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Restoring a Beloved Classic Center in Charlotte

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As Published in ICSC Shopping Centers Today, October 2018

"ICSC

When Park Road Shopping Center opened, in 1956, with 32 stores, it was the very first open-air shopping center in Charlotte, N.C. And its prominence was such that the then-octogenarian James Cash Penney himself cut the ribbon to inaugurate the city’s very first J.C. Penney store there.

Park Road is one of those centers that are full of history. Indeed, it occupies part of the farm on which the late evangelist Billy Graham grew up. Local attorney and philanthropist Porter B. Byrum, who died only last year, purchased the center in 1967 and donated it in 2011 to Queens University of Charlotte, Wake Forest University and Wingate University. Those schools sold the center off soon afterward, to EDENS, for about $82 million.

Lyle Darnall, an EDENS Managing Director, had fallen in love with Park Road as early on as 1989. He was keenly aware not only of the center’s history, but also of what it could become if it were to be made over with only a few contemporary touches.

The location is great, the tenant mix that they had was great, but there was room to improve on it, We felt [that] if we did certain things to the shopping center, there was clearly an upside from a revenue standpoint. But the opportunity to own something as classic as this was too hard to pass up. I had never been around [any] center that means more to a single community than Park Road does to the communities and residential areas that surround it.

- Lyle Darnall

That affection and meaning were in evidence in 2014, when a time capsule that had been buried 50 years before, just outside the center’s Regal cinema, was opened as some 1,500 locals looked on. Among the items inside the capsule were newspaper clippings from 1964, when Regal opened the theater there, a letter from then-Mayor Stan Brookshire and a key to the city.

Renovating the center required a long, thoughtful process, given the local community’s passion for the property, Darnall says. “One of the most important things we did was [that] we waited, because we needed to take time to study it and develop a greater understanding of the history of the center itself,” he said. “With the history comes a lot of chemistry that has been there for a long time and [an effort] to understand what different tenants meant to different people, and how it worked within the whole fabric or operation of the shopping center.”

The biggest challenge in the redevelopment was making a strong connection with the local community, notes Darnall. “We had to understand what was important and what wasn’t important to the communities that shop the shopping center,” he said. “We also had to make some hard decisions about the tenants by stepping back and taking a holistic view.”

Timeline

  • 1956 Park Road Shopping Center opens as the first open-air shopping center in Charlotte
  • 1967 Porter Byrum buys the center and owns and manages it for 44 years
  • 2011 Byrum donates the center to three universities
  • 2011 EDENS buys the center from those schools
  • 2014 Regal Cinemas digs up a 50-year time capsule it had buried in 1964 at the opening of the Regal Park Terrace
  • January 2019 AMC Theatres is to open the AMC Park Terrace

Focusing on the tenant mix was the most important element in the redevelopment, Darnall says. The food component was essentially lacking, and EDENS spent a lot of time refining the mix to include local, regional and national culinary concepts and to help extend Park Road’s shopping hours.

One fixture is a classic soda shop that has been under the same ownership for the past 18 years. “The minute word got out that we bought the shopping center, a friend of mine in the industry called me up and said he was excited for us, but that if we did anything to that soda shop we would be dead, and people would kill us.” EDENS thought it best to heed the advice, and the firm also held onto one other long-time, popular tenant: a classic Irish pub called Sir Edmond Halley’s. In terms of new offerings, Darnall cites some fast-casual purveyors, including a Burtons Grill & Bar, the Cantina 1511 Mexican restaurant, a Midwood Smokehouse barbecue restaurant and a Shake Shack.

Apart from the food component, one of the center’s most beloved core tenants is the locally owned Blackhawk Hardware, a 50,000-square-foot store in the former Penney space. Two-thirds of Blackhawk’s customers are women, notes Darnall, so the product mix skews heavily toward home goods. There is also a dance studio that has operated there for years, plus the Howren Music store, a Dolce Lusso Salon & Spa and the classic Suárez Bakery.

Historic Image of Colonial Stores
Shoppers at Park Road

Fashion was another component requiring prudent overhaul: Park Road is only three miles from the Simon-owned SouthPark mall, one of the largest and most frequented malls in the Southeast, so the Park Road fashion mix had to be made complementary rather than competitive. “Early on, that proved challenging, but now I think we’ve got a very good, solid fashion mix, and the fashion retailers do a lot of business,” said Darnall.

The puzzle’s final piece is the opening in January of the 25,000-square-foot AMC Park Terrace movie theater, which is to replace the venerated Regal Park Terrace.

Some advice from Darnall to owner-developers in similar situations: “If you are ever lucky enough to acquire something that has been in the community for a long time,” he said, “study the history of the center, and understand what it means to the people around it. I think that will provide a much better product going down the road.”

EDENS also makes sure to work with local retailers on marketing and merchandising. “Take your time and curate good locals,” said Darnall, “because that, really, at the end of the day, is what is most interesting to the shoppers around them.”