Can you buy a Snickers bar in uptown Charlotte after 5:30 p.m.?
That was the simple question at the heart of a memorable column Observer business writer Doug Smith penned two decades ago.
The idea came to him by way of urban planner Michael Gallis, who had a snack attack late one afternoon and had to walk 10 blocks along Tryon Street to locate one of the world’s best-known and most common consumer products – a Snickers candy bar.
The fact that he labored to find a simple Snickers bar after office hours seemed to crystallize a larger point about uptown Charlotte’s all-work, no-play atmosphere.
To become a true world-class city, Doug reasoned, Charlotte’s uptown must be more than an office park that turns ghost town after 5:30. It needs to be a place where people live, eat, shop and play around the clock.
The kind of place, in short, where finding a simple Snickers bar is no big deal.
With that in mind, Doug and Gallis in 1993 set out to see whether finding the candy bar was really as hard as Gallis thought.
The pair walked from the south end of Tryon to the north end, canvassing the spine of the central business district, and came away Snickers-less.
A lot has changed since then.
Back in 1993, Charlotte was about to open its $141 million Convention Center and preparing to host the NCAA Final Four men’s basketball tournament. Worried about the lack of shops and attractions for visitors, local organizers turned South Tryon into a four-block entertainment zone of indoor and outdoor restaurants, bistros and vendors – all of them temporary. Critics claimed we were trying to fake a vibrant uptown for the visitors.
Today, we’ve got 100,000 workers uptown, compared with the 50,000 or so back in 1993. We’ve got light-rail trains gliding past the office towers and hotels. We’ve got a new museum district on South Tryon, and high-rise apartment buildings sprouting around the new BB&T Ballpark and Romare Bearden Park.
We even played host to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, for Pete’s sake!
That’s progress. Surely, two decades later, you can easily find a Snickers bar uptown after 5:30, right?
I decided to ask Doug, who retired in 2009, to make the walk again and see. Shortly after 5:30 p.m. one recent afternoon, we left the Observer building at 600 S. Tryon St. First stop: the lobby of the Duke Energy Center tower, whose site belonged to a car repair shop and parking lot back in ’93.
Because we got to the little sundries shop in the lobby ahead of its 6 p.m. closing time, we quickly found Snickers bars. Had it been there back in 1993, Gallis would have quickly satisfied his hunger – he worked just a short skip away at 437 S. Tryon. (He was traveling on business last week and unavailable to chat about our revisiting of his Snickers trip).
Still, as Doug pointed out, in cities with the best downtown areas, you don’t have to hunt inside corporate office towers for snacks or shopping. In downtown Asheville or Charleston, they beckon to you from the windows of the shops you walk past on the street.
It’s why an after-hours stroll in those cities likely feels a lot more stimulating than one in uptown Charlotte. And it’s why Charlotte Center City Partners recently came out with a retail study saying uptown has too little ground-level retail space and needs to recruit more neighborhood-scale shops.
One stop didn’t seem like a big enough sample size, so we trudged on up Tryon to see what else we might find that Doug didn’t find in ’93. We stuck to Tryon because that was what Doug and Gallis did back during their trip.
The street was mostly empty save for a few office workers striding past, braced against the cold. We reached Latta Arcade and the Rite Aid store just before it closed at 6 p.m. It used to close at 5:30, Doug said.
So, that made two places uptown where you can get a Snickers bar after 5:30 p.m. But still none after 6 p.m.
Doug wasn’t satisfied.
“Nothing should close that early if you’re a world-class city,” he said. “You should be able to find something after 6 p.m.”
Feeding a city’s soul
Past The Square, we turned into the Hearst Tower, where Doug thought there might be another sundries shop. We asked the security guard at the door for directions.
“I’m trying to think if the store’s closed. But you can try,” he told us. “You’ll want to take this right (turn) by the desk, take that left, go all the way down the hallway. You’ll see a stairway on your right hand side. Go up it, and you’ll see the store right at the top of the steps.”
That was about two turns too many for me to remember, but Doug got it all, so I followed him until we arrived in front of a small sundries shop.
It was just before 6:30 p.m. And it was still open.
Doug picked up a Snickers and smiled.
“You can find one,” he said, “but you’d have to work for it.”
We circled into Bank of America Corporate Center and walked into Founders Hall. Everything was closed, the shops dark.
It seemed clear to us that by 7 p.m., restaurants and bars are generally the only places open along Tryon Street. You could probably find a candy bar at the drugstore in the EpiCentre, which seems to stay open late along with everything else in the entertainment complex.
And on weekends, Tryon can indeed hum with energy as music spills out of the restaurants and bars – or musicians on the sidewalk – and stylishly dressed arts patrons head to the latest show at the Knight Theater or the Blumenthal center.
But walking along Tryon, the heart of the central business district, on a weekday evening, you just don’t get that jolt of energy and electricity you get from strolling the streets of downtown San Francisco or New York any night of the week.
Because I couldn’t reach Gallis, I turned to longtime Charlotte real estate analyst Frank Warren for an expert opinion on where uptown is in its evolution as a destination.
He told me one important thing most of us instinctively know: Charlotte’s earlier leaders erred in tearing down the old commercial buildings of the center city; those structures had street-level retail built into them. Our modern bank buildings often don’t.
Once uptown’s movers and shakers realized the error, they built the Overstreet Mall. But as Doug pointed out, no out-of-town visitor strolling on Tryon would ever realize there are shops along walkways inside the office towers.
Still, uptown is improving, Warren said.
“As employment and rooftops continue to grow, a more diverse retail mix should emerge, including shoppers’ goods,” he said. “The question is where it can be accommodated physically, within close proximity to workers, visitors and residents.”
Some of the best minds in the city are pondering questions like that.
As for the small but symbolic Snickers bar, it seems safe to say that you can now find one – with a little work – after 5:30 p.m. Just don’t bother looking along Tryon Street for one after 7 p.m.
Perhaps, when the Observer checks back in another 20 years, we’ll be complaining that you can’t find a Snickers bar uptown after 2 in the morning.
Now that would be progress.