By Alexandra Wagner (B.Arch candidate) | This essay examines the pros and cons of Uptown Charlotte’s Overstreet Mall. As indicated by its name, this piece of infrastructure places retail above the street, which serves the many employees of the city’s office towers. However, this organization also robs the street of its vital character, which has not been fully replaced since the implementation of this urban infrastructure.
In the traditional sense, the urban street is a colorful place of social mixing and processional space. It sets the tone of the urban fabric and acts as a connecting thread between buildings, nodes, and districts. As one meanders through Uptown Charlotte, however, a distinct sense of quiet is noted along the faces of Tryon and College Street. Hovering above is network of skywalks connecting Uptown’s corporate structures. Inside the traveler is presented with a plethora of eateries and circulation elements, with an occasional empty boutique to draw the eye. The Overstreet Mall, as it’s known to local residents, is an embodiment of Charlotte’s attempt to match its lack of retail with its recent corporate growth. The mall illustrates the city’s desire to shift the cultural climate of the downtown area from primarily corporate workspaces to an urban environment that’s all-encompassing. It eliminates street activity and forces urban culture through a filter in the form of fast food establishments and irrelevant retail. In doing so, Charlotte’s street culture is rendered nonexistent in the spaces where the mall is present, both on the street and in the mall itself. This lack of activity at street level reduces it to a mere corridor, sterilizing the transition between spaces, resulting in a lack of branching between user groups and businesses in the Uptown area.
With the arrival of Charlotte’s banking industry and the influx of insurance agencies, the pressure to provide shopping spaces and gathering spaces has increased in recent years. The Overstreet Mall is a space intended to attract top-executives used to a particular quality of life. As a response to the lack of retail in the Uptown area, the concept of the Overstreet Mall seems like a sensible solution catering to this need. The addition of restaurants and fast food establishments benefits the corporate lunch-time crowd and represents the primary usage of the space. The entrances to the Overstreet Mall are littered between the 400 block of South Tryon all the way to the Hearst Tower. In addition to linking streets and buildings, the Overstreet Mall acts as a connection between parking garages and a network of active nodes within the city, including areas such as the Epicentre and the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. These areas illustrate Charlotte’s attempts to create a downtown area worthy of the employees contributing to its banking industry.
However, Charlotte’s focus on the Overstreet Mall removes important spaces from the street face and renders it useless for cultural interaction. By shifting retail spaces above the heads of a large percentage of Charlotte’s urban population, a hierarchy between the two groups is established. The mall reduces the street to a space purely for vehicular movement, which encourages the constant construction of parking lots and garages to satisfy Uptown’s most apparent needs. The sidewalk becomes an inert strip of concrete instead of a path, lying unused in the places where the Mall is present above. As a result, the street almost seems to be a redundant part of the city’s fabric. This prevents the interaction between pedestrians and ensures that the only way people will interact is by passing one another in cars, essentially forcing individuals to ignore one another. Vehicular interaction is impersonal and doesn’t illustrate a true intermingling of culture in the urban context. It eliminates the sensory cues associated with life on the street. People no longer react to the visual, tactile, or olfactory presentation of others, removing the potential for activity on the street.
This lack of activity carries over into the mall itself, which is home to very few retail establishments. Of the retail offered, almost all of it is in the form of high end boutiques that generally stand unoccupied. Much of the same can be said for the rest of the Overstreet Mall, which primarily offers dining options for the corporate lunchtime crowd. Walking through the series of skywalks and hallways, one notices a distinct sense of quiet during most of the day, with the exception of filtered in music or advertising through speaker systems occasionally strewn throughout the ceilings. The silence is uncomfortable, only broken at midday by the rush of banking employees dashing to get to one of the plethora of eateries. The lack of relevant retail establishments, such as grocery stores, drug stores, and more affordable alternatives to boutiques, represents one of the cultural filters that separates the mall from the street, and also defeats the purpose even having a “mall.” While convenient for those who use it daily, typically on their lunch break, the Overstreet Mall only caters to those individuals and prevents them from contributing to the culture of the street face below.
The growth of Charlotte’s banking industry has invited an influx of new employees and executives to the Uptown area. This inundation of workers, and potential residents, has brought with it a demand for retail spaces to accommodate the lifestyles of these individuals. With its direct connections between buildings in the form of skywalks, these banking employees can experience the city in a way that allows them to avoid inclement weather on the way to and from their vehicles. The mall also provides the conveniences of fast food dining and office services within a short distance of their work spaces. However, with a surprising lack of actual shopping, the Overstreet Mall doesn’t do much to draw crowds. Instead, the mall isolates users from Charlotte’s actual streets and sterilizes the adjacent sidewalks. This inhibits the mixing of the social groups within the Uptown area. As a result, the potential of the street level is wasted, limiting it only to vehicular traffic and parking lots. Charlotte’s attempt to redefine the urban street has led to a lack of character along the city’s connective tissue, preventing the social growth of the Uptown area.
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