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Here’s why Charlotte City Council is spending up to $575,000 on another plan for the old Eastland Mall site

The site of the former Eastland Mall site, at Central Avenue and Albemarle Road.
The site of the former Eastland Mall site, at Central Avenue and Albemarle Road. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte City Council’s economic development committee recommended hiring a new team of consultants on Thursday to draw up a strategy for redeveloping the former Eastland Mall site, as officials hope to finally figure out what to do with the vacant property.

The committee recommended Jacobs Engineering Group, along with several other urban planning firms including DPZ, to draw up a new master plan for Eastland. The full City Council is expected to vote on the plan at its March 27 meeting. The plan could cost up to $575,000, though staff said they ultimately expect the tab to be lower.

“I know it’s been arduous and long and tiring, but we’ve set ourselves up to really be successful,” said Pat Mumford, director of the city’s Neighborhood & Business Services department.

Charlotte hopes to eventually subdivide the land and sell it off to private developers, revitalizing the area and recouping at least some of the city’s costs. The city has said it may have to subsidize new development there, possibly by paying for infrastructure like roads and street lights.

The city bought the 80-acre Eastland site in 2012 for $13.2 million, two years after the mall closed. Before that, Eastland had limped along for years. Belk closed in 2007, Dillard’s shuttered its store in 2008 and Sears shut down in 2009. Since the city demolished the mall, the Eastland site has sat empty, an ugly scab on Charlotte’s east side.

To change that, the city plans to talk with developers to understand why there hasn’t been interest in the site, and look at rebranding and renaming the area. City Council members agreed the name needs to be changed to change people’s perception.

“Every time you say Eastland to the citizens, some of us, it brings heartburn,” said council member James Mitchell. “What is the new name?”

Fifteen design firms responded to the city’s request for qualifications, seeking to be chosen to draw up the latest master plan for the long-vacant site. Though not detailed plans, the firms presented similar high-level ideas about developing the site: Breaking it into smaller chunks, bringing a dense, walkable mix of uses and taking an incremental approach rather than doing it all at once.

The new plan will be the fourth attempt at a workable vision. In 2007, the city partnered with the Urban Land Institute to come up with a plan for the mall. Then, in 2014, the city hired LandDesign to review the site. And last year, the Latin American Economic Development Corporation, which has a strong presence on the east side, hired a Chilean consultant to look at the site and sketch his vision.

For the first part of Jacobs Engineering’s plan, the consultants will hold a developer forum, likely in early May, to gauge interest. Then they’ll move on to a more detailed market analysis and master plan, hoping to issue a request for development proposals in October.

“People are not developing on this property today there’s a reason for that,” said Mumford. “We want to hear from developers, ‘What is causing you not to develop today?’”

Council member Ed Driggs said he was skeptical, and wanted to know that developers are actually interested before voting to spend money on another study.

“We run the risk of spending a half-million dollars and really not solving the problem,” said Driggs. “The plan to me has got to include someone with real money. ... Otherwise we’re dancing around the real issue, which is that nobody wants to put up money here.”

Some eastside residents have grown impatient with the slow progress on the site. Some have wanted the city to have a transformative project for the site, but the city has said it hasn’t gotten any interest from developers.

The city plans to extend the Gold Line streetcar to Eastland and hopes that will be a catalyst. But there is no money set aside to extend the Gold Line, and it’s unlikely to reach the mall for at least a decade.

When it opened in 1975, Eastland quickly became a staple of Charlotte shopping and a go-to hang-out spot. The mall had an ice rink, movie theater and four anchor department.

Three plans for the vacant site have fallen through since the mall closed.

▪ A Houston investor bought the main section of the mall for $2.3 million, soon after Eastland closed in 2010. Boxer Properties planned to convert Eastland into a Hispanic-themed shopping center. Those plans never materialized, and the city bought the mall two years later.

▪ A movie executive, Bert Hesse, proposed turning the site into movie studios, stores, offices and a hotel.

▪ The developers of the AvidXchange Music Factory wanted to build an outdoor entertainment complex focused around a 300-foot-long outdoor ski slope.

The city decided that neither the movie studio or ski slope idea were feasible, and held on to the site.

“We have had over the years an awful lot of suggestions about how to use the property. Those didn’t pan out,” said Mumford. “We have to be honest about what can be done.”

One development plan has come to fruition: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools bought 11.4 acres at the northeast corner of the site, with plans for a new K-8 language school. But the city will give CMS back most of the $650,000 sale price in road and clean-up costs for the site.

Mumford emphasized the city is willing to wait to redevelop the area according to their vision.

“This is not a real estate deal for us,” he said. “This isn’t buy land, sell land, make a return and move on.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

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