Urban intervention on South Tryon

I'm on South Tryon Street. It feels good.

A spread of shade-giving trees stands in the plaza between the 48-story Duke Energy Center and the Mint Museum Uptown, both new. Amid the tables and chairs, people sit, eat, chat. In front of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art rises the "Firebird" sculpture, just in front of the bulbous orange column of architect Mario Botta's gem of a building.

My wife and I came down one night for the N.C. Dance Theatre's performance of George Balanchine's "Apollo" at the Knight Theater - and what a scene. Young ladies in daringly short skirts arrived late and hurried their steps. Ribbons of color from Jennifer Steinkamp's public art video reflected on the Mint's wall. Mayor Anthony Foxx gabbed with a constituent.

I had to rub my eyes. This is light years from the South Tryon I knew over 40 years of working for the Observer in three different buildings. During that time it was mostly a run-down stretch with parking lots, subpar restaurants and not much class.

Through an extraordinary level of public-private cooperation spearheaded by Wachovia bank, four cultural buildings - including the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Art + Culture - have sprouted in the last year. These and the Duke Energy office tower represent an investment of more than $500 million.

What was once called "Charlotte's Wall Street" for its banks and financial institutions has been transformed. It seems to me as if we've learned something from the battles over tough urban issues argued and debated for 40 years.

Watch or be

The big change on South Tryon is public space.

That plaza flowing from Stonewall Street past the Mint to the Bechtler has the raw feel of the new, but not entirely so. Ten elm trees planted by Wells Fargo are about 8 years old, sufficiently mature to offer instant shade and color.

"We wanted the place to feel like a pedestrian space from the beginning," says Bob Bertges, the Wells Fargo executive who oversaw the campus now called the Levine Center for the Arts.

You can people-watch or simply be. The cascading steps to the Mint form an amphitheater that can be used for performances. Visually, the space extends across South Tryon to the Green. The park, with its grass, gurgling sound sculpture and hydrangeas, began the turnaround on South Tryon almost 10 years ago.

South Tryon now hosts a public ritual: Take a picture in front of the "Firebird." People did after the dance performance. I'm told a biker hauled his Harley off the street and snapped his beloved machine.

I thought of the agora, the public space the ancient Greeks devised in their cities for civic and commercial activities. But, as with Bank of America's Founders Hall on North Tryon, the cultural campus is only semipublic.

Uptown expands

South Tryon is a mega-project, the kind Charlotte likes.

"This is the place where Charlotte's economic and cultural leaders show this is a sure-enough city," says Tom Hanchett, historian at the Levine Museum of the New South.

Such interventions into the urban fabric can change things in an instant. For instance, urbanism in Charlotte historically has been thin, focused on two streets: Trade and Tryon. The cultural campus and surrounding development taffy-pulls uptown to condos on the west. To the east, it goes to Brevard Street and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Some city builders advise going slow, making changes by increments, preserving what you can. The new South Tryon lacks human scale. It can feel overwhelming, wind-blown.

That may change some when the Mint opens in October. The museum's store will be on the first floor. Bertges says about 10 retail slots around the tower, extending to Church Street, likely will be filled by the end of the year: a restaurant, coffee shop, casual eating and perhaps a gallery or two. There will be more people and more movement.

No more livermush

Another result of a mega-project is the loss of texture.

South Tryon has two surface parking lots, one of which replaced a fine historic clothing store, but few vernacular buildings. These are the plain brick structures that once housed nonchain restaurants or stores and gave the street character and quirkiness.

Going back several decades, I remember when the D N P Coffee Shop was a popular eatery. The food wasn't great, but with its crammed booths and varied clientele it felt homey and comfortable. We newspaper rats dared each other to order the livermush sandwich.

Farther up South Tryon, I found good window shopping. I used to buy rubber stamps at Pound and Moore, and a felt hat at Tate Brown that lasted for years until I inexplicably had it dry-cleaned.

"That whole world of retail surprise and excitement does not exist in a walking environment anywhere in our world," says Hanchett.

Latta Arcade/Brevard Court on South Tryon, once the home of cotton merchants, still has some of this - and the only, I'll bet, shoeshine stand remaining in uptown. But North Tryon, where more everyday buildings have been preserved, has the zest of restaurants and bars.

Over time, South Tryon may get more character. I like the "Firebird" ritual, and the good bread used for sandwiches at the Becthler's cafe. And the area can be more closely linked to funkier South End, the city's next big urban challenge.

A coming together

On a recent walkabout, I got panhandled twice, dropped a few bucks on two street musicians (OK, one was north of Trade) and enjoyed the cool marble interiors and brass detailing on two 1920s-era skyscrapers: the former National Bank Building, 112 S. Tryon - now SunTrust - and the former Johnston Building, 212 S. Tryon, now Fifth Third Bank.

I saw the Lynx train glide through the Convention Center, enjoyed the wide sidewalks, sat on the benches, mourned the long-gone Masonic Temple, smiled at the survival of the Ratcliffe's Florist building.

I marveled that four arts groups, all in well-designed contemporary buildings, stand a stone's throw from each other, unprecedented for Charlotte. If the programming inside is as good as the architecture, we may reach a critical mass, where they feed off one another. For instance, when the Mint opens its big Romare Bearden show in 2011, the N.C. Dance Theatre will perform a work on his life at the Knight Theater and the Gantt Center will exhibit related prints.

South Tryon felt to me like a culmination.

Since I moved to Charlotte in 1969, I've read about and sometimes written about contentious issues such as historic preservations and plans for the center city, the Tryon Street Transit Mall, public art and housing uptown. As I looked around, I felt like we've finally learned from all this, gotten some sense of how to make a better city.

I thought - Dare I say it? Dare I say to adolescent Charlotte, boastful and insecure, always checking its look in the mirror: Hey, you made a South Tryon Street worth a look.