Small merchants lament rising rents at Park Road Shopping Center

09/20/2013 3:27 PM

09/24/2013 12:45 PM

When they cut the ribbon in 1956 to open the Park Road Shopping Center, Roland’s Salon was there.

After Friday, it won’t be.

Roland’s, one of the mom-and-pop businesses that lend the vintage shopping center its throwback charm, is shutting its doors that day.

The shop Roland and Elizabeth Garrido opened back then has become a tradition, with loyal clients from Myers Park and surrounding communities coming again and again over the years.

Lygia Garrido-Burns and her sister, Tania Cox, have been running the shop since their dad died in 1981.

“It’s been very painful,” she says of the closing. “It really has. But at some point you have to move on.”

Ever since EDENS, a major retail development firm out of Columbia, bought the shopping center two years ago, rumors have swirled that rising rents might force some of the longtime small businesses out.

Garrido-Burns says she wasn’t surprised that lease rates went up. She and others say attorney and philanthropist Porter Byrum, who bought the center in 1967, gave merchants lower-than-market rates.

But she’s disappointed that her request for a smaller, more affordable space went unfulfilled by the new owners.

“I don’t know what they plan to put out here,” she says, “but my guess is it’s going to be a lot of chain stores.”

Other merchants share that belief. They’ve been dreading the possibility of change since 2011, when Byrum donated the shopping center to Wake Forest University, Queens University of Charlotte and Wingate University. He was 91 at the time. The schools quickly sold it to EDENS (then Edens & Avant) for $82 million.

The firm, while making extensive renovations, has pledged to preserve the center’s 1950s charm. But for some merchants, change is hard, and unwelcome.

They question why some of the brick columns along the front have come down, and why some of the concrete walkways in the parking lot have been replaced by rows of shrubs.

The demise of the popular rose garden didn’t sit well with many folks, either.

I couldn’t get a callback from the folks at EDENS, which owns more than 100 retail centers. Their public relations representative pledged to try to arrange a conversation with a company official, but nothing had materialized as of the end of last week.

A “story wall” mounted along the side of one building at the shopping center tries to explain what the company’s up to. Storefront improvements are on the way, as well as modern cedar ceilings, stylish planters and stained concrete sidewalks.

It all seems aimed at updating the center without robbing it of its quirky charm. But Garrido-Burns and other merchants I spoke with aren’t buying that.

“I think they want it to appear very upscale,” she says. “I would say their vision of the shopping center’s future is different from that of Mr. Byrum.”

Khue Pham, owner of A Time ‘n Place watch and clock repair shop, says that after his old lease expired in June 2012, the rent for his space more than doubled, from $3,200 per month to $6,500 per month.

The only reason he’s still there, he adds, is because no one else has stepped up to take over his spot at the new rate. He’s on a month-to-month lease now and expects he’ll have to move after more than 20 years there.

His assessment of the new owners: “They intend to drive everybody out so they can bring national franchises in.”

An employee at nearby Piedmont Music Center echoed that.

“What makes this shopping center great are the small businesses,” says the worker, who declined to give his name. “If people want to go to SouthPark, they go to SouthPark.”

At every shop I visited on one recent afternoon, it seemed everyone, even the clerks, knew exactly how much time remains on their Byrum-era leases.

Phil Cowles at Modern Haircutters pauses from his handiwork to say he has six years left on his – and, “unless something significant happens, I’ll be here.”

At Park Road Books, bustling with mid-afternoon customers, a clerk says the much-loved independent bookstore has three years left on its lease and is staying put.

Jim Roupas, owner of the Charlotte Cafe, says rumors have been circulating that his eatery, a fixture for three decades, also would be closing.

But he says he has seven to eight years left on his 20-year lease and expects he’ll be able to stay.

He adds that he’s had good dealings with the new owners.

“I think the new people have got good plans,” he says. “I don’t think they’d force me out – I’d hate to think that, anyway.”

It would be easy to see this as yet another case of a big-money corporation squeezing mom-and-pop shops out of a prime slice of commercial real estate. And maybe it is. But Roupas, who also owns the nearby Carolina Soda Shoppe and several other local restaurants, sees both sides.

“It’s an emotional thing because you put your life into it,” he says, describing how the merchants feel. “But these guys come along, and they’ve put $82 million in it. They’ve got to find a way to make their money.”

Roland’s Salon won’t be around to see how the story turns out.

David Patterson, a stylist there for nearly 35 years, says the hairdressers have all lined up space at other shops.

“We plan to go to dinner together the night before” the closing, he says, smiling wistfully. “That’s going to be hard.”

His client, Helen Woodward, arrives, supporting herself with a cane. She says she’s been coming to Roland’s off and on for 50 years.

“It kills me,” she says of the shop’s closing. “It was so convenient.”

Almost all of the equipment has already been sold, Garrido-Burns says, and will be picked up next weekend. A wig stylist herself, she’s hoping to get a new operation, Roland’s Wig Salon, off the ground.

She thought she had found space for it, but that fell through unexpectedly.

On the phone, she looks ahead to the last day. Her voice turns tremulous. All these years at Park Road Shopping Center haven’t just been about making money, she says. It’s been about relationships. And some of those will now end.

She just wants to get through the day as quietly as possible.

“Our clients have been so dear and so supportive,” she says. “It’s going to be, maybe, a difficult afternoon.”

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