City mulls allowing Eastland site to be developed in pieces

03/09/2014 7:09 PM

03/10/2014 9:25 AM

After a movie studio project for the Eastland Mall site appears to have failed, the city of Charlotte said it may allow the 80 acres to be developed in pieces by different developers.

The city’s goal has long been to have a “transformative” project at Eastland, which would rejuvenate east Charlotte and improve struggling neighborhoods.

Economic development director Brad Richardson said Friday the goal is still to have a “catalytic development.” But he said, “80 acres is probably too large for one developer.”

The city may commission a new study to determine the best option for the site, he said.

After that, the city may consider having different developers build on smaller sections of the 80 acres, at Central Avenue and North Sharon Amity Road.

But on Sunday, nearly 100 east side residents attended a rally and information session in support of the studio venture. Organizers took questions from the attendees at an east side restaurant, but also encouraged people to contact their elected representatives to gather support for the project.

The city has had an exclusive negotiating period with Bert Hesse’s Studio Charlotte Development, which proposed building movie studios and sound stages on the site, and then office, retail and a film school.

But the city said Hesse hasn’t provided it with enough information on his financing and the “hard costs” of the studios. Those hard costs are needed before the city can calculate whether to grant Studio Charlotte Development any property tax rebates to make the project more financially viable.

Richardson recommended Thursday that the City Council not grant Hesse’s request for a five-month extension on his exclusive negotiating window. He also said the city shouldn’t agree to Hesse’s request to split the cost of a new environmental and utility study.

Hesse accused the city of essentially stealing his idea to place a studio on the Eastland site. He said his project will move forward, though most likely at a different location in Mecklenburg or in South Carolina.

If the City Council’s economic development committee votes on March 20 to reject Hesse’s request, the city and Studio Charlotte Development could still work together. But given the pointed words from council members and Hesse on Thursday, that appears unlikely.

Studio Charlotte Development was optimistic Friday.

“At this point Studio Charlotte and the community are not ready for anyone ‘to pull the plug,’ on what has been a challenging process, but to stay alive and bring life back to the east side of Charlotte,” the group said in a news release.

Studio Charlotte said one reason it requested the extension was to see if the N.C. General Assembly will continue a film tax credit this spring, which is seen as critical to keeping TV and movie production in North Carolina.

Hesse said the group is reluctant to give the city more detailed information, for fear a competitor would poach their ideas.

“Anyone in business knows once you give over your entire plan and it is made public, anyone can take it and run with it – in this case, build with it,” Hesse said.

After the city released an RFP for Eastland site, there were two serious developers who responded: Hesse and the ARK Group, which developed the N.C. Music Factory.

Rick and Noah Lazes of the ARK Group proposed building an athletic and entertainment complex at Eastland, whose focal point would be an artificial, outdoor ski slope with a 300-foot run.

The Lazes pulled out of the running last summer. Noah Lazes said Friday they would be interested in working with the city, so long as the ARK Group was given the same exclusive negotiating window that Hesse had received.

“We do have interest under the right terms,” Lazes said. “If it’s an RFP again, we have no interest.”

As part of the N.C. Music Factory project, the ARK Group also developed movie studios on the site, Silver Hammer Studios. The Lazes have said they don’t think the local market can support additional studios.

“One reason we stepped aside is we didn’t think (Studio Charlotte Development) was a viable plan,” Lazes said. “We said, ‘If it’s viable, great. If not, come back to us.’ ”

He added: “We own the largest studio in town. We know a lot about it.”

When asked Friday whether the city would consider an exclusive negotiating window with the Lazes, Richardson said it was too soon to speculate.

The city purchased Eastland in the summer of 2012 for $13.2 million. It spent an additional $1 million to tear down the mall.

Before the city purchased the mall, the 80 acres was held by multiple owners. The city believed that having multiple owners was an impediment to remaking the site.

Susan Lindsay, an east side activist, said she didn’t think the city needed to conduct a new market study.

“It’s been studied to death,” she said. “We just need a good proposal.”

Reporter Cleve R. Wootson Jr. contributed

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