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Past 30 Years of Charlotte's main street

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There was a great article in today's Charlotte Observer detailing the changes that have occured with Charlotte's N. Tryon Street in downtown Charlotte over the past 30 years.

North Tryon Street: It's alive

A vibrant streetscape was unthinkable a decade ago.


Staff Writers

A proposal on cultural facilities last week put a spotlight on North Tryon. It called for renovating and expanding Discovery Place, building a new museum to house a modern art collection and moving the Mint Museum of Art uptown. These would only add to the glitter of a street that's come alive.

This old guy with white hair and white beard dances on the sidewalk in front of the Fox and Hound, dipping his shoulders and sliding his feet as the music blares on North Tryon Street. A cherry red pickup truck stops and the couple inside grins.

Three young women on roller blades pause. A gang of girls, black and white, barges across the street, and one of them, wearing a ball cap turned sideways, jumps in. Mr. White Hair does this cool move where he half hides his face with his hat. Ball Cap Girl loves it.

"Do the hat!" she yells, "Do the hat!" as a friend takes a photo with her cell phone.

"I may be homeless on the street, but I can put a smile on your face," says Ronnie "Teddy Bear" Pierce, breathing hard to catch his breath.

The encounter is a piece of urban serendipity on a chilly Friday night, the kind of moment unthinkable in uptown Charlotte as recently as five years ago. People with different backgrounds and interests come together, interact and go their separate ways on the street, civilization's common ground since the Greeks.

It's one sign that North Tryon has become the kind of vibrant urban place Charlotte has talked about for more than 30 years but struggled to achieve. A street that was left out of the 1970s skyscraper boom -- that had 24 vacant stores in 1982 -- has blossomed.

"I love it," says historian Tom Hanchett. "I never thought I would say that about downtown Charlotte. I like the unexpected things."

On this Friday night, a flutist finishes "Night and Day" in the lobby of the Bank of America building, and members of the N.C. Bar Board of Directors sit for dinner at tables with fresh flowers.

J.C. raps his poem "Are You Ready?" to an appreciative crowd at Hearst Plaza. The sounds of Gael Warning, a three-piece band -- drums, bagpipes and keyboards -- drift from the main library where they stand, two of them wearing kilts.

And it's hours away from when things really heat up, when the Hondas and the SUVs and the vans zoom into the Seventh Street Station parking deck and the dolls in chopped tops and the guys in jeans stream out to Cosmos and Have A Nice Day Cafe.

During the day, office workers read next to burbling fountains, or walk past the Bible-toting preacher who proclaims, "If you need a prayer because you are sick, come today, don't be afraid." The taxis jam bumper to bumper, those goofy trolley buses inch along, and the bike messengers who hang in front of Bank of America tower make their mad, two-wheel dashes.

This renaissance has happened in a relatively short time: less than a decade. It was not a sure thing -- far from it. It came after several false starts, oversold projects such as a cultural district with Discovery Place and Spirit Square, the transit mall and the now-imploded City Fair project.

None yielded the kind of urban life Charlotte yearned for. But beginning in the mid-'90s, a change began.

"What happened is the facilities came, and then the people came, sort of the reverse of what you would expect," says Malloy McKeithen, an attorney and developer who's been involved with North Tryon for years.

It happened because a man from a small town who came to love city life had the will and the power to make it happen.

Going to be lovely

Sandy Russell hasn't seen uptown Charlotte in five or six years. She and her husband, Jim, rubbernecking on North Tryon, are on their way home to upstate New York from a convention in New Orleans. They've stopped to visit with daughter Nicole, who works for Wachovia."It was not pretty," Sandy Russell says of the uptown she remembers. "I'm glad I came back because I went away thinking Charlotte is some ugly town."

Many people have the same sense, that North Tryon changed for the better in a short time. The transformation began in the mid-'90s, although decisions made decades before contributed to what it has become. Dot Hodges has a good perspective on all this. She's co-owner of Hodges Taylor Gallery, which moved to the street in the early '80s when it was the frontier: homeless men urinating in the vestibule.

So it's fair to ask her, how did all this happen?


That would be Hugh McColl Jr., former Bank of America CEO.

"I'm sure it's a lot of other things, but it's basically his vision," says Hodges, speaking from her gallery in Transamerica Square at Seventh and North Tryon. "I can remember standing in his office looking out the window in this direction and him saying, `It's going to be lovely.' I thought he was out of his mind. I doubted that I'd live to see it."

Raised in the town of Bennettsville, S.C., McColl had an epiphany in the '70s when North Carolina National Bank helped revitalize the once-elegant Fourth Ward neighborhood.

"Fourth Ward is where I really got interested in urban planing," he says "and seeing that you could do something."

That project, refurbishing old houses and moving some into the neighborhood, was a first step forward for North Tryon. Another, much bigger one came in 1987 when McColl announced he would build the bank's new headquarters on North Tryon.

"It was the only place we could get a piece of dirt big enough to do what we wanted to do," he says matter-of-factly. But the decision to cross Trade Street broke through a formidable psychological barrier.

"It was a huge move," says former Mayor Harvey Gantt, an architect.

North Tryon was about to lose the department stores -- Ivey's and Belk -- that defined it for decades. Seedy, with empty storefronts, the street did not have a sparkling reputation. McColl remembers how hard it was to convince city and cultural leaders to build a performance hall for the symphony and other arts groups, next to Cesar Pelli's silvery 60-story tower. "There were no believers," he says.

The other end of the street was the place to be. Through the '60s and into the '70s, South Tryon boomed as Charlotte self-consciously measured its growth with the rise of each new skyscraper. The bank buildings, the big law firm offices, the Federal Reserve Bank branch -- all were on the southern end of what once was an Indian path along a ridge between Sugar Creek and Little Sugar Creek.

Over the years, the city took several steps to jump-start North Tryon. A $9.6 million bond campaign in the '70s built Discovery Place and transformed the former First Baptist Church building into Spirit Square arts center, an embryonic cultural district.

In the '80s, the $8 million transit mall widened sidewalks and added street furniture such as benches and light standards. One unintended consequence: Wider sidewalks created space for outdoor dining once the city made it legal. Changes in zoning required ground-floor retail.

Like other cities, Charlotte also produced a slew of plans for center city revival, beginning with the 1966 Odell Plan. Among other things, it called for stripping uptown of parking. That wrong-headed decision was overturned in the '90s.

With the 1980 Central Area Plan, calling for more residential development, the city got on track. Planning director Martin Cramton says the 1980 plan, as well as the 1990 plan and the 2010 plan passed in 2000, were crucial for North Tryon. "It wasn't just a Bank of America vision," he says, "it was a community vision."

But North Tryon didn't take off until McColl decided it would.

"The difference," says Gantt, "is we had a corporate leader with the bucks who could do it."

A bit of Paris

The turning point: Transamerica Square in 1995.

Some with Transamerica Life of San Francisco wanted the company's reinsurance division in Charlotte to move into a suburban office building, perhaps near SouthPark. Others wanted it uptown. That's what the bank, then Nationsbank, wanted, too.

It had commissioned Gantt Huberman Architects to do a plan for North Tryon. The plan called for low-rise office buildings, combining stores and residences. The bank asked the firm to design a building for Transamerica.

Gantt had just come back from Paris, his head filled with visions of urban spaces combining parks, residences and shops. The design he and his colleagues came up with was something new for Charlotte.

Two levels of parking were buried below ground. Retail -- galleries and restaurants -- filled the ground floor, with office space above in the 10-story building. Beyond a giant archway spread a grassy courtyard bordered by high-density housing.

Gantt remembers taking plans and models with him on the flight to San Francisco, joining with bank officials to make the pitch -- and the sale.

At about this time, another factor affected North Tryon: The bank needed space.

"We were growing by 14 to 20 percent a year in the number of associates in Charlotte," says Jim Palermo, executive vice president for management services.

The bank, which has 11,000 employees uptown, wanted more than raw square footage. "We were importing brainpower from wherever we could get it -- Los Angeles, India, South Africa," says McColl.

It would take an uptown with a mix of offerings to satisfy their different tastes for food and entertainment, McColl and his colleagues realized.

Says McColl: "I personally gave Jim Palermo the order to buy the north end of town so we could dictate how it would be developed."


"There were too many people with great ideas that were going nowhere."

In 1996, McColl said publicly he wanted to transform uptown in four years, before he retired. In his Transamerica fresco, Ben Long depicted the banker next to an hourglass, its sands running.

His ambition brought criticism. "Last time I checked, Hugh McColl Jr. did not own downtown Charlotte," went one complaint in a letter-to-the-editor.

McColl remembers the letter. He says he's like other people: He doesn't like criticism. He points out the bank took the risk, doing what it did on property it owned. "The idea that we forced the city to do something is not accurate."

In a burst at the end of the '90s and into the new century, the bank, in addition to its corporate headquarters, was involved in building three office buildings on North Tryon, including the city's second tallest, the 46-story Hearst Tower. It donated the money to refurbish the old Montaldo's building into the Mint Museum of Craft + Design and the burned-out church into the McColl Center for Visual Art.

Palermo would not say how much the bank invested in North Tryon. But published accounts on these projects add up to about $756.5 million, almost three times the cost of the basketball arena.

Did the bank profit? "We didn't make any money," says McColl, "but the bank didn't lose any money."

McColl can and does mention others who were involved.

But he also confirms a story that's gone around, that he kept in his office a well-doodled napkin with plans for North Tryon. "I do a lot of doodling," he says. "I don't know what happened to it. There are some things we haven't done, but we've pretty much got it."

Hot dogs at 4 a.m.

It's a little before 10 on a Saturday night when Michelle Bennett, 30, and Toni Major, 26, step out of Seventh Street Station, walking fast. The parking deck, free and secure, usually with security guards or police, is a focal point for North Tryon's nightlife.Together or with some combination of their friends, Bennett and Major hit the street three nights a week. "Where else is there to go in Charlotte?" asks Bennett.

Tonight's itinerary: Time, Crush and Buckhead Saloon.

The mission: "Have fun."

On weekend nights, North Tryon and side streets throb. Younger types like Bennett and Major queue up in front of the clubs. Limos disgorge black-clad patrons at Blue, one of the toughest reservations in town. Eateries such as Fuel Pizza fill up, empty and fill up again. Its busiest time is 2 to 3 a.m.

Jose Pozos and his sister, Margarita, set up their hot dog stand in the alley between Seventh Street Station and the low buildings housing the College Street clubs on weekends. When the clubs stop serving alcohol at 2, hungry partygoers spill out. Pozos will be there until 4 a.m.

"The thing that makes cities great places is diversity," says Dan Morrill, consulting director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Landmarks Commission: diversity of experience, time and mood.

North Tryon offers all that, and not just with nightlife.

Sore necks and Snickers

During the day, a portion of the 50,000 workers uptown find a quiet place to eat a sandwich, often by a fountain, or spaces where chairs and tables can be pulled together by a group.

A true cultural district has formed around the main library, the crafts museum, Discovery Place, art galleries and the Levine Museum of the New South.

North Tryon may even be fostering a ritual -- touching the sculpture. A seamless sheet of water flows magically over Howard Ben Tre's large glass piece at Hearst Tower, and passers-by like to interrupt the flow with a finger.

Therapy, a new club/eatery in Transamerica Square, exemplifies diversity. The place is open from 7 a.m. until midnight seven days a week, offering coffee in the morning and live music six nights a week. It sells fresh fruit, food, wine, 25 types of martinis, artwork for as much as $29,900 a pop and T-shirts for the tourists.

From 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. weekdays outside Therapy, you can get a massage for $1 a minute. The body part the therapist is most often asked to work on? The neck, tight from phone-scrunching and computer-hunching in those Dilbertian cubicles.

Even old buildings -- their destruction a sore point in Charlotte for decades -- survive.

The old building housing Ri-Ra's Irish pub stands next to Hearst Tower. The classy Dunhill Hotel across the street, billed as historic, was once a flophouse called the James Lee Motor Inn. Carved into the limestone over the sign for CVS/Pharmacy next door is "Andrews Music Store." (CVS satisfies Charlotte urbanist Michael Gallis' test of a good uptown: You can buy a Snickers there.)

The survival of such buildings, says planner Cramton, represents "finer grain" development. In the past, he says, "The development community was only interested in delivering an office product. They were not focused on how you build an environment that is more than the sum of office buildings."

The result: North Tryon is awash with people 24/7, what Gantt calls "a comfortable congestion."

North Tryon brings people of different types and conditions together, the homeless and residents of public housing, along with nightclubbers and office workers. But it was a change in the street's demographics that helped it flourish.

In the mid-'90s, NationsBank spent $10 million to build a transportation center on East Trade Street on land owned by the city. The effect was to move people waiting for buses on North Tryon, many of whom were black.

McColl said the problem was perception: People felt uncomfortable walking north through the crowds waiting for buses. That had more to do with predators such as pickpockets and con men, he says, than with bus riders.

Gantt, whose firm designed the transportation center, points to a survey where bus riders said they wanted conveniences such as restrooms they couldn't find on Tryon. Asked if the idea was to remove people, he says, "I wouldn't have been part of that."

Also moved in the '90s with the help of Bank of America and others: the soup kitchen at St. Peter's Episcopal Church at Seventh Street. That took homeless men off North Tryon to the Urban Ministries Center beyond the freeway where they get meals and other kinds of help.

With its success, North Tryon has gentrified. And something has been lost.

The loss of retail meant the departure of humble but familiar businesses such as National Shirt Shop and Pushpa's Clothiers.

"This new downtown is not aimed at everyone," says Hanchett, the historian. "Soul Shack (music store on North Tryon) is the first place I heard hip-hop music. There's nothing like that now. The new downtown, as vibrant as it is, is not a place to go to hear the latest rap singles."

Liking it all

When Harvey Gantt rides the trolley with his grandchildren from South End, he gets a glimpse of North Tryon's future.

The area will get a boost when the trolley connects with the north end in February. More is coming: ImaginOn, the children's theater and library, popping out of the ground on Seventh Street, will strengthen the cultural district. Plans call for an "urban village" with shops, homes and a park in First Ward east of Tryon. Bobcats home games in the new arena will add thousands to North Tryon.

In the 25-year plan for cultural facilities, community leaders propose $47 million for Discovery Place, $90 million to move the Mint Museum of Art uptown, possibly to First Ward, and $40 million for a new museum. To be built at Sixth and North Tryon over the Carolina Theatre, it would house the modern art collection of retired businessman Andreas Bechtler.

McColl and Gantt talk about a need to preserve the diversity and mix of people and activities on North Tryon, that it not become so upscale as to become unaffordable for middle-income people, retirees or small merchants.

They're optimistic the energy will grow.

From a seat in Grand Central Deli in Independence Center near the Square, McColl looks out the window and sees a family with kids in strollers on North Tryon, a sight once rare.

"I like the streetscape," he says, "I like the wide sidewalks, I like the trees, I like the seating. I like all of it."

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yeah, the Sears building is a redevelopment target as part of the looonnnnnggg proposed Levine redevelopment of that area. The 1st phase looks to spare it though. To be an older building, its really not much to look at, not very pretty. I know the old one on South Tryon was a beaut.

monsoon, did it used to look different before the county moved in?

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