Jan 20, 2020 - News

How Eastland evolved from Charlotte’s coolest mall to the future home of the city’s third major-league pro sports team

Eastland Mall

Eastland Mall

Editor’s note: On November 9, Charlotte City Council unanimously approved redevelopment plans for the old Eastland mall site. It will house a blend of mixed-income housing, retail, offices, a grocery store, and green space — but the plans no longer include an MLS team headquarters.

When Eastland Mall opened in the summer of 1975, it was the fanciest shopping center in the region. Thirty-five years later, in 2010, the mall closed and the property sat empty except for a few skateboarders. The city demolished the mall in late 2013. Now, the long-neglected Eastland property is set for a big redevelopment — including construction of a Major League Soccer team headquarters — and it promises to revitalize east Charlotte.

Newcomers to Charlotte may not be familiar with the Eastland name. Eastland sat on a 77-acre plot on Central Avenue between North Sharon Amity and Albemarle roads, roughly six miles from Uptown. Huge swaths of the land are now overgrown and separated by chain-linked fencing. The rest is mostly an old parking lot. CMS opened a K-8 school on part of the site last year.

Many of the small businesses along Central Avenue near Eastland are run by immigrants; it’s common to see signage in Spanish, and others in Arabic. Brick apartment complexes built in the 1960s and 1970s line the corridor leading up to Eastland.

It’s a far cry from neighborhoods like South End, home to thousands of new luxury apartments and breweries and sleek office towers under construction.

That soon will change, though. Within a month, local developer Crosland Southeast will submit a rezoning application to the city for the property. The plan is to turn Eastland into a major mixed-use development broken down into four components: MLS facilities, a public park, commercial space, and homes and apartments.

The goal is to break ground on the first phase of the multi-year effort by the end of 2020, Tim Sittema, managing partner at Crosland Southeast, tells the Agenda.

“I think we have an opportunity to do something significant and transformative for East Charlotte,” Sittema says.

For a long time in the 1970s and 1980s, Eastland was the place to be.

Of course, it had its anchor tenants — Belk, J.C. Penney, Ivey’s, and Miller & Rhoads. Eastland had more stores than SouthPark mall, which had opened five years earlier. And in many ways, Eastland was much sexier at the time than SouthPark, which was built on what had been an old pasture.

Eastland boasted two stories, for instance. You could sit on a bench on the second floor and people-watch as shoppers strolled by below. Filled with ornate water fountains and sparkling chandeliers, Eastland’s decorations were considered top of the line back then.

Eastland Mall, view from the second floor
Eastland Mall, view from the second floor (photo from Pat Richardson)

Not in the mood to shop? No worries; the mall had a movie theater with three screens. Eastland also had a food court, a novel feature for shopping malls at the time. Tom Hanchett, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library’s historian-in-residence, remembers the food court’s Orange Julius to be especially popular.

“If you can imagine how excited people are today about Atherton Mill and a food hall (Optimist Hall), the food court was at least as exciting,” Hanchett says.

Arguably the mall’s biggest draw at the time, though, was its central Ice Capades Chalet ice-skating rink. It drew visitors from all over the region.

Chamber of Commerce President Don Bryant gushed over the mall’s opening during a ceremonial ribbon-cutting. Charlotte officials like then-Mayor John Belk attended and even took a spin around the ice rink as two levels packed full of shoppers watched on.

“This is a prime example of the American economic system at its best,” Bryant told the Observer in a July 31, 1975, story. “This makes Charlotte-Mecklenburg a more pleasant place to live.”

Over the years, sales declined, crime in the area rose, and department stores shuttered. After Eastland closed, the city bought the property in 2012 for $13.2 million and tore it down a year later.

The city always wanted to redevelop the land. Over the years, developers proposed all kinds of ideas for the dead-mall site, and they all ultimately failed.

The group behind the Music Factory proposed a mixed-use development with a ski slope, skate park, and wave pool, the Charlotte Business Journal wrote in 2013. A renowned Chilean architect named Alejandro Aravena in 2016 proposed a mixed-use project filled with green space and room for small businesses.

After considering a number of proposals, the city selected Crosland Southeast as the master developer for Eastland in late 2018. Crosland is the local builder behind a number of high-profile mixed-use projects in the area, including Birkdale Village in Huntersville and Waverly in south Charlotte.

Crosland had always hoped to have some kind of soccer component in its Eastland development. At one point, the plan was to include FC Barcelona’s youth league on the site.

While Crosland worked on its site plans, billionaire hedge fund manager David Tepper bought the Carolina Panthers in the summer of 2018. From his early days in Charlotte, Tepper made clear he wanted an MLS team here, too.

To land one, though, he also needed a site for a training facility. To Crosland, the marriage between its Eastland plans an Tepper’s MLS aspirations fit perfectly.

“When we first heard that Tepper was pursuing MLS, we started pursuing them — hard,” Sittema says.

“We felt like MLS and Eastland would be a perfect match from what we heard from the community.”

Last month, MLS officials announced that they had selected Charlotte as the league’s 30th expansion team. Critical to the league’s decision was city officials’ vow to commit $110 million in hospitality funds to support a team — from Eastland facilities to renovations at Bank of America Stadium.

Tepper and the city have not said how that chunk of money will be divided between the projects, but Tepper told reporters last month that Eastland will cost more. He’ll also end up putting more of his own money into the project, too.

Tepper says he wants to preserve as much of the local flavor of the Eastland/Central Avenue area, which he has referred to as “International Avenue.”

“The idea is to have it develop and keep the population the same, so you have restaurants and shops run by local people. It makes it that much richer,” Tepper told reporters.

But with redevelopment also, inevitably, comes rising rents.

The Eastland area attracted small businesses and immigrants in the mid-1990s because the cost of living in the area was so cheap, Hanchett says. Around 1990, less than 1 percent of Charlotte’s population was foreign born. Today, it’s closer to 16 percent.

According to data from UNC-Charlotte, some of the neighborhoods adjacent to Eastland are one-third Latino. County-wide, about 13 percent of the population identifies as Latino. Those same neighborhoods near Eastland have annual median incomes of about half of that of the county, which is $61,695. 

While the community is supportive of new investment, they’re also concerned that rising rents could displace longtime residents and businesses.

The issue of displacement is something that Crosland wrestles with all the time, Sittema says. The city has tasked Crosland with doing a “transformative development,” but to many, that connotes gentrification.

“Displacement of residents or indigenous businesses would be a negative consequence, and we want to avoid that as much as we can,” Sittema says.

These days, Crosland and Tepper’s team meet regularly about Eastland. Preliminary plans call for MLS to take up almost 30 acres of the site. There will be an MLS headquarters office that’s 2-3 stories tall, and up to 12 soccer fields of varying sizes, Sittema says.

Construction on the Eastland development will be done in phases. The first phase will cover about half the property, Sittema says. It should be complete roughly three years after construction starts later this year.

Sittema says Crosland hopes to somehow weave Eastland’s history into the redevelopment plans. Talk to any longtime Charlottean, and they’ll share an Eastland memory. The iconic sunshine logo these days is plastered all over T-shirts and sweatshirts.

“We’ve had people show us tattoos of that sign on their body parts,” Sittema says.

Eastland Mall signage
Signage at Eastland Mall, which closed in 2010 (photo from Pat Richardson)

Walk though the old Eastland property any given weekend, and you’ll notice that the place is anything but sleepy.

The mall’s parking lot fills with local vendors selling everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to sweatshirts, from batteries and shampoo to hand-crafted jewelry. The scent of empanadas and churros wafts from food trucks parked next to vendor tents.

The open-air flea market sets up each Saturday and Sunday on the southeast side of the property, where a Hannaford grocery store once was. Local entrepreneurs Errick Curtis-Pulley and Theodore Williams started the market there in 2015 as an opportunity for small businesses who may not be able to afford traditional storefronts, I wrote for the Observer in August 2015. 

$15 gets each business one spot (equal to two parking space) that’s 18 x 18 feet.

It is unclear what’ll happen to the market when the city sells the 77 acres to Crosland. Representatives from the city and the open-air market could not be reached for comment.

Maria Santos, who emigrated from Honduras a decade ago, has been selling perfume and cologne for about three years. Over time, she’s seen the market swell with customers as more vendors crowd in each weekend.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Santos told me the reason she sets up here, in this old parking lot where a generation ago shoppers once hustled in and out, and now an NFL owner sees a future built around a soccer franchise.

“It’s good business,” she said.

Open-air flea market at Eastland Mall
Open-air flea market at Eastland Mall

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