Turning office space into apartments in Uptown

CHARLOTTE — Investors in office buildings with partially unused space are starting to convert some of those properties for residential usage.

According to the Charlotte Business Journal, there are at least three early-stage office-to-residential conversion projects in Uptown Charlotte right now: Two Wells Fargo Center at 301 South Tryon St., the nearly 100-year-old Johnston building at 212 South Tryon St., and the former Duke Energy building at 526 South Church St.

“They’re at a really sensitive stage,” said one industry professional about the Two Wells Fargo project. “It’s one of the first large-scale conversion opportunities in the city, and it’ll be a fascinating case study to follow.”

According to one study, regular foot traffic in Uptown has been about 65-70% of pre-pandemic levels.

One former Uptown worker who returned for lunch Wednesday said she understands why these conversions are happening and hopes they continue.

“I used to work in the office,” said Arlene Berger of Harrisburg. “I would come in 2-3 times a week prior to Covid – now I don’t come in at all.”

Berger and her friend Jennifer Amos, who occasionally visits from New York City, said they both remember Uptown being much busier before the pandemic.

“It’s a waste,” said Amos. “It’s a waste of space; it should be used for something.”

That drop in foot traffic has hurt local businesses, according to some experts, and now it’s causing a shift in commercial real estate.

“We get requests all the time,” said Cam Barradale, studio director at the Charlotte office of Gensler, a global architecture, design, and planning firm. “We’ve looked at multiple buildings in Charlotte, and Gensler as a firm has looked at close to 1,000 buildings across the country. So we’re kind of – on the front end – leading the charge of the conversion strategy as a whole.”

Several industry professionals said that the biggest obstacle to conversion is cost: office spaces aren’t designed with residential use in mind, so converting them is often costly and can be logistically difficult.

Barradale said he and his team of 20-25 architects and designers consider a number of factors on potential conversion properties, and there can be significant challenges.

“Having to empty that office building, convert it to residential units, convert the mechanical and electrical systems and plumbing [to each unit], elevators, potentially explore different ways to open up windows or make windows operable, add balconies, add amenity spaces,” Barradale said.

“And so the trick is, can you figure out that equation that takes the office floor plate to a residential floor plate in a cost-effective way?”

Some officials in cities across the country are discussing how to help incentivize those conversions, whether with tax abatements or minimum numbers of affordable housing units.

One thing seems to be clear: this desire for more conversions represents a big opportunity.

“If you think about all of the opportunities for conversions in the city,” Barradale said, “if we just took half of those and converted them to residential, how would that change the way uptown Charlotte feels? How would it change the way retail can thrive here? How would it change investments in public spaces? It would make uptown an incredibly vibrant downtown. It really would start to set us apart from some of our peers.”

“It’s a generational opportunity,” Barradale said.

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Evan Donovan

Evan Donovan, wsoctv.com

Evan is an anchor and reporter for Channel 9.