotte was anchored by Belk and Ivey's (now Dillard's) department stores, and a small enclosed mall, Cityfair, was built next to the Belk store. The Belk store was demolished to make way for the BofA Corporate Center and was replaced by a postage-stamp sized store south of Founders Hall; Dillard's bought Ivey's and closed the uptown store; and Cityfair, then unanchored by these stores, failed. While uptown Charlotte has plenty of restaurants, its retail space is limited, with a few stores scattered here and there in and around office buildings, and big box stores located at uptown's edge.

Given the massive growth of uptown Charlotte, and the massive influx of high-paying bank jobs to uptown, combined with the scarcity of mall-type retail in the city's core, a thriving new lifestyle center next door (the Epicentre, which is mostly restaurants but has a few stores and a movie theater) and even a heavily-used light rail line that stops less than a block away, Founders Hall should be a thriving showplace of high-end retail.

But what does it have? The signature tenant is a Jos.A. Bank, and there is a post office, a dry cleaner, two or three locally-owned women's apparel stores, a newsstand, a book store, and a Bank of America store. That's it. The mall is about a third vacant, with a high-end hair salon, a knife store, and a few restaurants having closed. Long gone are the other mall-type staples, an Express and I hear a Brooks Brothers (which must not have lasted long, as I've been a visitor to Founders Hall for 20 years and don't remember it). There were rumors of a Bang & Olufsen coming to Founders Hall but it hasn't shown up yet.

I'm not sure what the mall's problem is. Bank of America redid part of the mall in the past year, replacing a beautiful marble staircase leading from the mall's ground floor to its second level with escalators and opening up the mall's south wall into a sea of glass. The Ritz-Carlton and a new Bank of America tower opened to the mall's south. That should have attracted luxury tenants, but they haven't come.

Perhaps the mall is hard to find; there are a few signs outside the mall pointing to it, but nothing about the mall's exterior screams, "come shop here!". Plus, uptown Charlotte foot traffic is split between office workers who circle around inside the labyrinth of skywalks that connect office buildings on their 2nd levels, in the "Overstreet Mall", which is difficult to find, and non-office workers who usually walk outside on the sidewalks, so maybe a given retail space in uptown Charlotte will capture traffic from only one of those two groups. Maybe since uptown Charlotte lacks a large retail anchor (other than the Target and other big-box stores that recently opened on uptown's edge), chains are reluctant to come.

With Bank of America's backing, a central location, and a stunning appearance, though, Founders Hall should be a thriving shopping center. Those of us who live in uptown Charlotte are glad for the Target, but can we please have a Banana Republic or the like or even a small Belk back?

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