Uptown office buildings ditch dull lobbies for bars and restaurants

Renovation work is ongoing at the Bank of America Plaza building's ground floor, 101 S. Tryon Street. Uptown office buildings are seeing a big wave of makeovers, with owners spending millions to retrofit old lobbies from the 70s and 80s. They're adding restaurants, shops and bars.
Renovation work is ongoing at the Bank of America Plaza building's ground floor, 101 S. Tryon Street. Uptown office buildings are seeing a big wave of makeovers, with owners spending millions to retrofit old lobbies from the 70s and 80s. They're adding restaurants, shops and bars.

Some of uptown’s most prominent office buildings are getting major ground-floor makeovers. Out: Blank walls, reflective black glass and bank branches. In: Hip new restaurants and bars that invite pedestrians to step inside.

At least a half-dozen buildings spread across the city’s center are undergoing or slated to undergo ground-floor renovations:

▪ At Trade and Tryon streets, Bank of America Plaza is getting a $20 million upfit that will include ground-floor retail.

▪ At 400 South Tryon, Rhino Market & Deli is gearing up to start construction on its first uptown location.

▪ And Charlotte Plaza on South College Street earlier this month announced a $14 million overhaul to remove much of its black glass and open up the lobby to natural light.

“I think the age of the grand office lobby is over – at least it should be,” said David Furman, a longtime Charlotte architect and developer, who said such spaces create “vast dead zones as the workers go home.”

“All of these improvements are about that, not to mention turning valuable street frontage into lease-able square footage,” said Furman.

Several factors are driving the wave of uptown renovation projects, which Charlotte Center City Partners CEO Michael Smith estimated total $80 million. Most of those buildings being renovated are from the 1970s and ’80s , when office buildings were often set back from the street and deliberately screened from view with dark, reflective glass or hidden behind moat-like landscaping.

Behind the tinted glass and screens of shrubbery, grand lobbies and large bank branches took up most of the ground floor. Bank of America Plaza, opened in 1974 as the new headquarters for Bank of America predecessor NCNB, is one such example: Opaque black glass sheathed the ground floor and a bank branch used to take up most of the lobby at the prestigious Trade and Tryon intersection.

“Our building, from the ground level, appeared to be closed for business,” said Rhea Greene of Trinity Partners, director of office leasing who handles Bank of America Plaza. “We had space sitting there that was a missed opportunity.”

Now, tenants don’t want those features anymore. Instead, they want restaurants for employees to grab lunch or a cafe for a quick coffee – seen as amenities for employees and attractive places for business meetings. The idea of having shops, restaurants and bars open to pedestrians and passersby has replaced the monumental ground-floor architecture of past decades.

Some buildings have already completed major ground-floor changes. Essex, a high-end restaurant, opened this year at the base of the Omni Charlotte Hotel on Trade Street. The Charlotte Chamber building at 330 South Tryon added an upscale restaurant space, and Famous Toastery signed on as a tenant.

More owners are taking advantage of the chance to turn disused space into rent-generating square footage, as at 400 South Tryon, where a blank wall and empty space facing Church Street is being transformed into retail space, including Rhino Market.

“For much of our city’s history, the big banks ruled the real estate landscape. The order of the day was grandiose lobbies with floor-to-ceiling marble,” said Adam Williams of Legacy Real Estate Advisors, who specializes in leasing retail space uptown, including at 400 South Tryon. Now, most office buildings uptown are owned by real estate investment trusts or real estate firms that want to maximize their revenue from each building and care less about that prestige factor.

Smith, of Center City Partners, said a shifting mindset about what makes a building prestigious and growing appreciation of how restaurants and shops on the ground floor are behind the shift.

“Lobbies created the prestige of the building” in previous decades, said Smith. “There was a barrier, exclusivity, ‘private environment’ bent to the design of the ’70s and ’80s.”

Now, tenants are much more about what’s inside a building’s ground floor rather than how it looks. And that’s tied to financial returns for building owners. For example, an office building with a beer garden or upscale coffee shop on the ground floor is going to have an easier time asking tenants for higher rents than a building that can only point to a large lobby.

Another factor motivating landlords to renovate stodgy ground floors in older buildings: The need to keep up with the competition. Uptown, the city’s biggest office market, has 3.9 million square feet of new office space planned or under construction now, Smith said, on top of 6 million square feet added in the 2000s and 5 million added in the 90s.

“Forward-thinking landlords are using this as an opportunity to improve their buildings,” said Green. “You have to continually invest in them to stay competitive.”

Smith said that ultimately, the changes will benefit people beyond those who work in uptown offices by creating a more welcoming and vibrant center city. Promoting ground-floor shops and restaurants has long been one of his group’s major goals for uptown.

“Changing demands and changes in use all add up to an environment that’s becoming much more inviting,” said Smith.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

Office lobbies getting a facelift

Charlotte’s office buildings - many of which date to the 1970s and 80s - are updating their lobbies, often built to keep the public at arm’s length rather than invited in. Now, owners are getting rid of dark glass and adding more retail and restaurants.

▪ Charlotte Plaza, 201 S. College Street: A $14 million redo of the lobby, meant to put in transparent glass, more lighting, new escalators and new sculptures.

▪ Bank of America Plaza, 101 S. Tryon Street: A $20 million renovation that’s adding restaurants and eliminating opaque glass walls.

▪ 400 S. Church Street: Rhino Market and Deli recently signed a lease to open a store here. A renovation will eliminate blank walls and add more retail space. The building’s owners already completed a $2 million lobby renovation.

▪ 300 South Brevard Street: After buying the former AT&T Plaza building for $45 million, the new owners are adding space for shops redoing the lobby as part of an overhaul of the whole building.


▪ 101 Independence Center, 101 N. Tryon Street: Plans call for removing the glass atrium and adding restaurant and retail space to the ground floor.