Off the Street

 In 2010-10

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Off the street

Its skywalk might be one reason Charlotte’s downtown retail plummeted. What can it do to bring shopping back to earth?

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In this sealed and secure world, a sidewalk in the sky that spans streets and cuts through Charlotte skyscrapers, sounds and smells punctuate the day: the early-morning and late-afternoon echoes of oxfords and high heels clattering on polished wood and stone as workers scurry down corridors to and from office-tower elevators; the chatter of midday lunchers; the aroma of fast food and scents escaping from hair salons and coffee shops; the quiet that evening brings.

Overstreet Mall draws most of its visitors from the roughly 70,000 people who work downtown. They’re often in a hurry, so it’s no wonder the 80 tenants include 21 fast-food eateries and only 10 sit-down restaurants. There also are a dozen dry cleaners, five coffee shops, 12 gift shops and a cigar store. “It was built to serve workers, to make it convenient to grab something and get back to work,” says Cheryl Myers, senior vice president of planning and development for Charlotte Center City Partners, a downtown advocacy group. “It doesn’t serve visitors or residents very much at all.” Nobody calculates the combined revenue of its shops, which belong to the owners of the buildings through which it passes. But it has cost downtown Charlotte dearly, according to its critics.

One of more than a score of downtown skywalks across the country — most were built in the upper Midwest — it and its ilk are disdained by urbanologists who claim they sap a city center’s street-level vibrancy and hastened the flight of retailers to suburbia. “The unfortunate history of city planning since 1945 has been a series of fads that swept the country,” says architect Michael Gallis, whose Charlotte-based firm holds urban-design contracts nationwide. “Nobody today seriously talks about overstreet malls. They were one of the silly, goofy ideas that swept America.”

Overstreet Mall — and branches off it — link 11 blocks, connecting, among other structures, the 60-story Bank of America Corporate Center, the 48-story Hearst Tower, several hotels, the BB&T Center and three Wachovia towers. It snakes through buildings and transverses parking decks, crossing streets on elevated, enclosed walkways, covering 286,000 square feet — not including the EpiCentre complex. About 67,000 square feet of retail space is vacant, including some shops that were recently built, says Robert Ferrin, a researcher for a group developing a plan for Charlotte’s center city in 2020. At one time, the skywalk reached across Tryon — the city’s Main Street — from Belk to Ivey’s, major department stores anchoring one end. Both are but memories of when downtown was where the city came to shop.

 The concept for Overstreet Mall was hatched in a 1971 downtown-redevelopment plan, part of a movement to remake American cities — especially Southern ones — tracing back to the ’60s. In places such as Minneapolis with severe winters, skyways were seen as a means to trump nature. But in moderate Charlotte? Summer in the Queen City can be as severe as a Twin Cities winter, supporters say, but Gallis suggests there was a different motive. “Charlotte had this desire to be hip — current — and up-to-date,” he says

The skyway system grew piecemeal as new buildings rose, and more than a decade passed before its impact was realized. Instead of funneling shoppers from office towers to department stores, as had been envisioned, it siphoned them off, robbing street-level merchants of tens of thousands of impulse shoppers. In 1988, even Belk closed its doors after 93 years downtown. “The Overstreet Mall became a 9-to-5 shopping experience,” Gallis says. “It killed the evening shopping experience. It killed the weekend and holiday shopping experience because, after work, nobody’s there. Owners can’t afford to keep the stores open. Downtown shopping essentially died.”

On the other hand, downtown retail declined most everywhere, the diaspora to shopping centers occurring even in places where “skywalks” were what circus acts did on tightropes. Efforts to lure back shoppers resulted in costly bungles. In 1984, Charlotte turned Tryon into a quasi-pedestrian mall. It spent $8 million to narrow four traffic lanes to two, widen sidewalks and do away with on-street parking. The result: even fewer pedestrians. More millions went to put things back the way they were.

Now what? “The Overstreet Mall is obviously not going away,” Myers says. “It will continue to thrive. But we’re trying to get more soft-goods retailers downtown, and that really belongs on the street. It’s a different kind of retailing — clothes, shoes, the things a visitor might shop for spontaneously.” 

 

— Edward Martin

 

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