By Tonya Jameson
Once again, cranes dot the skylines of uptown and South End. Progress is in the air. You can see it as old stores and offices in the center city become piles of concrete and rubble, only to be resurrected as shiny stores, condos and office buildings.
Uptown and South End are beacons of Charlotte growth, and Chris Hemans is one of the people architects behind that growth. He is tasked with bringing in the final component that will make uptown and South End whole — retail.
Hemans is the director of retail for Charlotte Center City Partners, the gatekeepers of uptown and South End. Hemans, 43, joined Center City Partners five years ago as a business recruiter, and assumed his current role in 2014. He moved here after working in the city of Chicago’s department of planning and development. He’s compiled an impressive career in retail recruitment.
“I really saw this as a way to really utilize my talents for the betterment of the city,” said the Evanston, Ind., native.
Hemans sees his role as filling a critical need to make Charlotte’s center city complete. The process is already underway. Decades ago, uptown was the center of life in Charlotte, with thriving retailers. Over the years, department stores gave way to high-rise office buildings. Uptown closed when the banks closed. Then, about a decade ago, nightclubs made uptown an after-hours destination. Apartments and restaurants followed.
Still, it’s been difficult to attract retail, but even that is slowly changing. The city is already seeing the biggest change along the Stonewall corridor. A Whole Foods will anchor development that will connect to a nearby light rail station; two hotels and a 22-story apartment complex are under construction. That site formerly housed a string of Black nightclubs that hosted everyone from Busta Rhymes to Nelly.
There’s also excitement about the construction of the restaurant Haymaker by Asheville-based chef William Dissen on Poplar Street in the Ascent Uptown apartment tower in Third Ward. Then there’s the slated arrival of Eddie V’s, an upscale seafood restaurant with craft cocktails and live jazz, and Devon & Blakely, a fast-casual restaurant serving breakfast, coffee, sandwiches and salads. Both are opening in the renovated Bank of America Plaza.
“You’ve got some really interesting concepts that are coming into the market, that I think will do really well,” Hemans said.
Uptown is the business center of the region. It is also the city’s cultural heartbeat, with the Gantt Center, several museums and theaters. Uptown also draws chef-driven restaurants and upscale national restaurant chains. However, soft retail, such as stores, is slower to embrace the area. Hemans said retailers, especially national ones, want to see their peers in the same area. Uptown doesn’t have a lot of continuous space, which makes it challenging to place stores.
“In order for us to be a complete downtown, we have to have all aspects of what makes a downtown,” Hemans said. “Uptown has challenges, but it also has these great opportunities. I think the future is extremely bright for uptown.”
So does LeMond Hart. He moved his popular men’s boutique, House of LeMond, from east Charlotte to West Fourth Street this summer. He recalled weekends growing up and visiting uptown to shop with his grandfather for Sunday clothes. He always wanted to open a store uptown to give other young men that experience.
“It’s where I always aspired to be,” Hart said. “There was no fear with there not being any other retail. I knew it was the place for me.”
That’s how Chris Moxley and the other co-owners of 704 Shop felt about South End. Their retail location is slated to open on Camden Road this month. The team chose South End because they have successful pop-ups there.
“We feel like South End is the perfect combination of retail, restaurant and just general commerce, in terms of sustaining our business for the long term,” Moxley said.
South End is an easier draw for retailers than uptown, with national anchors such as Anthropologie and Warby Parker opening in Atherton Mill. South End is becoming a retail destination for national chains as well as local retailers, such as Common Market, who have always called South End home.
“South End is going to be a great retail destination,” Hemans said. “South End has this identity of being the organic, cool, eclectic hip area of center city. That identity has grown and morphed over time.”
The Columbia-based developer Edens said the $100 million renovation at Atherton Mill is generating a lot of excitement. Edens will add apartments, shops and more parking to the historic mill section in the first phase. In the next phase, four acres of the southern part of the site will make way for new shops, restaurants, apartments and parking.
Hemans, like many Charlotteans, doesn’t want to see South End lose its local flavor. Phat Burrito and Amos’ Southend, which brought everyone from Wu Tang Clan to DMX here, closed earlier this year. Both were pioneers in South End.
“We want to preserve that part of South End, ensuring that they [local businesses] don’t feel that they’re getting pushed out,” he said. “To have a strong retail environment, you have to have not only national brands and strong names; you also have to have that element of local retail, because oftentimes that drives interest to go to a specific area.”
Charlotte Center City Partners also programs community activities, such as events along the ”rail trail,” to drive interest in the area. Front Porch Sundays is a successful community event in South End. The monthly gathering has grown from a couple of dozen vendors to at least 50. It draws a variety of people for shopping, yoga, food and camaraderie.
It’s the kind of event that Hemans and the city’s architects hope will help South End preserve its identity as old inevitably makes way for shiny and new.
“South End,” Hemans said, “kind of epitomizes what cool is.”
The challenge is to make sure that cool doesn’t turn into cold, as the center city sees less old and more new.