Fixing uptown’s retail problem

The Observer editorial board

Latta Arcade is marking its 100th anniversary this year.
Latta Arcade is marking its 100th anniversary this year. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

This week, Charlotte marked the 100th anniversary of Latta Arcade, the pavilion of shops built by real estate developer (and Dilworth creator) Edward Dilworth Latta.

If you work uptown, you know the arcade as one of the most distinctive spots in the center city, a place where you can get a shoeshine, a haircut, a sandwich or a dress.

It’s “a family of businesses,” Kim Thomas, owner of Technicuts Studio, told the Observer’s Athena Cao. “It’s nice to have a neighborhood feeling downtown.”

Uptown needs more of that, and small-scale retail spaces like Latta Arcade play a big role in providing it. The arcade, unfortunately, stands as one of the few visible reminders of the pre-mall era when uptown Charlotte served as a retail magnet.

Today, new apartments are sprouting all over uptown, but retail development still lags. City officials need to show more urgency in countering this longstanding problem.

Unlike cities such as Charleston and Asheville, we tore down many of our old center city commercial buildings. In so doing, we also tore down the retail spaces that made uptown Charlotte a shopping destination.

We replaced them with office towers that often lacked significant ground-floor retail space. Given how difficult it is to retrofit such buildings for retail, space for new shops uptown must come largely from new construction.

The city’s zoning codes need to be more aggressive on that front. They require street-level retail in large new buildings along the Tryon and Brevard street corridors, but don’t mandate it elsewhere uptown. Instead, they require street-level “activation,” meaning ground-floor facades that include windows, doors or other pedestrian-friendly design elements – anything but a blank wall.

City officials know they must do more. Early last year, Charlotte Center City Partners presented City Council with a retail study that called for a review of retail-related zoning rules and a retail-supportive parking strategy, among other things. City staff and Center City Partners have been huddling, seeking new solutions.

Michael Barnes, head of the council’s economic development committee, tells the editorial board that new proposals for attacking the problem haven’t yet reached his committee, “but people are trying to figure it out.”

They could start by mandating street-level retail more broadly across uptown.

Will that scare off developers? With more and more people moving to the center city, that seems less and less likely. The city needs to be aggressive in courting retailers and get creative in helping them solve uptown’s parking challenges. A carefully structured public-private partnership could perhaps provide answers.

When Latta Arcade opened a century ago, it was said to be one of Edward Dilworth Latta’s favorite achievements.

With the pace of growth and change accelerating uptown, the city’s next steps on retail will be crucial. Let’s hope we can be equally proud of them.