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One random idea to bring more retail to uptown Charlotte

mhames@charlotteobserver.com

Imagine spending your lunch break strolling through shops owned by local businesses. You could find a pashmina for your favorite aunt, jewelry made by a local artist and even sample North Carolina-made wine. When there are spaces for small businesses to flourish, the possibilities are endless.

Sadly, in uptown, this kind of experience is limited to a select few shops in and around uptown. Even with these limitations, retail has been creeping uptown over the past few years.

Instead of the more traditional brick and mortar retail, shop owners and retailers have no choice but to get creative, relying on pop-up shops, trunk shows and street festivals.

Take Blue Hem.

Blue Hen

Sisters Vanessa Shreve and Suzy McIntosh started Blue Hem, which specializes in high-end denim jeans. Until recently, you could only find their product in trunk shows, shopping events and at personal fittings at Suzy’s house.

They had plans for a new store in South End, but the space was delayed. With the holidays swiftly approaching, they didn’t want to miss out on the shopping season. After teaming up with Chris Hemans of Charlotte Center City Partners, they settled on a small pop-up shop in Latta Arcade.

The types of retail spaces you find in Latta Arcade are the lifeblood of any thriving retail scene. They are old, full of character and, most importantly, relatively cheap. These are the kinds of spaces that once were found on every corner in uptown.

[Related: Happy 100th, Latta Arcade: Six facts from its past.]

Adaptive re-use — taking old buildings and repurposing them for something totally different (think breweries in warehouses) — is a great way to create new, low-cost spaces for small retailers.

Like uptown parking decks. While this idea might be new in Charlotte, it’s something that is occurring in the many other auto-dependent cities in the country.

In Los Angeles’ rapidly-growing South Park neighborhood (our SouthPark neighborhood is growing pretty rapidly, too) owners of a parking deck two blocks from the Staples Center realized that they could make more money renting out retail spaces, than they could renting out parking spaces, and they could contribute to increasingly more active pedestrian experience in the area.

When the conversion was completed, a couple dozen parking spaces were converted into 11,000 sq. feet of retail.

The same concept could be applied to any of the parking decks uptown to create no-frills space to incubate small retail businesses.

Why don’t we start with the parking decks that line both sides of Church Street?

A few years ago David Watkins, owner of my favorite local men’s clothier ABBEYDALE, was stuck in traffic on Fourth Street. As he sat halfway down the block, he noticed a small retail space sitting in the bottom of a nondescript parking deck.

Fast-forward a few months: David had created a retail store, a show room and a central location that the bulk of his clients — men working in the uptown area — could easily reach any time of day.

The same parking deck that we find ABBEYDALE has 200 feet of frontage on Church. If the owners were to carve out a space 20 feet deep, preserve the deck’s entrance and exit, they would have the opportunity to create 3-4,000 square feet of low-cost retail.

Every 10 years or so, the city dusts off its latest plan to compete more with its peer cities. To actually make that happen, we need to incubate the small businesses that are here already. We need to provide them with spaces to flourish within. We need to create something out of nothing.

Photos: Charlotte Observer file; Courtesy of UNC Charlotte library

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