Can Charlotte’s CEOs ride to Eastland Mall property’s rescue?

The Observer editorial board

The city demolished the old Eastland Mall in hopes of redeveloping the property.
The city demolished the old Eastland Mall in hopes of redeveloping the property. Courtesy of Grant Baldwin Photog

When it comes to real estate redevelopment riddles, the question of what to do with the old Eastland Mall site sits right at the top of the list for Charlotte.

The 80-acre parcel, once home to the thriving 1970s-era mall that anchored the city’s eastside, is drawing no interest from private developers. This despite an accelerating real estate market and the city’s willingness to sweeten a redevelopment deal with public dollars.

First came the collapse of the overly ambitious, under-financed plan for a massive mixed-use development anchored by a movie studio. And now the city’s new plan for a K-8 school, green space and other modest uses is drawing yawns.

Mecklenburg County commissioners, asked to build a 22-acre park, told the city Tuesday to go back to the drawing board. Where’s the “wow” factor, they asked.

Having spent $13 million in 2012 for the mall and more than $871,000 to demolish it, the city is desperate to make something – anything – happen at the site.

In the old days, when Eastland Mall was young, civic problems like these would come before The Group – local captains of industry such as bank CEOs Hugh McColl and Ed Crutchfield, department store magnate John Belk and Duke Energy’s Bill Lee. By force of will, reputation and the power of their institutions, they’d hammer out solutions.

Their way certainly wouldn’t work today. It was far too insular and clubby for today’s more inclusive times. Still, it had enough merit that a modern CEO council re-appeared this summer. The Charlotte Executive Leadership Council, chaired by Duke’s Lynn Good, has yet to roll out any major initiatives; it is likely still studying where to focus its efforts.

Good has said the group would tackle big-picture issues such as transportation, education and upward mobility. All are worthy subjects for study, of course.

But if the group wants to start with a more discrete problem where its expertise can be put to immediate use, Eastland Mall awaits. It is a business problem, which plays to the CEOs’ natural strengths. And it is a civic problem our elected leaders have thus far been unable to solve. (Commissioner Jim Puckett calls it a “white elephant” – not how you like to hear a public official describing property where millions in taxpayer dollars are tied up).

Tackling big-picture problems is good. But McColl and the CEOs of earlier eras put their muscle behind brick-and-mortar problems, too, like getting the uptown transportation center built and finding land for an NFL stadium.

The Eastland project needs help. Solving it would benefit the entire city.

What say you, CEOs?