City of Charlotte could be forced to spend more money to spark Eastland Mall development

FILE PHOTO: Demolition work on Eastland Mall began in 2013 and was complete in 2014. The city of Charlotte owns the site and is looking for a way to rejuvenate the area.
FILE PHOTO: Demolition work on Eastland Mall began in 2013 and was complete in 2014. The city of Charlotte owns the site and is looking for a way to rejuvenate the area. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

Mecklenburg County’s coolness towards Charlotte’s plans for the former Eastland Mall site could force the city to spend more public money to spark development.

The city wants to sell part of the 80-acre site to the county for a park and so Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools can build a K-8 school. Charlotte hopes private development would follow.

The city spent just under $14 million to buy and demolish Eastland Mall three years ago.

Council members have said they want to recoup the public’s investment when the property is sold, but no developers have shown interest in buying any of it.

County commissioners said Tuesday they want the city’s Eastland Mall plan to be bolder, and one official said they want a “Wow” factor.

Pat Mumford, who heads the city’s neighborhood and business services department, made the presentation to commissioners. In an interview with the Observer later, Mumford said the city has tried for the “Wow” factor, but that no one wants to build there.

“Let me talk a little about the idea of ‘we need something bigger and better,’” Mumford said. “We have to be able to understand the realistic dynamics occurring in that part of the city. We need to understand the market conditions.”

Developers can buy and build in other areas that carry less financial risk, Mumford said. The neighborhoods near Eastland have struggled as businesses and homeowners have left.

“The idea of a developer coming in and buying all that property and developing it immediately isn’t practical,” he said.

Earlier efforts fell apart

Nine years ago, when the longtime mall’s decline began accelerating, Charlotte and the Urban Land Institute envisioned a developer replacing it with a mixed-use community of stores, offices and housing.

It didn’t happen.

A few years later in 2010, a Texas developer bought the main section of the mall for $2 million. He said he would turn it into a Hispanic-themed shopping center.

That didn’t happen either. The developer sold his portion of the mall back to the city in 2012 and ultimately received $6 million from taxpayers.

There was talk of building a Veterans Affairs hospital at Eastland, but the new hospital is being built on West Tyvola Road.

Then came a proposal for an entertainment center with a 300-foot outdoor ski slope. City staff said that proposal wasn’t viable.

At the same time, a developer said he could build a movie studio and mixed-use development. That was also a bust.

Where to go from here?

Now the city’s plans for the school and park appear to be stalling.

Mumford said the county hasn’t made a formal decision on whether to move forward with the park and school plan.

“If a school doesn’t go there, it doesn’t undermine the whole site,” he said. “Nor is it predicated on a county park. But that’s a good way to begin to address multiple policy objectives (for the site).”

It’s possible the city could entice Mecklenburg County to take over the roughly 20 acres by selling the land to the county at a discount or giving it away.

“Depending on how much it would cost to develop the park, I am always interested in free land,” said Commissioner Jim Puckett, who said he didn’t agree with the city’s decision to buy the mall three years ago.

The city’s most recent plans for Eastland are first vetted by the council’s economic development committee. The former committee chair, Michael Barnes, wanted the city to recoup its $14 million investment in buying the mall.

The new chair, James Mitchell, said Thursday he would be open to spending more city money to entice development.

Mitchell chaired the committee three years ago when the movie studio concept was considered. He said he was too enthusiastic about that project.

“We need to make sure we vet all the projects,” he said. “I think last time, I got caught up in a great design and a great vision, but we should have did more due diligence. I felt like I let the community down.”

Even if the school and park idea doesn’t work, Mumford said the city has improved the area by demolishing the mall.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs