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Revival by Restaurant

Downtowns used to be the place to shop. Now, they're the place to eat.


Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan is a Governing senior editor.

For the past 250 years, ever since the city of Charlotte got its start as a trading post for Scotch-Irish settlers, Tryon Street has been its commercial spine. Tryon has been through cycles of growth, decline and revival, but it has remained the most famous street in what has long been North Carolina's largest city.

In the 1920s, Tryon was the bustling heart of a bustling downtown, thick with office buildings, department stores and thousands of streetcar riders getting on and off throughout the day. In the 1960s, the stores began to move to the suburbs, as they did virtually everywhere in America. By 1980, Tryon was a pretty decrepit place. It was rife with empty storefronts, gridlocked with long lines of soot-belching buses, and served as a resting place for panhandlers and the homeless. The only saving grace was the fragile presence of some shopping: Belk's Department Store, the National Hat Shop, a jeweler, a drug store and a few other retail establishments still hanging on.

Since then, virtually everything in downtown Charlotte has changed, and for the better. Thanks largely to massive investment by the Bank of America and its longtime chairman, Hugh McColl, Tryon Street has made a remarkable comeback. The buses and the drifters are gone. You can now do all sorts of interesting things there: work in a gleaming post-modern office tower, live in a stylish condo a few blocks from the office, dine and drink at a pleasant sidewalk café. In fact, lots of cafés. Sometimes it seems as if eating and drinking is what people specialize in on Tryon Street.

Only one major problem clouds the picture: There's almost nowhere to shop. In 1980, you could fight your way through the chaos and buy a good many of the necessities of life on Tryon Street. In 2008, you basically can't buy anything.

Charlotte's retail problem is striking because it contrasts so sharply with the ongoing revival, but it is a problem that afflicts most big cities in America, whether their downtowns are reviving, declining or standing still. They all are having trouble attracting any significant retail presence to the traditional urban core. People move to the center of town, live in luxury apartments, wait in line at expensive restaurants, enjoy the late-night entertainment scene. But when they want to buy something -- a screwdriver, a pair of socks, a tablecloth, a printer cartridge -- they have to drive somewhere else in the city or the suburbs, often to a mall several miles away.

Is there a solution? In Charlotte, the civic establishment is convinced there is. At Charlotte Center City Partners, one of the most active and entrepreneurial downtown development organizations in the country, they talk endlessly about "the retail problem." Last December, the group completed a 14-month study of the issue, releasing a detailed statistical report citing possibilities for a retail revival. Among other things, the report pointed out that nearly 70,000 people work in downtown Charlotte; that a majority of them make more than $50,000 a year; that 400,000 residents of the metropolitan area come downtown at least once a year, mostly to eat, watch sports or go to a museum; and that 600,000 more come into town on business and stay in a downtown hotel. If that wasn't a sufficient base for retail shopping, the report concluded, then nothing was. It was just a matter of showing retailers what was out there.

Michael Smith, the president of Center City Partners, concedes that this is not necessarily an easy task. "Retailers," he says, "are not pioneers." And the current climate of recession, which has affected Charlotte's big banks particularly hard, has slowed down the pace of retail recruitment. But the desire on the city's part to solve the problem has not gone away.

EVEN IN FLUSH YEARS, the retail problem can't all be put down to timid retailers. If you take a walk down Tryon Street, you begin to see some of the problems that have crippled downtown Charlotte's retail life.

One of them is the embarrassing entity called Overstreet Mall. Back in the 1970s, when it seemed that Tryon itself might never bounce back, local leaders conceived the idea of connecting the street's banking and office buildings at second-floor level with indoor passageways where office workers could shop without having to deal with the chaos and the panhandlers on the street below.

Overstreet Mall was a design disaster. It's so poorly marked and confusingly laid out that you hardly know when you're in it, and there's no easy way to get out. Most of the meager shopping opportunities in downtown Charlotte are in Overstreet Mall somewhere: a few clothing stores, an office-supply store, a bunch of fast-food restaurants. But they're maddeningly difficult to find, and most of the locals have given up trying.

But even if Overstreet had been designed brilliantly, the odds are it would be in trouble by now. The fact is that most of the indoor downtown malls built in the 1980s to compete with the suburbs for retail business have fared poorly in recent years. Grand Avenue Mall in Milwaukee, one of the most successful in its early years, is studded with vacancies and has been stung by the departure of many of its larger stores. City Center in Columbus, Ohio, which opened in 1989 amid great expectations and with nearly 100 retail tenants, is now virtually empty and has been taken over by the local government, which has made little progress in reviving it.

The evidence seems pretty clear that when people go downtown these days, whether in Columbus, Milwaukee or Charlotte, they want to shop on the street, not in something that imitates a suburban retail mall. The problem is the lack of supply.

Why, though, in a place such as Charlotte, with an easily documented market for downtown retail, is the supply almost non-existent? Well, one reason is that it's not entirely clear where the stores would go. The building boom undertaken in the 1990s by Charlotte's two huge financial institutions -- Bank of America and Wachovia -- produced some compellingly original architecture. But in nearly every case, the buildings sit behind massive plazas, adorned by sculpture, flowers and an occasional sidewalk vendor. They look nice, at least most of them. But there isn't any real streetfront.

In order to accommodate high-end retail, you'd have to redesign the big plazas to make a commercial streetscape possible. In at least one case, this is actually being done. The Bank of America plaza at Tryon and Trade is scheduled for retrofitting so that the tower and the street don't look to be so far apart. Even so, I can easily imagine a big retail client walking down Tryon, hearing all the numbers about pent-up consumer demand, and then finally saying: "OK, but where am I supposed to put it?"

Other cities have been guilty of similar transgressions. Many approved the construction of corporate centers with huge concrete plazas that make the street and the building seem a football field away from each other.

WALKING DOWN TRYON STREET in Charlotte, I couldn't help thinking a little bit about my own neighborhood of Clarendon, in Arlington, Virginia. In most obvious respects, Clarendon and Tryon Street have very little in common. Tryon is the focal point of an urban downtown; Clarendon is the traditional retail district of an inner-ring suburb built in the 1920s. Charlotte is desperate for retail; Clarendon has it, in the form of a open air "lifestyle" mall built a few years ago that boasts an Apple Computer store, a Barnes & Noble, a Pottery Barn, and many of the other retail tenants that like to travel in herds.

But if you venture beyond the lifestyle center over to Wilson Boulevard, the main commercial street of Clarendon, you see something not too different from what I saw on Tryon Street in Charlotte: a huge concentration of upscale restaurants, bars and nightclubs, with more of them opening up all the time. The hardware store on Wilson that had been there since the 1920s closed a few months ago, and the space will be used to expand the successful Mexican restaurant next door on the corner. The independent bookstore closed years ago.

There are now four Irish pubs in a stretch of less than a mile on Wilson -- which would seem, even to the inveterate pub crawler, to be two or three more than necessary. Wilson Boulevard, like Tryon Street, is a success story, full of life and youth and exuberance every night of the week. But it isn't exactly a business street any more. It's a Restaurant Row. A few weeks ago, when a drugstore finally opened up a few blocks down the street, it felt like a triumph.

I'm not exactly complaining about this. I go to the restaurants a lot, and I'd probably check out the clubs if I could stay up late enough. The question that puzzles me is whether "café urbanism," without the mix of other retail businesses that used to be part of the package, can make for a real revival of city life -- in Clarendon, in Charlotte, or anywhere in America. Or is café urbanism just a glitzy veneer that makes a few downtown streets interesting while masking the decline or stagnation of much of the metropolis that surrounds them?

Some serious urban critics take the latter point of view. Joel Kotkin, for example, argues that until urban corridors attract the kinds of institutions that families need -- stores of all sorts but also decent schools -- then families will not return to the central city in any large numbers. And until families return, Kotkin believes, it is pointless to talk about a genuine urban revival, regardless of how lively the downtown streets may be at night.

I respect this argument, but I don't agree with it. Urban revival can't take place on every front at once. Some elements have to come first, and some later. Café urbanism will not last forever, any more than the urbanism of streetcars and department stores lasted forever. The entertainment districts already are attracting residents back downtown; once they return, a more diversified set of businesses will follow them, even if it hasn't happened in Charlotte yet. And after that, the families and the better schools will come. All of this may be years off, but I think it's coming. In the meantime, there are plenty of sidewalk cafés where one can sit and ponder the complexities of the problem.

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