Anyone who thinks brick-and-mortar retail is dying hasn’t spent much time at Park Road Shopping Center. By adding new tenants and turning an unused backlot into an entertainment hot spot, Charlotte’s oldest shopping center is thriving.
by Michelle Boudin
Andy Wilkerson started working at Blackhawk Hardware in Park Road Shopping Center when he was just 7 years old. “I worked here as a kid. I worked as a bagger and ran the cash register.” Now 35, he admits working for the family-owned business hasn’t changed all that much — his mother, father and uncle all still work at Blackhawk. But everything around it has.
“Over the last five years, it’s really been revitalized. We’ve had a lot of new tenants that have really livened things up,” Wilkerson says of the additions to the booming south Charlotte shopping center that primarily serves the Myers Park, Dilworth, Madison Park and Sedgefield neighborhoods.
In fact, almost 30 new tenants have moved in since 2011 when Edens took over as the new owner of the 63-year-old center. Since then, the Columbia, S.C.-based developer has freshened up the look of the center and literally turned what was the back parking lot into a thriving shopping and dining destination of its own.
“It really needed to be rejuvenated,” Wilkerson says. “It was looking a little dingy, and Edens came in and made it midcentury modern, with enough nostalgia so that it doesn’t feel old. It really is the perfect mix of old and new.”
While a handful of tenants have moved out over the last few years — recent exits include Details Home Boutique and Hallmark, which has shuttered several Charlotte locations over the last year — much of the growth has come from the buildout of the backlot. Since Sir Edmund Halley’s opened behind the center in 1996, there wasn’t much commercial activity there until just a few years ago.
“When we started to entertain the idea of buying the shopping center, we identified the backlot as somewhat of a hidden jewel to the center with its different architecture, proximity to the Sugar Creek Greenway and Blackhawk Gardens,” says Edens Managing Director Lyle Darnall. “It offered up a way for us to do something a little bit different with food and other retail offerings, creating a bit of a different vibe, but always remaining a part of the overall shopping center. “
Stefan Huebner is co-owner of the backlot speakeasy Dot Dot Dot. The popular nightspot recently celebrated its two-year anniversary, though Huebner signed the lease almost three years ago. Dot Dot Dot was one of the first new tenants in the back of the center.
“We knew going in the new owners had a plan. They were going to redo the center, take out the outdated stuff, go for more current. What’s great about it is having a lot of like-minded tenants that’s created a good energy, and it’s been a great success,” he says.
“Renovating the center was a long, thoughtful process,” Darnall says. “The local community is very passionate about the center, and so we took our time to study it and understand the history. Gradually, we developed a plan where we improved the parking lot, painted the center to its original white color, made it more pedestrian-friendly and enhanced the landscaping and what we call the ‘jewelry,’ which is comfortable seating and lighting. The iconic Park Road sign was very important for us to preserve and restore — it’s a monument dedicated to the history of the center.”
That history dates to 1956, when Park Road Shopping Center opened with 32 stores. The first ever open-air shopping center in Charlotte — and the largest on the East Coast for many years — it quickly became a gathering place for neighbors. Charlotte lawyer Porter Byrum owned the center from 1967 until he literally gave it away in 2011, splitting his gift between Wake Forest, Queens and Wingate Universities.
While he owned lots of land around the region, Byrum’s life was centered around the Park Road center, whose original tenants included a J.C. Penney department store and a Colonial grocery store. He kept an office in the back of the site, and he lived within 2 miles, near SouthPark mall. Annoyed with Mecklenburg County’s valuation of the shopping center, he moved it into his foundation with the intention of donating it to the three universities, according to Jeff Siegel, a business associate of Byrum who runs the annual Carolina Renaissance Festival in Huntersville. “His intent was to earn every penny and give it all to charitable causes,” Siegel told Business North Carolina magazine in 2017. The three schools reportedly made more than $80 million when they sold the center.
The shopping center is now both bustling — and some would say bursting — at the seams. With new additions including beauty retailers Bluemercury and Polished Nail Bar and restaurants such as Burtons Grill & Bar and CO, parking can be scarce during busy times.
Local artist Heidi Kirshner says she’s been a regular at Park Road for the last five years, visiting at least five times a week. While she praises the center’s recent facelift, she admits she often struggles to find a place to leave her car. “I like that they kept the original sign. I think the fresh paint job helped a lot, and it’s kind of cool now that it has a retro feeling. … The parking is pretty bad though.”
While customers might have trouble finding a parking spot, not surprisingly, business owners don’t mind the increased traffic.
“The parking is tough,” says Dot Dot Dot’s Huebner. “But that’s a better problem to have than us having too much parking. The majority of our crowd is Ubering here anyway,” he says. “Friday and Saturday night, it looks more like an elementary school drop off than anything else,” Huebner jokes. “Cars are just lined up dropping people off.”
For some shoppers, though, the center’s convenience and diverse tenant mix far outweigh any parking concerns. Alyson Kuroski-Mazzei is the CEO and chief medical officer of HopeWay Foundation. As a busy working mom, she says she is grateful for a shopping center that literally has everything she needs in one place. “I am here all the time, and I can get in and out quickly. It’s one-stop shopping. And I love that they added Amelie’s to the back. I think the revitalization really brought it to a whole new level.”
Amelie’s has been a big draw to the backlot since opening its fourth Charlotte location there in summer 2017. The coffee shop that originated in NoDa quickly became a regular meeting spot. (*insider tip: The mezzanine has work stations with power for those working remotely and is usually quieter since most “meetings” take place on the main floor.)
Other backlot additions include a yoga shop, an art gallery and two restaurants from chefs with other successful Charlotte locations — Midwood Smokehouse and Flour Shop.
The new restaurants have brought new customers to some of the old places like Michaels and Blackhawk.
“I’ll ask customers what brought them in, and they’ll say, “We were having dinner and we saw you,’” Wilkerson says. “People are going to Amelie’s, and they see our garden center or they come to grab a drink at Dot Dot Dot. They can’t always find it, but they often find us!”
And more changes are on the way. Osteria LuCa, an Italian concept from the owners of TRUE Crafted Pizza, will open in early 2020 in the spot previously occupied by The Charlotte Cafe.
“Our business has gone up every year for the last five years,” Blackhawk’s Wilkerson says. In fact, the hardware store recently announced an expansion that will add 12,000 square feet of space by March. Wilkerson credits the new owners, whose other Charlotte properties include South End’s Atherton Mill and Dilworth’s Kenilworth Commons, with bringing in a lot of fresh faces.
“The demographics are starting to trend a little younger, and they’ve done a good job of bringing in businesses that naturally support each other. They have a very clear vision with the client mix, and they’re willing to leave a space empty until they find the right fit. They’ve been very diligent and purposeful in everything they’ve done,” he says.
Dot Dot Dot’s owner agrees. “The new owners really catered to the new demographics of the neighborhood, and it’s meant that we’re all having a very successful go at it.” SP
Photographs provided by Edens, Blackhawk Hardware