In a city full of cranes, one particular construction site has an outsized influence on the civic conversation: Eastland Mall.
The city of Charlotte has been searching for years to find a developer willing to turn the former shopping mecca into something — anything — that will boost the economy of the city’s east side.
Here’s the latest in a nutshell: Charlotte’s City Council approved a contract in August to move forward on a proposal from Crosland Southeast, the company that developed Birkdale Village and Waverly. They’re pitching a plan for an FC Barcelona soccer center plus retail, restaurants, office space, a hotel — and “millennial housing opportunities.”
But if you’re relatively new to Charlotte, you might be wondering why Charlotte’s leaders have spent so much time and attention on what is now a patch of dirt in east Charlotte.
Why do local politicians and the media spend so much time talking about Eastland Mall? Here are the main six reasons.
1) It has a major nostalgia factor.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Eastland Mall was a hallmark of Charlotte entertainment and the largest mall in the Carolinas. It featured a skating rink on the lower level and the first food court on the East Coast.
Old Charlotte is obsessed with Eastland Mall because it was a centerpiece of their childhoods.
2) We own it.
As the city changed, the mall began to decline and SouthPark mall increased in prominence. Eastland ultimately closed in 2010.
Faced with the prospect of a massive dead space in east Charlotte, the City Council voted in 2012 to buy the 80-acre property for $13 million in public money. The next year, the city taxpayers paid to tear down the mall buildings.
It is the City Council’s responsibility to figure out what to do with the property, and they want to get it right. With so much taxpayer money on the table, the media therefore spends a lot of time writing about Eastland to watchdog the spending.
3) It’s a blank canvas.
Charlotte has few undeveloped pieces of land anywhere that are this big, public or private. Companies wanting to build a new campus from scratch are moving over the border to South Carolina.
Eastland presents a huge opportunity to do something transformative. That makes it important.
4) It’s in an underdeveloped part of Charlotte.
East Charlotte and west Charlotte are a lot less economically developed than the parts of the town north and south. The city has spent resources building up Historic West End and bringing the Gold Line streetcar that way. East Charlotte has lagged behind, and the people who live there are anxious for investment.
East Charlotte is also probably the most diverse and international area of town, giving Charlotte tremendous vibrancy. That makes anything happening there more interesting.
5) It’s taken forever.
It’s been six years since Charlotte bought the land, and it seems like the City Council has always been doing something regarding Eastland since then. There have been lots of plans proposed, ideas floated and contracts signed — giving the media something to write about continuously.
6) People have had odd-ball ideas for it.
But just having something to write about doesn’t guarantee the public’s interest. There have been actually interesting things to write about on Eastland for awhile.
At one point, a developer was proposing turning Eastland Mall into a movie studio. Another proposal called for a giant outdoor artificial ski slope.
The current proposal should keep the public’s interest for another few years moving forward.