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Can an Asheville-style shopping district bloom in uptown Charlotte?

Uptown Charlotte’s last major department store closed its doors 24 years ago, but a new report holds out hope for a thriving uptown shopping scene reminiscent of cities such as Charleston and Asheville.

The report, from Charlotte Center City Partners, says uptown has enough residents and office workers to support a thriving retail presence of specialty retailers and clothing stores, as well as “urban street retail,” electronics and grocers.

The report counts 100,000 employees and 9,400 households within the Interstate 277 loop.

Center City Partners President Michael Smith on Monday presented the results of the study to the City Council. (The group works to promote development in uptown and the South End).

The study says the city should aim to concentrate 335,000 square feet of retail shopping along Tryon, Trade, College and Stonewall streets.

It also suggests the Bank of America Plaza in the 100 block of South Tryon Street should be converted to accommodate more retail. It says new tenants should be found for underutilized ground-floor space in the Johnston Building, too, which is in the 200 block of South Tryon, next to Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

But the report cites obstacles to improving shopping uptown. Among them: a lack of ground-floor retail space in new and existing buildings; a lack of retail-oriented parking; and a retail scene too heavily weighted toward restaurants, as opposed to clothing stores and other “soft goods” retailers.

Republican council member Kenny Smith asked whether Center City Partners needed money from the city to move forward.

Michael Smith said the report is “not an ask.”

But he also said in the long term that the city might help provide parking for retail stores, either through new parking decks or by helping to support validated parking for shoppers.

Council member Ed Driggs, a Republican, asked whether uptown retail shopping would be generating new revenue or shifting it from other parts of the city.

Smith said an important market the city could capture would be convention visitors, who have places to eat and drink – but nowhere to shop.

“They aren’t finding their way to SouthPark and Northlake malls,” he said.

This isn’t the first time developers have eyed uptown for a retail renewal.

Uptown served as a key retailing center until the 1950s, when the trend toward suburban shopping malls siphoned customers away. Ivey’s, the last department store uptown, closed its Tryon Street location in 1990.

In the late 1990s, a Michigan developer took out an option on the old Convention Center site in hopes of building a shopping mall with upscale department stores, but the firm walked away once the city approved an expansion of SouthPark mall.

The expansion attracted stores like Nordstrom that the developers had hoped to lure uptown.

About seven years ago, just before the recession hit, a $60,000 Center City Partners study said uptown Charlotte had enough workers, residents and tourists to support retail stores.

About 65,000 people worked uptown at that time.

Frazier: 704-358-5145; Twitter: @Ericfraz
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