Over the last two weeks, Charlotte's center city was dealt a series of body blows. As usual, no one around here is talking about the implications of four key happenings, which is how you know they were really important.
Each of these four events would have been simply unfathomable just five years ago. Taken together, they raise serious questions about the forward momentum of the high-end office park they call Uptown -- and the future of the Queen City itself.
Reid's. Last weekend, Reid's Fine Foods Uptown closed. Its opening in 1998 was a crowning achievement of a decades-long effort to bring enough residential and commercial development Uptown to support a grocery store. The grocery-style food market was the first to reopen in Uptown in 50 years. It sits right smack dab on the light rail line, and was supposed to draw enough customers from that and Uptown residences and businesses to support itself. Its failure is a shocking step backward. It speaks volumes about the rail line's ability to support businesses and the strength of the Uptown residential market. What it says is unclear. A micro Harris Teeter at Fifth and Poplar streets that opened after Reid's still continues to do business across the street from a half empty condo development. How it fares in the coming years will be telling.
Eastland Mall. The mall was slated to be redeveloped by the Charlotte City Council into a hip, mixed-use village that would attract professionals and anchor the east side, extending Uptown's boom development eastward. The city planned to pour tens of millions of dollars into the Eastland site in an effort to attract hundreds of millions of private redevelopment dollars. The mall was also supposed to be the ultimate destination for the city's half-billion dollar streetcar line, which the city has invested tens of millions of dollars in and already laid initial track for in Elizabeth.
But a budget crunch left the city unable (so far) to buy the mall outright, as it had planned to do for years. Last week, it was reported that the mall was sold to another owner who paid just $2 million for it. He plans not to remake the mall, which bears a striking resemblance to Beirut after the bombing, but to turn it into an indoor market with stalls, which is about all he can do without a major backer. That essentially means that unless something changes, the $500 million streetcar line would now dead-end at a, um, quasi flea market. That's if the east side segment of the streetcar line is ever completed, which is questionable if the city can't scrape together the money to buy the mall.
The mall situation spells a likely death to carefully laid plans for east side revitalization that date back about two decades and looked likely as recently 18 months ago.
The Moynihan Reality Tour. Bank of America Corp. CEO Brian Moynihan gave the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce and City Council members a tour around town last week.
The problem with the surreal episode is that it occurred in Boston -- where Moynihan lives -- while city leaders were visiting on their annual intercity trip.
"For a number of our folks, it was their first chance to see him in action," Chamber president Bob Morgan told The Charlotte Observer.
Given the Charlotte Chamber's claims on its website that Bank of America is headquartered here, the whole thing was a bit ... jarring. Morgan vouched for the Chamber's lack of concern over Moynihan's decision not to move his family here in the Observer's article about the trip. And technically, on paper, the bank still is headquartered here. It's just that if you actually want to see Moynihan in person, you apparently have to go to Boston.
The Gold Rush Shuttle. In its heyday more than a decade ago, Bank of America started the free shuttle service to move employees between its main tower and satellite offices Uptown, particularly Gateway Village. The cute little buses look like restored streetcars and quickly became Uptown cultural icons. Last week, the bank announced it would no longer fund the service. Wells Fargo likewise told the Observer that it was "looking at alternatives for the future" and would likely withdraw funding as well.
State and local government funding makes up the bulk of the $1.3 million Gold Rush budget, with about $325,000 coming from the banks. The loss of the Gold Rush or a government takeover of the service wouldn't cripple Uptown or anything. It's what the pullback of the banks symbolizes that's important.
The banks clearly have little need to move large numbers of employees between bank buildings anymore. The consolidation of the banks' work forces in ever shrinking spaces isn't a good sign, given that the banks are Uptown's anchor tenants.
Whatever the case, it's a sure-as-heck sign that the days of bank expansion are over, and that's a real gut-check.
What these events add up to is anybody's guess, but I'm certain of one thing: They are definitely connected.