Center City Partners looks at ways to bring more retail uptown

Getting more retailers to locate uptown could require creative incentives for “pioneers” and stricter requirements to include ground-level retail in new buildings, an economic developer told Charlotte Center City Partners on Thursday.

Those were two of the ideas Christopher Hemans presented at the CCCP board meeting. Hemans was named the group’s director of retail in August, tasked with leading efforts to grow uptown’s retail scene beyond bars and restaurants.

“We really want to create an authentic street experience,” said Hemans, praising walkable cities such as Asheville and Charleston known for their retail scenes. “We have a very different built environment, but how can we replicate that here?”

Michael Smith, CCCP’s chief executive, also highlighted the rapid growth in office space uptown, something that had been lagging since the recession. Uptown projects, including three new office towers, are set to add 1.75 million square feet of class A office space in the coming years, increasing the amount of such space by 15 percent.

“We’re at such a critical point,” said Smith. One tower, the 25-story building called 300 South Tryon, is set to break ground in less than two weeks. “For a while there, it seemed like everything was multifamily. It was all apartments.”

Maxwell Hanks, an executive with developer Spectrum Properties, which is building the tower, said the new development would help satisfy demand for more office space and recruit big companies uptown. Babson Capital will be the tower’s anchor tenant, leasing about a third of the space.

“There’s been a shortage of big blocks” of prime office space, Hanks said. The project could also include a boutique hotel attached by a walkway, but Spectrum executives said they weren’t ready to disclose details.

Hemans, the retail director, said he has been studying how to lure more retailers uptown.

He said incentives and requirements to have first-floor retail are worth studying.

Hemans also said the group is studying whether it would be feasible to enclose bus-stop shelters uptown and convert them into kiosks, selling goods and generating more foot traffic.

“We want to show activity on the street,” he said. Hemans also said his group is studying how to improve signage to point people toward retail, developing target lists of retailers to recruit and creating “pop-up retail” events with temporary retailers tied to specific events, such as Valentine’s Day or the CIAA tournament.

“What if we had fashion trucks in a private lot uptown where (CIAA attendees) could come out and spend money?” he said.

With uptown expected to hit 25,000 residents soon, drawing major retailers to uptown should become more feasible.

Former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, a CCCP board member, said he thinks Hemans’ strategy should yield results.

“I think you’re right on target,” he said. “There was a time we thought what we really wanted to do was bring SouthPark back to downtown. That’s just not it.”

Smith said it might be time to look more seriously at requiring street-level retail in new buildings in certain districts.

“We have enough vibrancy,” he said. “We can demand more.”