A year after new owners bought the Park Road Shopping Center, the developer is sprucing up the 1950s-era strip mall. But some tenants are nervous at the changes in the air.
The new owner, Columbia-based developer Edens, plans to add outdoor seating, expand sidewalk dining, and make the center feel more like the communitys living room.
Already changes are evident. The long-popular rose garden is gone, replaced by boxwoods and trees. Scraggly bushes have been cut down. Faded No Parking signs have been replaced.
But tenants say they arent sure what to expect next. Some say Edens hasnt fully communicated its plans, and they worry rents will rise significantly.
Sitting at the corner of Park and Woodlawn roads, the shopping center lies near some of Charlottes wealthiest neighborhoods. Rents at a newer mixed-use center across Woodlawn Road are double what they are at the Park Road center, say people familiar with commercial real estate. The center also is at the heart of a neighborhood plan being discussed by city officials that aims to make the area more pedestrian friendly and accessible.
The demographics are incredible, said veteran commercial real estate appraiser Fitzhugh Stout, managing director with Integra Realty Resources. At some point, they are going to have to make some changes. It being older stores, its not as functional by todays standards.
None of the roughly dozen merchants who talked to the Observer wanted to speak for attribution, for fear of upsetting their new landlord.
Change is coming, said one store employee who said surveyors for the developer have been on site lately. The manager said the stores owner had talked to Edens about future plans.
Theres no way its going to stay the same, the worker said, noting trash cans have been painted and dim light bulbs replaced. Its like moving into a new house. You want to make it yours.
In an email response, Edens president and chief investment officer Jodie McLean didnt answer specific questions about tenant concerns. But she said the plans are squarely aligned with Park Road Shopping Centers heritage.
A brochure created by Edens and obtained by the Observer hints at other specifics.
The plan talks about enhancing the iconic nature of the center and making much needed improvement to enhance the pedestrian experience and introducing lighting and signage to promote evening shopping.
The plan also mentions re-merchandising continuing in earnest through 2015 but doesnt provide more detail.
Concerns about higher rent
The center is home to an array of enduring local tenants, including a piano store, anchor tenant Blackhawk Hardware and A Time N Place, where the owner fixes Rolexes and repairs grandfather clocks. The architecture is an eclectic mix, ranging from an Art Deco-styled movie theatre to the standalone Tudor-style pipe and tobacco shop.
When it opened in 1956, Park Road Shopping Center was the first open-air shopping center in Charlotte, and the largest of its kind between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.
The center has remained virtually 100 percent occupied since attorney and philanthropist Porter Byrum bought it in 1967.
Last year, Byrum donated the center to Wake Forest University, Queens University of Charlotte and Wingate University. Shortly after, the universities sold the center to Edens, then known as Edens & Avant, for $82 million. The privately held developer owns and operates grocery store-anchored shopping centers throughout the East Coast.
Efforts to reach Byrum, known favorably to some longtime tenants as Mr. B, were unsuccessful. A woman who took a message for Byrum said we dont know anything and the new owner hasnt told them much about what they plan for the center.
Edens also owns Atherton Mill and Market in Charlottes South End and Kenilworth Commons in Dilworth.
McLean, Edens president, told the Observer that small, intimate gathering spaces will be distributed throughout the Park Road site to help break down the scale and length of the center. Outdoor dining and outdoor furniture will play a key role, she said.
Landscaping is expected to be finished by the end of the month, with new signage coming by the end of October.
One store employee said he was told a fine dining restaurant may be built in the middle of the centers fairly large parking lot. Half a dozen employees said they believe stores will be expected to be open later hours.
Davidson-based retail analyst Kathleen Rose said shoppers prefer mixed-use village centers, which offer the basics, such as grocery stores, post offices and dry cleaners, along with live entertainment, civic opportunities and living options.
Shopping is not only a functional experience, but its now become a social experience, she said. We dont go shopping for the utilitarian function. We can all order what we want on the Internet.
Commercial real estate broker David Tschirhart said hed like to see the owner add vitality to the center. He lives in the area and says he and his family drive elsewhere for family fun.
Its a shame that we have to hop in a car and drive to StoneCrest so the kids can run around the fountain, Tschirhart said, speaking of the mixed-use center in south Charlotte.
I think it needs to be more of a neighborhood center than a strip mall, he said. I think the neighborhoods screaming for it.
Given the talk of updates, and the centers prime location, some tenants told the Observer they worry they could be priced out of the center.
Many stores pay below average rent for the area, which Byrum, the previous owner, was able to offer because he didnt have debt on the property, say people familiar with the project.
Across the street, lease rates at Park Towne Village Shopping Center can be in the high $20s a square foot, roughly double what people pay at Park Road, brokers say.
One mile away, at Park Selwyn Terrace, average rents are between $22 and $25 a square foot, according to Charlotte research firm Karnes.
Id like to stay but Im looking for new space, said one Park Road tenant who worries the stores lease may not be renewed at the same rate or terms.
Edens didnt respond directly to questions about potential rent changes but said it is mindful of the retailers personal connection with the community and plan to continue fostering these relationships.
Back court possibilities
Perhaps some of the biggest uncertainty involves Park Road Shopping Centers back court, a handful of businesses set behind the main shopping center.
Tenants include an Indian restaurant, consignment store, a Tae Kwon Do studio and dance school.
Last month, the city of Charlotte held a workshop for residents to share what they would like to see for the area. The back court faces the Little Sugar Creek Greenway, and city planners have said the back court could be a key to connecting the greenway to shopping and restaurants.
Edens told the Observer the back lot has endless possibilities but didnt provide more detail.
Edens representatives have attended public meetings on the area plan, said Alberto Gonzales, the city of Charlottes area plan project manager. The company has talked about bringing more restaurants to the area but otherwise kept fairly quiet, Gonzales said.
Rose, the Davidson-based analyst, said the Park Road centers owners have a huge opportunity.
Its obsolete but the center has got such a rich history, she said. Its retro and funky and a beloved place that everyone identifies with. Staff researcher Maria David contributed.