Politics & Government

As Eastland Mall ‘fatigue’ grows, can city find an answer?

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

The Charlotte City Council put the brakes Monday on a plan to immediately spend up to $545,000 on a consultant to study the Eastland Mall site, with some council members saying they couldn’t approve so much money at once.

Council members did approve the first phase of a contract with Dallas-based Jacobs Engineering Group for $145,000. Jacobs Engineering, along with several other urban planning firms, including DPZ, will work in April and May to “understand challenges that currently prohibit development,” according to the city.

But council members didn’t want to immediately approve the possible second phase of the study, which could be up to $430,000.

City staff said that if Jacobs Engineering found “information gaps” based on the first phase of the contract, they would start the second phase – without council approval.

“What is the need to vote on phase two?” asked Republican council member Ed Driggs. “When (a developer) is ready to move, they will not need a consultant.”

Democrat LaWana Mayfield said she thought the city would only OK spending money on phase 2 “until we had investors.”

Council members voted late Monday to only spend $145,000 on the first phase of the study. Many council members weren’t opposed to the second phase of the study, but they first want an opportunity to review the work Jacobs Engineering has done before spending more money.

The city bought the 80-acre Eastland site in 2012 for $13.2 million, two years after the mall closed. The city then demolished the mall and the Eastland site has sat empty.

Over the last several years, there have been a handful of proposals for the site, including turning the mall into a Hispanic-themed shopping center; a movie studio; and an outdoor recreation center.

Instead of hiring the outside firm, Democrat Claire Fallon said the city should ask a group of local developers why the mall hasn’t been redeveloped.

“That would save a lot of money,” she said.

It’s not secret what the current “challenges” to the site are.

The area around Eastland has seen a number of upper middle-class families leave over the last 20 years. Retail and restaurants have left for competing malls like Northlake and SouthPark.

Another challenge: Retail overall is struggling nationwide, as more consumers shop online.

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 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.

Pat Mumford, who heads the city’s Neighborhood & Business Services department, admitted Monday that there is “community fatigue” over years of nothing happening at the Eastland Mall site.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs