I moved to the Windsor Park neighborhood in East Charlotte in 2008. At that time, the whole city was in the heady days of what we now consider a real estate bubble before The Great Recession. The first leg of the LYNX Blue Line light rail opened and so much progress seemed possible. On Black Friday of 2008, there was a report on WFAE about the traffic-packed roads around regional malls filled with holiday shoppers. The contrast of that report to the nearly empty parking lot at Eastland Mall compelled me to write to our City officials. I’ve made my annual Black Friday email to the Charlotte City Council a holiday tradition.
Eastland Mall was still open back in 2008 but there were grand plans. The Eastland Area Plan (developed in 2003) was only five years old at that point and the recommendations for the area seemed viable in that economic climate. We all well know the dark days that followed the market crash and the real estate bust. We all got economic whiplash. Eastland closed for good in 2010 and the City of Charlotte bought the mall in 2012. Eastland was demolished in the fall of 2013. Cleared of buildings, the scars left behind created dangerous drop offs which have been mitigated by ugly chain-link fencing, orange barrier plastic, and unwelcoming no trespassing signs.
For a suburban city with no real Main Street community experience, malls represented a community crossroads of sorts. When people talk about Eastland Mall, they don’t talk about the great deals they found. Rather, they’re nostalgic about connecting with others and shared experiences – all those ice skating birthday parties. Eastland is where people had their first dates, their first jobs, where they shopped for appliances for their first homes. It’s where people saw E.T. and Jaws. For East Charlotte residents, Eastland isn’t just about economics; it’s about community development.
If Charlotte-Mecklenburg is serious about addressing economic mobility, we must address Eastland. Well meaning efforts to find a suitable master project for Eastland revitalization at Eastland have been proposed. There’s no shortage of good ideas and good intentions. In the wake of failed proposals, the City of Charlotte is working to develop a plan for the area that addresses community needs and goals. The City has owned the property since 2012 and there is only a conceptual plan in place. Sketches and ideas have been produced and shared with City Council but these are only concepts and will rely on the market for development and timing. Conversations have been held with community partners like CMS and Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation. These conversations are only now partially beginning to yield results as a school has been proposed for part of the Eastland site. Meaningful market research and analysis to help drive developer interest in the rest property has not yet been completed.
As those plans are finalized and developed must the Eastland property continue to degrade? What can be done to help make this transitional site more attractive to the surrounding community?:
- Maintain current street-side landscaping: The mulch around the established landscaping is long gone. The shrubs and other landscaping is overgrown. The areas that are visible to passers-by should be maintained at a high standard. Replace damaged street trees.
- Repair pavement at the Open Air Market: If the area is to be leased to commercial vendors, the pavement should be maintained. Currently there are pot holes and eroded pavement. This is a safety concern.
- Provide fencing that adequately protects residents from the site dangers while providing an attractive appearance: Eliminate the chain-link fencing and install wooden fencing. Create marketing materials for the fencing that advertise a development opportunity and generate excitement.
- Begin meaningful community conversations about the future of Eastland: Hold a town hall style meeting with the incoming Mayor and City Council for them to hear from engaged and concerned citizens. Follow up with update meetings and provide updates and timelines on the Eastland website.
- Move up the development of marketing materials and research: Do all we can to encourage a faster development opportunity while maintaining a quality project.
I remain optimistic about the future of Eastland and the opportunity for East Charlotte to finally participate in the development that other areas of the city have enjoyed. Working together and with a sense of urgency, we can bring East Charlotte’s soul back to life.