The letter below from the leadership of the Eastland Area Strategies Team (EAST) was sent to community leaders and stakeholders in December 2015 regarding planned re-development at Eastland Mall.
As co-chairs of the Eastland Area Strategies Team (EAST), we find the most recent conversations regarding the redevelopment of the former Eastland Mall site disappointing and discouraging. Members of the County Commission have lamented a lack of “big” and “wow” in what had emerged from years of planning and collaboration. Some have even questioned why the City Council voted to purchase the Eastland Mall property in the first place, saying real estate professionals could do a much better job of getting the property back onto the tax rolls, which usually means that developers could find the “highest and best use” for the property. In real estate parlance, HBU often means one thing: what use will maximize profit for the developer. There’s nothing wrong with that, unless it’s disintegrated with a longer term strategic vision for an entire area of our city.
Recall that the Eastland property was owned by several entities, all of whom could have maximized profit with their own little pieces: fast food joints, a strip mall or two, a big box store or two. None of those things would have helped the surrounding neighborhoods. Rather they would have propelled Central Avenue farther toward what former Mayor McCrory once called South Boulevard: a “Corridor of Crap”. A core City responsibility in all things is to look out for the long-term public interest. By consolidating the parcels into one, they were looking out for the long term public interest by enabling a unified plan for the area. That’s something that those whose goal is to maximize short-term profits either can’t or won’t do.
What EAST and the communities we represent have tried to promote is integration of a lesser-known real estate term: “Public Interest Use”. We’ve sought to have this principle become an integrated part of a larger market-driven project. The term often refers to parks, environmental protection, wetlands, green space, multi-use trails. It could also include schools and farmers markets. These things don’t put money directly into a developer’s pocket, but they definitely create stability, certainty and add long-term value to surrounding neighborhoods…which eventually means more for the tax rolls. All of the feedback received from small, medium and large developers has been that a “catalyst” was absent and would be needed to create the private equity momentum needed to do a truly aspirational, market-forward development. They noted that without a catalyst, we were likely to get “more of the same”. The development community agreed that a unique school, park, infrastructure and supportive zoning are the types of catalysts that would attract substantial private equity to the site.
In his book “Good to Great”, Jim Collins discusses the paradox that aptly applies to this project…an unyielding faith that you’ll prevail, coupled with a willingness to face the brutal facts. That has been EAST’s reality for more than ten years now. So by asking for a “wow” factor from the City, perhaps County Commissioners are missing the point, by ignoring the consensus from east side communities, as well as the economic realities on the ground. No one asked what the east side communities have called for. No one talked about what’s “right” for the project. After all, the term “wow” often means emotional, flash-in-the-pan and unsustainable. In this case it might suggest a lot of money spent on one project with huge visibility and huge potential for failure if it ends up being something people and communities don’t relate to and value.
We take no ownership in any one plan that’s emerged for this site over the years. That’s not our charge. With that said, we feel it’s critically important to refocus attention on the core Principles around which consensus has emerged throughout eastside communities for whatever the future might hold for this important project. From the outset, EAST has interacted with neighbors, business owners, and community organizations through community forums, workshops and Charrettes. Through this work, we have created what we refer to as “Qualitative Principles” that we support for development of this site:
(1) Enhance the perceptions of the Eastland area and East Charlotte.
(2) Unify local communities.
(3) Create connectivity and walk ability for surrounding neighborhoods.
(4) Take advantage of natural features.
(5) Create opportunities for civic development.
We have also developed “Qualitative Points” which illustrate practical ways these principles can be carried out. These can be viewed in detail on our website: www.charlotteeast.com . We urge our fellow taxpayers and our city and county leaders to consider these Principles as we continue to plan for the future of the Eastland site. We stand ready to continue our work as community representatives to support a plan that incorporates them.
We’re calling for a solution that is economically viable while taking into account the unique value of this site to a growing, prosperous east Charlotte. We are certain that if done correctly, this project will become a multi-generational catalyst for the entire area. It’s better to get it “right” than “big” or “wow”. And if we get it right, an entire area of Charlotte will be positively impacted for many years to come.