Mark Washburn

Mark Washburn: Ideas for neglected North Tryon Street

Tryon Street uptown is Charlotte’s version of Main Street, and something must be done about it.

That is, anyway, the intent of a study being begun with the help of Charlotte Center City Partners and the Foundation for the Carolinas. MIG Inc., a California-based urban planning firm with an office in Raleigh, a city widely known as the Paris of the Piedmont, has been hired to put together a “vision plan” for the northern end of Tryon in the business district.

This will probably lead to good things. North Tryon is the sort of place where the energy of uptown goes to die.

Down the street, South Tryon has boomed over the past decade or so. Duke Energy’s snazzy skyscraper with its handy carrying handle has perked up the city’s skyline. Museums at the Levine Center for the Arts and the Knight Theater give the area a high-minded air, and the new BB&T BallPark nearby has infused vitality into that end of town.

On North Tryon, weeds bloom.

When the consultants are done, we can expect recommendations for “Birkdale-like” development, because any urban project around here mixing homes and businesses is always described as “Birkdale-like.” Had Birkdale – the Disney-esque shopping village in Huntersville – not been built, I don’t know how we’d describe such developments. “Stores with overpriced apartments upstairs” just doesn’t convey the same enchantment.

I have some ideas to improve the street.

I would like to encourage Price’s Chicken Coop and the Chicken Box Cafe to open competing restaurants across the street from each other. This would create:

• Drama.

• Foot traffic.

• Double parking.

All of which are part of the full-service urban experience. For balance, one of the big hospitals can put a cardiac unit next door, but putting our most revered chicken joints together will create a landmark block.

I want a water feature. I want a pond or a waterfall or a splash fountain.

What Charlotte chiefly needs is a river running through it. People like to look at water. When the Whitewater Center was being planned, someone proposed putting it on North Tryon. It was a crazy idea and I wish we had done it.

We need to learn our lesson from EpiCentre and amp up the lighting. At night, EpiCentre glows like a UFO. It runs counter to our city’s moderation-in-all-things personality, and man, does it perk things up.

Uptown’s biggest theaters – even the Belk – have marquees as dramatic as funeral home signs. We need to get over our modesty. Uptown needs zing.

I think we made a mistake when we decided to restore the Carolina Theater rather than turn it over to entrepreneurs wanting to make it into a show palace, but there we are. I hope after it is returned to its 1927 grandeur, it excites the block.

It took decades of attention to make Charlotte’s urban core, once descending into blight, into an attraction that few other cities in the region can match. North Tryon is the last big frontier of a distinctive uptown, and careful thought should be given about what it is to become.