Overstreet expansion is grounded for now

Charlotte's Overstreet Mall network stretches from the 400 block of South Tryon Street to the 200 block of North Tryon.

And for the immediate future, that's where you will find most of the shops, restaurants and services that support uptown workers and residents.

Retail is needed, and uptown leaders have been pushing for more, preferably at ground level where it could help animate center city streets.

But attracting more stores – especially national chains – won't be easy in these uncertain times.

A consultant hired by Charlotte Center City Partners completed a study last year that suggested uptown could support 240,000 square feet more retail right away, but the economy has slowed and retailers have cut back on expansion plans.

“In this economy, we are not moving aggressively on a retail development plan,” said Michael Smith, president of Charlotte Center City Partners. “I don't think we would get the mix we want right now.”

Center City Partners does plan to hire a director of retail early next year, he said.

The Overstreet Mall – appreciated by office workers and decried by urban planners – houses everything from fast food and coffee shops to apparel stores and gift purveyors.

Smith said he and the consultant believe the walkways should provide support services – copying, for example – to businesses instead of mainstream retail, which is best suited for street level.

A former president of Charlotte Center City Partners found the elevated network so disconcerting a few years ago that he was ready to recommend the city tear it down.

Smith doesn't go that far, but he does concede the system “is dilutive to creating a vibrant center city.”

Nevertheless, if you want to shop uptown today, the Overstreet Mall is usually where you will end up.

The last time I walked the full length, I counted about 150 shops, restaurants and service providers along the way.

Most office workers are familiar with the system, which also connects to parking decks and allows them to avoid going outside in inclement weather.

But visitors and conventioneers often come and go without ever knowing it exists. Entrances – through building lobbies – are not well marked and are difficult to find.

And if you are not from around here, you have to stop someone and ask directions or find a map. Smith said Center City Partners isn't overly concerned about that.

“Functioning as a business support center, I think the right people know how to get there,” he said. “With the hours these shops keep and the merchandise they offer, it is not, generally speaking, a place our guests want or need to shop.”

Charlotte's overhead system is small potatoes compared with the Minnesota city our leaders borrowed the idea from in the mid-1970s.

Minneapolis claims to have the largest system in the world, linking nearly 80 blocks of downtown attractions, businesses and hotels.

But Smith said he heard that leaders in that city have come full circle and are starting to think about how to bring activity back down to street level.

In Charlotte, the overhead system has been expanded several times since its 1977 opening and caused debates on the City Council on whether it should be allowed to grow.

Center City Partners, of course, prefers not to see any more extensions. “It's not part of our longer-term vision,” Smith said.

Doug Smith's Notebook

Crescent Resources LLC named Robert Zeiller to lead a newly created division that will manage urban mixed-use projects.

As vice president, he'll oversee all of the company's mixed-use developments in urban areas. Zeiller was promoted from Crescent's commercial division, where he managed the mid-Atlantic region.

In that role, he led development of Crescent's urban mixed-use project Potomac Yard – a 300-acre development minutes from downtown Washington and adjacent to Reagan National Airport.

Crescent also developed Piedmont Town Center, a SouthPark project with 400,000 square feet of office space, 90,000 square feet of retail and 189 condominiums.