I've never used the escalator from State Street to Gay Street that glides patrons of the Regal Riviera up to their destination. But glimpsing it the other day as I was walking the dogs along State, I was reminded of another, similar escalator from my childhood. About a block north of the cinema there used to be one that transported shoppers from a surface parking lot on State to the Promenade.
There's now a three-story parking garage there. But I remember the novelty of riding the outdoor escalator with my mother to go shopping. We would park in the lot and ascend to the Promenade to enter J.C. Penny from there. I'd say most of my school clothes as a child came from that store.
Penny's was also like some sort of magical wormhole. After entering from the relatively bland State Street side via the Promenade, we'd exit onto glamorous Gay—a real city street full of life. Sometimes we'd meet my father for lunch at the S&W Cafeteria. Better yet, sometimes I'd be treated to a milkshake from the lunch counter at the drug store.
A few years back, the Gay Street side of the old Penny's building underwent a facelift—literally. Its rather bland wall of tiling was removed to reveal bricked-up, arched windows arranged in a sort of odd pattern, some not quite matching the same level as others.
Shortly after, she showed up.
She was standing on a black leather sofa in a bright red hoodie and short skirt, bending over her little dog and smiling. A black mesh curtain went up over the odd brickwork of the old Penny's building bearing her repetitive image. Beneath, in bright white letters the words: "New. Urban. Living.," followed by "Coming Soon."
Nowadays she's begun to fade, and her bright red skirt has turned to various tones of orange. The mixed heights of the buildings across the street shade the banner in varying ways, causing a gradient effect across her sun-bleached images. The banner has torn loose in a few places, and is now more of a dark gray than black.
The message turned out to be true enough. Downtown has seen a lot of new urban living quarters built out since the banner appeared—though not in that building. But I'm not sure that's the best use for it.
Though one appropriate model for renovating multi-story urban buildings is putting retail on the ground floor and residential above, it's not the only one. Mast General Store and its accompanying Gallery Lofts, along with a portion of the 100 block of Gay Street, have succeeded with it. But there are other options.
Retail on the ground floor of Gay Street is essential if downtown is to continue its resurgence. But for now, our upper floors—those that are occupied—contain more office workers than residents. And that makes sense, too. A downtown ought to be a business center, among other things.
I'm pleased that the city has been successful in recruiting amenities such as Mast and the Riviera. And I couldn't be happier that in conjunction with the Riviera project it retained the soon-to-be redeveloped historic S&W Cafeteria and adjacent properties. As I walk by that fading girl and her dog, I can't help but wonder if that building shouldn't be the next area of focus.
Condo sales have fallen off since that banner went up. And I think it's time to reconsider the Penny's building. It's a spacious property, and seems to me to be a great location to lure one of our area's premiere businesses downtown where it belongs.
I've always held that a drugstore would be great addition to our retail offerings downtown. That section of Gay Street is prime retail space and would make an ideal location. In keeping with that theme, the upper floors could accommodate corporate headquarters for our area's premier healthcare-related corporation.
With his business connections and recruiting record, I think Mayor Haslam should sit down with the owners of the building and Pete DeBusk. Bringing DeRoyal Industries downtown would add another nice feather to his cap, and provide a more fitting home to one of our area's most prestigious companies.
I'm thinking "New. Corporate. Headquarters." There's still plenty of other space downtown for residential development. And I'm thinking that girl and her dog can find another place to live downtown. There's plenty of both available and under construction. And the poor thing's been waiting there a long time.
I don't expect to see department stores returning to downtown. And I don't expect that the healthcare industry is going to decline in the face of millions of baby-boomers getting on in age. It's time to rethink the J.C. Penny building and to promote downtown as both a retail and a corporate office center.