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Residents’ hopes rising as Eastland Mall falls

One gray, drizzly afternoon last week, the demolition team charged with knocking once-proud Eastland Mall into the history books gave me a tour of its handiwork.

Over at the Burlington Coat Factory store, a 110,000-pound hydraulic monster called a shear repeatedly thrust its lobster claw of an arm into the structure’s guts, ripping away the steel girders.

Concrete and other materials crashed down, sending dust particles billowing like man-made precipitation. Then little front-loaders scampered in to gather and stack the broken bricks, twisted tin and rust-stained girders into neatly separated piles.

“It’s gonna be a mountain of crap when we get through with it,” said Victor Wilson, a manager with Environmental Holdings Group, the firm handling the six-month demolition project for the city under an $871,000 contract.

For folks who’ve lived here long enough to have crossed paths with Eastland in its heyday, seeing it laid low prompts a twinge of sadness. Eastland was the largest shopping center in the state when it opened in 1975. Generations enjoyed its wide selection of stores and signature ice skating rink, but changing demographics and rising crime sent it spiraling toward its closure in 2010.

The city bought the mall for $13.2 million with hopes of redeveloping the 80-acre property. City officials have opened a six-month window to vet a proposal from Studio Charlotte, a development group that wants to put a massive movie studio on the site, along with a hotel, retail, office space and residential units.

But before that – or any other redevelopment – can happen, the old mall must disappear.

Heavy demolition started a couple of weeks ago. Wilson said his company’s crews will level 1,200,000 square feet of buildings. Much of the material will be salvaged or resold.

As sad as longtime residents are to see the mall go, they’re eager to see the property used to jump-start redevelopment on the struggling eastside. At a time when the big subdivision developers have run out of vacant Mecklenburg land, everybody’s talking about infill development and rebuilding existing areas.

Here’s good, folks on the eastside say.

“I think we’re the jewel waiting to be discovered,” says Louise Woods, a former county school board member who works with the Eastland Area Strategies Team, a volunteer group that promotes east Charlotte.

She says if the Eastland project produces the kind of pedestrian-friendly development today’s young adults love, with retail “that’s not messy, but that’s eclectic and interesting,” it will help drive up property values in the surrounding neighborhoods.

City Council member Billy Maddalon, who represents parts of the eastside, says the sheer size of the property and its central positioning make it a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the eastside.

“It has the potential to be a Phillips Place kind of transformation,” he said, referring to the popular SouthPark shopping and dining hub. “I’m not sure you can overstate the impact … if we get it right and it’s everything we want it to be.”

He believes the Studio Charlotte proposal fits the bill. City Council hasn’t fully committed to it yet, but Maddalon likes what he’s heard. Still, much work remains to figure out whether the city should go all in on the proposal.

It’s unclear how much money, if any, the city should or would chip in. It’s unclear what, if anything, the developers would ask for as part of a binding deal. And perhaps above all else, it’s not clear that the film incentive deals drawing Hollywood productions to North Carolina – and to a future Studio Charlotte – will survive in their current form. Some state lawmakers want them cut.

And if all that weren’t enough, there’s also the fact that the $250 million-plus project would take years to build out – plenty of time for any number of things to go wrong and leave a half-built husk rusting on the site.

“We’re all sober,” Maddalon says. “We recognize there are headwinds.”

So, the old mall comes down, piece by piece, day by day. As nostalgic as eastsiders are about Eastland’s past, their hopes rise as the walls fall.

“We’re a good deal away from the finish line,” Maddalon says. “But I’m hopeful, and optimistic.”

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