Charlotte homes in on new Eastland Mall project

A failing Eastland Mall in 2008, before the city bought, demolished it. Photo: Nancy Pierce

In recent years, many residents in east Charlotte grew weary and frustrated with the city’s unsuccessful efforts to attract a showpiece development to replace the once-popular Eastland Mall. A recent City Council vote, however, has buoyed hopes that it will become not only a reality but will celebrate the diversity and multicultural culture of the city’s eastside.

“This project could become a model on how to bring people on different socioeconomic levels and from different communities together,” said Maureen Gilewski, who has lived in east Charlotte for 40 years and co-chairs CharlotteEast, a community group that has participated in years-long discussions about what to do with the vacant Eastland site. “That’s what makes this exciting.”

A new development with shopping, restaurants and other amenities not only would mean an economic benefit for the city and area businesses, said resident Yvonne McJetters, “it will bring the eastside back alive.”

The Charlotte City Council voted unanimously in October to partner with a development group to come up with plans for the 69-acre city-owned property and to calculate the costs of city involvement. The council’s decision does not mean that the city definitely will participate financially in the partnership, but indicates a commitment to explore the possibility once a definitive proposal and costs are determined.

The development group is led by Crosland Southeast, in collaboration with two other local firms: Eastland Development Corporation, Inc., and Odell Associates. City officials will pay up to $250,000 of the cost of the preliminary work, which is estimated at $550,000 to $600,000. The planning is to be completed in seven to nine months and is to include community participation.

“We want to do something that’s transformative to the area,” said Tim Sittema, managing partner of Crosland Southeast, which developed the mixed-use Birkdale Village in Huntersville and the mixed-use Blakeney near the Ballantyne area of south Charlotte. “If we take that 69 acres and do something that doesn’t have a halo effect, we have missed an opportunity. It’s our job to dream big to see what’s possible and make the case why public investment is viable.”

Eastland Mall, about five miles from uptown, closed eight years ago, its decline triggered in part by the changing socioeconomic and ethnic demographics of east Charlotte. When it opened in 1975, it was the largest mall in North Carolina, and its shopping and entertainment options attracted visitors from across the Charlotte area.

City officials stepped in to help stanch the economic loss: They purchased the initial 80-acre site in 2012 for $13.2 million, and demolished the mall in 2013. Since then they have considered several unsuccessful projects, including a movie studio, and transferred 11 acres to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which opened the Charlotte East Language Academy this fall.

This new redevelopment effort, say city officials and some residents, has traction unlike any other that surfaced previously because it is anchored in a partnership with a development group that has strong local ties and a proven record of creating distinctive projects in the Charlotte area. Odell Associates, for example, was involved in the uptown BB&T Ballpark and is working on the renovation of Bojangles Coliseum in east Charlotte.

“It’s been a long journey,” said City Council Member James Mitchell, chair of the council’s Economic Development Committee. “We want to make the deal work, but it has to be great for the taxpayers. I think we will reach a point where everybody will be happy — the developer, the city and most importantly the citizens of east Charlotte.”

According to Mitchell, the city already has $16.4 million earmarked for possible infrastructure improvements and an additional $15 million for an amateur sports project. But two major questions remain: How much will the city be asked to invest, and will the City Council agree?

Preliminary ideas being discussed for the project include a mix of housing, restaurants, shops, medical and commercial offices, a multiethnic marketplace, public parks and an amateur sports facility such as an academy linked to Spain-based FC Barcelona, one of the most successful professional soccer teams in the world. There also have been suggestions to relocate the nearby Simmons YMCA to the site.

While it is too early to know what will actually be included in the project, Sittema said he hopes to create a walkable, multi-use environment shaped around the preliminary ideas, which won support from east Charlotte residents over other proposals.

“A lot of work has to happen to know what’s viable,” he added.

For the community, it is important that any project embrace east Charlotte’s cultural and socioeconomic diversity, which was reflected October 14 during the annual Taste of the World, which gives participants the opportunity to sample a variety of foods. Nearly 350 people turned out for the event, sponsored by CharlotteEast, and rode in more than a dozen buses to visit 29 restaurants representing 19 countries, including Bosnia, El Salvador, Ethiopian, Honduras and the Middle East.

According to Census figures, the population of east Charlotte neighborhoods ranges from 15 percent to nearly 50 percent Hispanic. The neighborhood-by-neighborhood median income ranges from $32,000 to $45,000, lower than the $55,000 median income for the city as a whole.

“I hope that whatever it will become has its own identity and is unique and special,” said Mike Sullivan, who co-chairs CharlotteEast, and is a member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission and a commercial real estate broker. “We are not looking for something that will be another corporate location, but something that is authentic.”

The pursuit of a centerpiece project for the eastside has become an inclusive, collaborative effort that is sensitive to the eastside multicultural community, said Astrid Chirinos, board chair of the Latin American Economic Development Corporation, which has been actively involved in helping define the vision for the redevelopment.

“This will be a catalyst for opportunities,” added Chirinos, who is executive director of the Simmons YMCA. “I think this process has involved discovery that has not happened before. It has been intentional. It will not have everything we want but it will have enough to transform the dynamics of the east corridor.”