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How Will Once-Booming Uptown Come Back After The Pandemic?

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Steve Harrison
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WFAE
The Overstreet Mall is almost completely empty after tens of thousands of people shifted to remote work in the past year.

Much of Charlotte looks pretty much the same these days as it did before the coronavirus pandemic seized our world. People out and about, and there’s traffic on the roads again. Shopping centers are full once more.

But uptown is still upside down — a place where the pandemic never loosened its grip. And that’s created some odd moments, like Jeremy Engel riding his skateboard down South Tryon Street at lunch hour recently.

He never had to stop or turn to miss anyone or any vehicle.

No one bothered him.

“Cops don'tsay anything either,” Engel said. “Nobody seems to really care or notice. You ride down the middle of the road, even when there’s no other place to ride, people occasionally honk their horn. But that’s about it.”

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Steve Harrison/WFAE
Jeremy Engel has South Tryon Street to himself at lunch hour. He can ride for blocks without having to swerve to miss anyone.

But to see the real impact the pandemic has had on uptown, go indoors to the Overstreet Mall. That’s a long group of restaurants and stores that runs the length of South Tryon Street, with skywalks connecting each skyscraper.

Kara McNamee, a paralegal, was eating lunch this week near the once-busy Wells Fargo atrium. She was alone.

“This would be filled,” she said about the area before the pandemic. “The Plaza. The Mall. Everything is usually crowded with people having lunch, moving around.”

She added: “No one’s walking by. It’s desolate. But yeah, no cars, the parking garage is empty. I’m pretty much alone.”

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Steve Harrison/WFAE
Kara McNamee has plenty of space for lunch.

One security guard in the mall said sometimes he’ll go 15 or 20minutes without seeing anyone.

Most of the restaurants in Overstreet closed early in the pandemic. McAlister's Deli is one of the few that’s still open. Kirstyn Radamaker says they are boosted by DoorDash, but hardly anyone comes in person.

“It’s nothing,” she said. “Absolutely nothing. It’s been like this for almost a year now. But every time I come to work it still seems like it’s unreal. I haven’t gotten used to it. It’s crazy. Absolutely crazy.”

The optimistic scenario for the future is that post-vaccination, workers come back. Sports and arts venues host big crowds.

But the most important question is what happens if post-pandemic, people stay home to work two or three days a week, said Ely Portillo, an assistant director of UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute.

Instead of 120,000 people working uptown each day, what if there are half as many?

“I think that under the pessimistic scenario it’s not really a Mad-Maxian, empty streets forever,” Portillo said. “It’s: Can we work as a part-time uptown? Can we work as a smaller uptown, as a different uptown than we’re used to?”

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Steve Harrison/WFAE
For nearly a year, there haven't been many cars or people uptown.

There are signs that’s already happening.

The accounting firm Grant Thornton has its name near the top of the Charlotte Plaza building on South College Street. It’s moving to the Vantage, an 11-story tower recently built in South End.

Grant Thornton partner Mike Desmond said working from home made the company realize it doesn’t need so much space, like training rooms and places to file paperwork.

“I think the pandemic is causing all companies to revisit the drivers of both cost and value,” he said.

The company’s footprint is trading 56,000 square feet uptown to around 32,000 square feet in South End.

“And the use of our office space is changing,” Desmond said. “It will change to become a center for collaboration for when we need to be together.”

Duke Energy is building a new 40-story tower across from the Mint Museum. Once that finishes, the energy company said it plans to consolidate its space.

Some people may continue working from home, at least part time, said spokesperson Catherine Butler.

“For those who have more flexible work functions we may consider hybrid options where you work some in the office and some at home,” she said.

Michael Smith is the president of Center City Partners, the uptown booster organization. He said the increase in people living uptown — from 11,200 in 2010 to 18,300 in 2020 — has been a lifeline to the stores and restaurants that are still there.

But he said what uptown needs more than anything are the 120,000 people who worked there before the pandemic.

“These are hard times,” Smith said. “We’ve got a long way to go in recovery. The number of people working in uptown right now is at an unstainable level.”

He said there are companies like Grant Thornton that will be leasing less space than before.

“There is definitely some push and pull with this,” he said. “There are companies in Charlotte that are reevaluating how much space they need. And a lot of them looking at rent renewals right now are thinking, 'Well, I was going to grow my space. Maybe I just try and use it differently.'”

But he said other companies in higher-cost cities are looking to do the same — and that Charlotte can benefit. With new projects like the Duke Energy tower across from the Mint Museum and the Ally Center at Tryon and Stonewall streets, there is about 3.9 million square feet of office space under construction or planned. That’s more than enough space to land new companies, he said.

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Steve Harrison/WFAE
Duke Energy is building a new skyscraper on South Tryon Street.

“There are superstar cities that are so transit-dependent,” Smith said. “And companies that are there thinking, ‘Maybe I should have some of my workforce elsewhere? Maybe we should look at Sun Belt cities?’”

Leasing rates have stayed steady, hovering near $40 a square foot for Class A office space, said Brett Gray, a managing principal with the real estate company Cushman Wakefield. He is optimistic that companies will bring their employees back.

“We haven’t seen a drop of rates significantly yet,” he said.

He said Class A office space uptown and South End has a 7% vacancy rate, compared with 13% across the city.

In the Wells Fargo atrium, the escalators are running – but still almost always empty.

McNamee, the paralegal, said she misses 2019.

“I would know a lot of people in these buildings and now I don’t see any of them,” she said. “You don’t have lunch with your friends anymore.”

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