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Construction boom bypasses Eastland

City, neighbors of former mall search for redevelopment to reinvigorate area

In its heyday, Eastland Mall was the largest shopping mall in North Carolina, anchored by department stores such as Belk.

The 80-acres atop which Eastland Mall once stood have sat vacant since the city demolished the buildings. The city is trying to attract development to revitalize the area. File photo by Sharon Roberts

The 80-acres atop which Eastland Mall once stood have sat vacant since the city demolished the buildings. The city is trying to attract development to revitalize the area. File photo by Sharon Roberts

But the land is vacant now; its buildings long ago torn down. And what happens to the 80 acres that once was home to the Eastland Mall is anybody’s guess.

While Charlotte’s horizon is punctuated by construction cranes, city efforts to draw developers to the vacant property on Central Avenue have borne little fruit.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education has offered $650,000 for 11.4 acres for a new school at the site and will pay another $400,000 for planning, design and construction of an extension of Hollyfield Drive.

The city would reimburse the board for the remaining road costs.

At a recent public hearing on rezoning 12.5 acres of the former mall site, Interim Planning Director Ed McKinney said the city wants to rezone the land to a residential district that would allow for construction of a school.

The current zoning is conditional business shopping center, conditional office, and optional mixed-use development.

The city has submitted a rezoning application to allow for the school, which would be part of the 12.5 acres.

That, however, is as far as it’s gone. No developers have come forward with a plan.

‘Disconnected’

David Furman, a Charlotte developer and architect, said this week that from his perspective the mall property is “just disconnected.”

“The world I operate in is a world that a lot of the marketplace and society is shifting into – and that’s a more urban world,” he said. “There’s nothing urban about that location of where Eastland Mall is. It’s kind of just in the middle of nowhere. It’s an outpost.

“I don’t think it has to do with a negative – a negative neighborhood or negativity about a corridor or a neighborhood. I just think it’s detached. I wouldn’t care about having an office there. I wouldn’t care about living there.”

City Councilman John Autry, a Democrat whose District 5 includes the former mall property, will leave City Hall next year for Raleigh, where he will begin his tenure as a state House member.

He hopes he won’t have to look over his shoulder and see a still-deserted mall site.

“If you go and look at the city’s quality-of-life dashboard by City Council districts, you can see that in District 5, the percentage of households that have an income of $50,000 or more is 39 percent,” Autry said.

That compares, he said, with about 72 percent in District 7, which includes the southeastern area of the city, along N.C. Highway 51.

“If you were a real estate investor, wouldn’t you want to put your money where you would have a better opportunity to make a return on your investment in a shorter amount of time and possibly a greater return on your investment?” he asked.

Autry also believes the city missed a “great opportunity” in 2012 by not fully funding the CityLynx Gold Line, a 10-mile streetcar system that is an integral part of the city’s 2030 transit plan and is being constructed in phases.

Construction for the first phase of the Gold Line began in December 2012. That phase, opened in summer 2015, provides a 1.5-mile route from the Charlotte Transportation Center on Trade Street to Novant Hospital at Hawthorne Lane and Fifth Street.

The 1.5-mile alignment has several stops, including a connection to the Lynx Blue Line.

Phase 2 will extend west 2 miles from the transportation center to French Street and east one-half mile along Hawthorne Lane from Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center to Sunnyside Avenue.

Construction is scheduled to begin later this year.

That project, according to the Charlotte Area Transit System, will not be completed until late 2019 and would terminate several miles from the Eastland Mall site. The city plans to eventually extend the line to the mall, but has no firm timeline.

“The certainty of a rail transit line has to be much more appealing to developers than a bus route,” Autry said.

Furman isn’t so certain.

He said the transit issue came up during a meeting at UNC Charlotte last month with Alejandro Aravena, an architect from Santiago, Chile. Aravena is executive director of the firm Elemental S.A. and won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2016.

Looking for a panacea

Furman attended and said the meeting was designed in large part to get Aravena’s thoughts about Eastland’s potential.

Furman said former Mayor Harvey Gantt, Charlotte historian Tom Hanchett and Pat Mumford, director of the city’s neighborhood and business services department, attended or made presentations.

None could be reached for comment.

“We in our community are starting to look at transit – specifically the streetcar – as a panacea for connectivity and development,” Furman said.

“And I just don’t think it is” for parcels that have been passed over, he said.

Light rail is an answer for established places like the South End, Furman said.

“It was already there so you throw transit in the middle of that and ‘Wow, that’s awesome,’” he said. “Everybody wants to be there and development flourishes. That’s happening at NoDa now with the extension of the light rail. But it’s also happening in Plaza Midwood and there is no light rail and there’s no streetcar. But there’s a place.”

The City Council’s intent to develop the former Eastland Mall site has prompted concerns from neighbors about the lack of specifics in the plan and how piecemeal development might not be the best approach.

Council members responded that few private-sector developers have shown interest in converting the 80-acre site into a project compatible with the surrounding development.

Plans fall through

The city bought the property in 2012 for $13.2 million with plans to have a single developer propose a large, multi-use project, and demolished the mall in 2013.

However, it could not come to an agreement with Studio Charlotte Development, which proposed a $300 million phased-in project that would include a movie studio, sound stages, a film school, a cinema, a hotel, apartments and shops.

In 2014, the City Council unanimously rejected Studio Charlotte Development’s request for a five-month extension on exclusive negotiating rights for the project.

The only other proposal was from ARK Ventures, which in August 2013 pulled its proposal for a $154 million recreation and entertainment complex that would have included an artificial ski slope and a skate park.

Council members now are considering a vision for transforming the site into a transit-oriented, mixed-use hub with parks.

The magnet school, the first phase of the redevelopment process, would be at the northeast corner near Wilora Lake Road.

The planning committee voted 6-1 last year to recommend the city not sell the land to CMS, citing concerns about whether a school is the proper venue to attract further economic development and whether the property could accommodate portable classrooms, should the need arise.

During a dinner briefing before a recent zoning meeting, McKinney told council members that planning staff members since 2014 have been in a series of “partnership” discussions with various businesses and organizations about development at the former mall site.

Some discussions related to public open space and civic uses such as a school, McKinney said.

The city’s rezoning petition has no associated site plan. But planners say the R-4 district is designed to protect and promote development of single-family housing and a limited number of public and institutional uses including religious institutions, schools and government buildings.

Area residents remain concerned.

Neighbors not sold

Eastside activist Ed Garber organized a protest rally this month to urge the City Council to vote ‘no’ on the sale of land at Eastland to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

He and his supporters believe community input and city studies have “overwhelmingly” identified economic development as the proper focus of the Eastland site.

The school concept will have a negative impact on the site and severely limit future development options, Garber said.

Della Grier, who lives near the former mall site, told council members at a recent meeting that she worried about a “piecemeal” development approach.

She noted that city officials are taking strides to talk to outside experts about development around SouthPark.

“I wonder if that same diligence” is being used for the Eastland Mall area, she said.

Darrell Bonapart, a resident speaking on behalf of neighbors who live next to the Eastland Mall site, told council members “the whole neighborhood is wanting to know” what the future holds for the area.

Planning staff members have recommended the City Council approve the city’s rezoning petition to convert the 12.5 acres on the east side of Wilora Lake Road between Justin Forest and Hollyfield drives to single-family residential and allow a school.

Planners say the petition is consistent with the Eastland Area Plan recommendation for residential, office and retail uses within a town center environment.

The uses allowed in the R-4, or single-family residential, district are compatible with the surrounding development, the planners said.

For his part, Autry, who has lived in Charlotte since 1981, sees promise in developing the former mall site with market-rate housing and commercial development.

“I have no choice but to be optimistic,” he said.

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