I no longer live in east Charlotte, but nearly every weekday I drive by what used to be Eastland Mall and wonder why a forward-thinking city like Charlotte has not been able to figure out an effective use for this land. When I moved here in 1986, long before we had NFL and NBA teams, light rail or a thriving downtown, the east side was the place to be. Eastland Mall had several hip shops, a movie theater and featured an ice skating rink as its centerpiece. Area restaurants like Grady’s, Boar’s Head, Annabelle’s, Cinema & Draft House, Darryl’s, Victoria Station, Chelsea’s and Casa Gallardo constituted that era’s “restaurant row” and were the hot places to bring a date for those of us living in communities like The Lake Apartments, home to young, college graduates from all over the country.
I know this because I lived there and became friends with neighbors from places like Owensboro, Kentucky; Chicago; Quincy, Massachusetts; and Pittsburgh. We had almost nothing in common, except that we had found our way to Charlotte immediately after college graduation and we enjoyed the spacious floorplans and fun, affordable lifestyle: water volleyball, basketball, happy hour and other social gatherings in the clubhouse. We eventually moved on to buy homes, here in Charlotte or elsewhere, but at that point, East Charlotte was home to an inordinate number of recent college graduates and it happened organically. There was no concerted effort to attract young people. We made it our home until our careers took us somewhere else or we got married, settled down, had kids and bought a house. Imagine what we could accomplish today if, as a city, we decided to create a space that attracted what economist, social scientist and author Richard Florida labeled the “Creative Class.”
Here are eight ideas – some may border on the absurd while others are entirely practical – to get the conversation started:
Sports complex and community center. A state-of-the-art indoor/outdoor facility for softball, lacrosse, soccer, ice hockey and other team sports. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, my buddies and I played recreation league softball 4-6 nights a week. We played locally on weeknights, but traveled to Rock Hill, Gastonia and beyond for tournaments on the weekends. If we had a year-round facility a short walk away, we may have stayed years longer in east Charlotte. I suspect the diverse community in that area today might feel the same way if they had easy access to well-maintained soccer and lacrosse fields, basketball courts, or a hockey rink. Such a place could even include an Olympic-size swimming and diving facility, a skate park or BMX course.
Mega-Brewery. Charlotte is becoming known for its first-rate microbreweries, but anybody who has been to the new Sierra Nevada brewery near the Asheville Airport knows what a mega-brewery is. This $110-million facility features a tremendous restaurant/brewpub, gift shop and offers guided-tours. I went there with friends two weeks after it opened and it compared favorably to nearly every vineyard we’ve visited in Napa. The place was jam-packed with folks from all over the state and around the country. It could easily be the highlight of a Charlotte brewery tour, especially since the property already has a transit center on the edge of the property.
Speaking of vineyards, North Carolina is also establishing itself as a wine region. Why not build a Tuscan village and highlight regional wines? Two years ago, my wife and I visited the Napa region and one of our favorites was the Coppola Vineyard in Geyserville. It boasts a pair of public pools, surrounded by Italian-style cabines, each with a private changing area and shower; Rustic, a wonderful restaurant overlooking rows and rows of grape vines in the fields; and an impressive collection of artifacts from Francis Ford Coppola’s movies. If we can create an artificial river for whitewater rafting at USNWC, surely we can emulate a slice of Italian countryside.
Municipal golf course and a brand new home for an organization like First Tee. Building a golf course easily accessible to kids on the eastside and teaching them the skills and values of golf could be exactly what the area needs. If space allows, a first-rate practice facility could be part of the equation.
Casino. Sure, gambling might not be the image our city leaders want to embrace, especially given their recent efforts to ban sweepstakes parlors and such, but can they envision a Hard Rock Café-style casino with a hotel, swank pool, performance venue and dedicating all the tax proceeds to a cause that the Charlotte region could really embrace, like education or infrastructure repair and maintenance to improve roads and transportation?
Renewable energy facility and training campus. Charlotte is already diversifying its industry base beyond banking. Corporations the world over are rallying for a better-trained workforce, so why not work with them to establish a LEED-certified campus that is a shining example of how facilities can be efficiently designed, built, lit, heated and air-conditioned, while providing flexible classroom space for NC industries to train future employees and provide continuing education for current workers?
How about a hall of fame people would actually go to? Before the NASCAR Hall of Fame came to Charlotte, I secretly hoped NASCAR would choose Atlanta or Daytona, so my adopted hometown could become home to a Stand-Up Comedy Hall of Fame. If Cleveland can be home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, why can’t Charlotte do the same for stand-up comedians? In addition to recognizing the all-time greats, from Lenny Bruce to Richard Pryor; Bob Newhart to Eddie Murphy; George Carlin to Chris Rock; and Sarah Silverman to Tina Fey. It could also boast a performance space that regularly hosted established comedians as they were enshrined, as well as up-and-comers.
Last, but certainly not least, why not borrow an idea from prominent Chicago architect Jeanne Gang; who according to the Chicago Tribune, envisions a police station that “would be more like a town center than a fortress. A gym, open to the public as well as the police, would rise across the street. Cops, teachers and firefighters would live in nearby housing. Some of the parking lots around the station would be transformed into parks. The idea is to have police rub shoulders with residents, building bonds of trust.”
Her plan also includes mental health facilities, community meeting space, an innovation hub, a police academy and a trade school. The beauty of this idea is that it’s pretty turn-key. Gang and her firm have already created a model and pitched the idea to Chicago’s 10th district. Given unfortunate recent events in Chicago, they may need to pursue this idea more than most cities, but if Charlotte is truly the forward-thinking city that it purports to be, perhaps we can anticipate the need. As one of my favorite business authors, Harvey Mackay, so wisely said, it’s prudent to “dig your well before you’re thirsty.”
I don’t live near Eastland anymore, but I suspect that our new mayor as well as business owners and residents in that part of town have a few basic considerations in mind; something that adds value for area homeowners, creates jobs and attracts the right crowd to their side of town, without putting undue strain on the existing infrastructure.
I’m certainly not an urban planner, so I don’t know what zoning laws allow, how much land would be required for each of these ideas, or what would best serve the local community, but I believe there is no better time than right now for the residents and businesses in and around what used to be Eastland Mall, to investigate the potential public/private partnerships that would make effective use of this 90-acre site and best serve their part of the Queen City.