Development

3 years after demolition, Eastland Mall site is still vacant. Here’s why that won’t change soon.

Three years ago this month, as demolition crews started ripping apart the shuttered Eastland Mall, the city hoped to quickly sell the land to a developer and see thriving new businesses start to grow on what had become a blighted, desolate site.

But with the site still empty and vacant after a series of plans fell through, city officials acknowledge that redeveloping the Eastland Mall site might still take considerably longer.

For now, the only occupants on the triangular wedge of land on Central Avenue at Albemarle Road are weeds growing through the cracked asphalt, piles of leaves and chain link fences. And the city is still trying to figure out exactly what to do with the 80-acre site it bought four years ago for $13.2 million.

“Our hope was that a single development entity would be able to purchase the entire site and redevelop it,” Pat Mumford, director of Charlotte’s Neighborhood & Business Services department, told me. “Once that was seen to not be viable, the time-frame in which we’re working now is to be expected. It’s going to be a slow process.”

Community leaders are still hopeful the site can transform the area once it’s redeveloped. Astrid Chirinos is chief development executive of the Latin American Economic Development Corporation in Charlotte, which recently hired a Chilean architect to sketch a vision for the city. Chirinos said she’s been meeting with investors interested in the site, which she said could be “the catalyst” for reshaping a part of town that hasn’t seen the explosive growth other Charlotte neighborhoods have recently experienced.

City staff are searching for someone to draw up a new master plan for the site. They’re crafting a request for qualifications from interested consultants, which Mumford said he hopes to have finished and sent out soon. After that, the city will draw up a request for actual proposals, which Mumford said he hopes to have done by the end of the year. That could cost $200,000 to $300,000, city staff have said.

The new master plan will paint a broad picture of what the city hopes to see on the site, not describe exactly what developers are expected to build – a “design guide,” as Mumford said. The plan will address issues such as how much open space there should be and how it should be distributed, what types of uses should be built on the site (apartments, offices, shops, etc.) and how much of each the site could support.

After the master plan is drawn up, the city will then have to subdivide the land and find private developers interested in partnering to actually build the vision.

“It’s too soon to say when that would occur, because it’s a linear process,” said Mumford.

The only concrete development deal that’s been inked so far has been the sale of 11.4 acres to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for $650,000. A new K-8 language school is slated for the northeast corner of the property, and the city will pay CMS most of the sales price back to help build a road and clean up the site. Some neighbors said they were disappointed in the sale, because they don’t think a school will help lure a transformational project.

One major reason the site is still vacant: A lack of private sector interest.

“We can’t create a market,” said Mumford. “The timing’s driven by the market. We can’t fabricate a market.”

The city hasn’t had trouble selling other vacant sites to developers. Along Stonewall Street, a Whole Foods and hundreds of apartments are under construction on leftover land from the construction of I-277, and hundreds more apartments are planned along more parcels. Four developers even got into a bidding war for one of the leftover parcels, with Northwood Ravin eventually paying $14.2 million for a 3.8 acre site at Stonewall and Caldwell streets.

But at 80 acres, Eastland is many times bigger than any of those sites, making it significantly more complex and challenging for one entity to redevelop. It’s also not in booming uptown. The average rent for an apartment in the Eastland area is $809 per month, according to Charlotte-based Real Data. That’s compared to $1,711 in uptown and $1,395 in South End and southeast Charlotte.

Eastland was a staple of Charlotte shopping and the hang-out spot for a generation after it opened in 1975, with an ice rink, movie theater and three anchor department stores: Belk, J.C. Penney and Ivey’s. Sears moved in soon after. Over the decades, however, other malls sprouted up around Charlotte and the neighborhood around Eastland changed. Gradually, stores at Eastland started to struggle, and the department store anchors closed one by one.

In July 2010, the whole mall closed. A Houston investor bought the main section of the mall for $2.3 million, with plans to convert Eastland into a Hispanic-themed shopping center. Those plans never materialized.

The city of Charlotte bought the deteriorating and still-shuttered mall in 2012, and decided to demolish the buildings to make way for new development.

Two potential offers fell through. A movie executive, Bert Hesse, proposed turning the site into movie studios, stores, offices and a hotel. And 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 neither of those plans were credible, and held on to the site.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

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