Mall change

Like coins, they count up — the diverse factors that led to the decline of what once was the state’s grandest shopping center.
By Edward Martin

Heat shimmers from the pavement, and shards of a Bud Light bottle glint in the gutter. The few dozen cars school in shoals of shade cast by gingko trees growing in concrete islands amid a sea of asphalt. The elements have had 34 years to leave their mark, and the weather-stained walls of the massive windowless building reveal, like whispers, outlines of signs no longer there — Dillard’s, Belk, Sears.

A few paces inside, past entrance doors that open with a whoosh, Siu Sam scowls at a wristwatch he’s repairing. Tiny tools clutter his booth, and wisps rise from the steamer he uses to clean jewelry. “Not waterproof,” he mutters, thrusting a Timex back to a customer. “Not waterproof no more.” The owner of Quick Fixes has been here “long time — 10 years, maybe more.” Two men wait, shuffling their feet impatiently. Don’t ask, a sign on the counter seems to say. “We Do Not Make Keys or Grills” — the latter the adornments that hip-hoppers wear on their front teeth.

Corridors exhale the familiar hum of malls, but few people sauntering by barred storefronts carry packages. Many are teenagers with drooping shorts and unlaced athletic shoes. Women pushing strollers chatter in Spanish at strings of children. There are franchises such as Athlete’s Foot, but most of the stores are small shops with names like Rayz of Fashion, Silk on Satin and Trendz. Like a ghost out of sync, “Lara’s Theme,” a melody popular a decade before the mall was built, floats from a speaker in the ceiling near the entrance to No Grease Barber Shop.

In 1975, Charlotte was a medium-size Southern city starving for superlatives, and Eastland Mall filled its appetite. It was one of the largest enclosed shopping centers in the state, the only one with an ice-skating rink, the first with a food court. “It was beautiful,” recalls Diane Langevin, 59, who lives on an oak-shaded street in a neighborhood of small brick houses a few blocks away. “Sometimes I’d go there by myself just to look and window shop. Nobody builds malls like that now.” Nor is Eastland Mall like that now. In the former movie theater where viewers laughed nervously at One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Jonathan Martin prays for the souls of “liars, dreamers and misfits.” They are among members of his Renovatus Church, the tenant here now, some rebuilding lives deconstructed by demons that would have made Nurse Ratched cringe.

It plays on, the familiar music from the ceiling, but Eastland’s own song is a dirge, a requiem for a dying mall. It’s worth a fraction of what’s owed on it — under water, as they say — and its principal owner has threatened to abandon it unless a buyer is found. “Our loan is $42 million, though we realize the property is worth considerably less,” says Lisa Indest, vice president of finance of Columbus, Ohio-based Glimcher Realty Trust. The mall has been for sale for $8 million since 2005. City government has $250,000 in options due to expire in February on separately owned parcels, including the former Belk store. Hundreds of hours have been spent brainstorming uses for the 100-acre site. Many are optimistic. Some are far-fetched. None include a shopping mall.

Once Eastland jockeyed with malls such as Hanes in Winston-Salem, Cross Creek in Fayetteville and North Hills in Raleigh for prestige as the state’s finest retail center, racing ahead or falling behind with expansions and spurts of growth. North Hills is now the nucleus of a $1 billion expansion to create a city within a city. At Eastland, the city has built a bus transfer station next to a vacant video store. At one-time crosstown rival SouthPark, Ferraris and Maseratis on display from a local dealer are eye candy for shoppers dashing between Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. At Eastland, drink machines and worn coin-fed kiddie rides occupy open spaces. SouthPark has Tiffany & Co. Eastland has a jeweler that advertises five gold teeth for $120.

City Council member Nancy Carter, whose district includes the mall, moved to Charlotte the year after it opened. She shopped its stores when they were fresh and took her daughter to skate there. “Businesses have a life cycle,” she says. “We are at the end of the old and, I hope, the beginning of a new life cycle there.”

In late afternoon, metal grommets of flags at the entrance clank against their poles. Pin-pointing the reason for Eastland’s decline is like trying to catch the wind that rattles them.

To begin to understand Eastland Mall, walk the cool marble corridors of an ornate granite building 125 miles west of Charlotte in downtown Asheville. Grove Arcade opened in 1929 as 269,999 square feet of stores, beauty salons, barbershops and offices under one roof, a mall before retailers coined the term. Similar shopping centers popped up here and there, but it wasn’t until the exodus to the suburbs in the 1950s that strip shopping centers, then malls gained sway. “Real-estate people and retailers noted that you could make money from these things not just by selling goods but as tax shelters,” says Tom Hanchett, staff historian at Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte. “There was a new tax break called accelerated depreciation put in the late ’50s, and immediately after, you had a boom in shopping malls.”

It’s debatable which was the South’s first modern mall. It might have been Charlottetown Mall, which opened on the fringes of downtown in late 1959. “It was the first enclosed shopping center in the region,” says Jesse Tron, a spokesman for the New York-based International Council of Shopping Centers. But Charlottetown was 282,000 square feet — the council’s cutoff for mall status is 400,000. “Going by that definition, North Hills mall in Raleigh, enclosed in 1967, would be the first enclosed mall,” not just in North Carolina but between Washington and Atlanta.

SouthPark opened in 1970 on what once was part of former Gov. Cameron Morrison’s farm, still in the hands of his heirs. They recruited two family-owned department-store chains, both based in Charlotte, as investors. “SouthPark became the flagship stores for both families, the Belks and Iveys, which were moving out of downtowns,” Hanchett says. Their stake — some say their emotional commitment — would prove crucial, even though Ivey’s changed ownership twice before becoming part of the Little Rock, Ark.-based Dillard’s chain in 1990.

Five years after SouthPark opened, Charlotte developer Henry Faison, with several investors, hewed Eastland out of the wooded eastern fringes of a city that was beginning to sprawl in all directions. It cost $25 million, but shopping centers were a good investment. Faison already had built 39 in the Carolinas. “SouthPark, by all rights, had become the first shopping center intended to serve the region, so building another regional mall four or five miles away meant they were locked in a death struggle from the beginning,” Hanchett says. “But Eastland had a number of advantages. It was new, and new was what Americans liked. It also had that wonderful skating rink and the wonderful new thing — the food court.”

Faison estimates 60,000 came opening day. The 1.1 million-square-foot mall had 5,700 parking spaces. Maria Karatsamis, whose Taso’s Pizza was among Eastland’s original restaurants, recalled the carnival atmosphere. Every day for a month, “it was like Times Square on New Year’s Eve.” Mayor John Belk, chairman of the Belk chain, laced up skates to cut the ribbon. A rink employee at each elbow steadied his 6-foot-4 frame as he wobbled across the ice, an aide sliding a chair behind him in case he toppled backward. Nearly 60 feet above, chandeliers twinkled. “All the promise of suburbia was represented in the enclosed shopping mall,” says Tom Low, head of the local office of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., an urban-planning firm. He lived a few blocks from Eastland when he moved to Charlotte in 1979. “It was Disney World in your hometown, the Magic Kingdom.”

The food court — Gourmet Gardens — became the new Saturday night drive-in. “In the ’50s, as teenagers, we used to drive around cruising to find other teenagers,” says Fran Preston, director of the 25,000-member North Carolina Retail Merchants Association in Raleigh. “In the ’70s, teens cruised the mall.” Church buses from distant hamlets deposited blue-haired women wearing sensible shoes at the entrance, then waited at the fringe of the parking lot to carry them home after all-day excursions. Belk, Miller & Rhodes, Lerner Shops and The Hub sold passages: baby shoes, prom dresses, wedding gowns, pinstripes for young executives and dark suits for old men’s funerals. A year after it opened, Eastland had 105 stores. SouthPark had 85.

In 1989, Faison sold it to Eastland Mall Associates LP, owned by two West Coast pension funds. The mall was renovated two years later, but architectural critics groused that its new look was warmed-over ’80s. Retail was morphing. “Enclosed malls were in their stride in the ’80s and early ’90s, but they then began to taper off,” says Erin Hershkowitz, media-relations specialist with the shopping-center council. “In the ’90s we began to see outlet centers, then more recently the emergence of the lifestyle center and power center, all open-air configurations.” And almost all were built along interstate highways. Just outside the city limits, along the planned route of I-485, 1.3 million-square-foot Carolina Place mall opened in 1991. The $1 billion-plus outer loop, critics say, has been better at spawning shopping centers at its exits than speeding traffic. In 1999, Concord Mills, 1.4 million square feet, opened off I-85 north of the city.

“In SouthPark, they reinvested and kept reinventing the mall, making it more upscale, always newer,” Hanchett says. “Eastland Mall never did that.” But like upscale SouthPark, it was a reflection of its neighborhood. Wal-Mart opened nearby and catered to the new shoppers flooding east Charlotte — immigrants, particularly Hispanics and Vietnamese. City leaders leapfrogged zoning wherever developers pushed hardest, planting big-box competitors such as Circuit City and Sam’s Club.

In 1998, Nomura Asset Capital Corp., a subsidiary of Tokyo-based Nomura Holdings Inc., bought Eastland in a deal valued at $60 million. Glimcher, the Ohio company that managed the mall, got 20%. Five years later, Glimcher paid $4.75 million and assumed Eastland’s $46.2 million mortgage for Nomura’s 80% interest, debt that is now securitized — chopped up, bundled and sold to investors. “The problem began when Glimcher was unwilling to invest in the mall and simply ran it on a shoestring,” Carter says. “That’s private enterprise, and the city does not have a role in private enterprise until it becomes a public nuisance or a health issue. But it’s sad when you are dealing with the economic hub of an area.”

Central Avenue, the street that fronts Eastland, rolls for five miles from downtown to the mall. Along this stretch is found the first branch of First Union, before it became Wachovia and Wachovia became Wells Fargo. Across the street is the first Harris Teeter supermarket. Nearby is the first Family Dollar store. Here also were hardware stores, business-supply shops and a grocery that delivered. In the ’80s, fast-food and chain restaurants rooted out many of the retailers around Eastland.

In 1994, Henry Louis Wallace was 28. A Navy veteran with wide eyes and shaved head, he worked at a Golden Corral across from the mall, then managed a Taco Bell two blocks away. Many women thought him gentle and considerate and found him attractive. Betty Jean Baucom, who managed a Bojangles across the street from Eastland, never knew he was a closet crack-cocaine addict. In her apartment one night, Wallace demanded she give him the combination to the Bojangles safe. He had robbed it twice before. When she balked, he choked and dragged her to the bedroom, undressed her and raped her. Then he twisted a towel around her throat.

Baucom, 24, was one of 11 women Wallace murdered — 10 in Charlotte — from 1990 through 1994. The killings weren’t mall-related, but most were in the vicinity, so it became a focal point of media reports. Eastland’s reputation as a dangerous place flourished as the mall began fading. In her softly lit den, Langevin clutches a loose-leaf binder crammed with newspaper clippings. She’s president of her neighborhood association and, like many who live there, fumes over how the label spread. “Everything is ‘near Eastland Mall’ even if it happens miles away.”

Things were different when she moved here 21 years ago. “This was a neighborhood of lawyers, teachers and doctors living in well-built houses.” East Charlotte also had its share of blue-collar subdivisions, rental houses and apartments. But one factor predominated: “The mall was built in a classic white suburb,” Carter says. Statistics show rapid racial shifts in the neighborhoods around Eastland between 1990 and 2000. Whites slipped from 79% to 52%, while the percentage of blacks more than doubled, going from 13% to 28%, and the Hispanic population exploded, from less than 3% to more than 20%. Though the Census Bureau has estimates of population since then, it doesn’t break them down by race. But, most agree, the trend has only accelerated.

Race is the elephant in the room few admit they notice. Police statistics don’t bear out that Eastland is particularly dangerous, but sometimes the mall lives up to its reputation. In 2005, gunfire wounded a 19-year-old after a fight erupted in Gourmet Gardens. Police hinted that another fight the following year was gang-related. After that brawl, Glimcher wanted to beef up security and put in measures such as curfews and no-loitering rules. “They wanted to keep the mob scene from happening again, but some City Council members didn’t want to,” says Kyle Woudstra, an urban planner who has led efforts to turn around the mall and the neighborhoods around it. “They thought it would be perceived as racist.”

Today, restaurants such as La Canasta Dominican and Pan Salvadoreno line Central Avenue. On Rosehaven Drive, a block behind Langevin’s house and three blocks from the mall, small houses have for-rent signs. Sin Credito, several add, “No Credit.” Men work on rusting cars in parking lots, and mattresses and broken furniture lie on the curbs. Riders on the buses that stop at the mall’s front door are mostly black and young. “Many of the stores in the mall are directed at urban youth now,” Carter says. Jittery white shoppers abandoned stores such as Dillard’s, which converted to an outlet before closing last year. Belk closed. Sears held out until May. All blamed waning sales. Glimcher won’t say what the occupancy rate is, but well over half the space is vacant. About 60 tenants are listed; nine are in the food court. “At this point you have pretty much nothing but a carcass of a place,” says Low, the urban architect. “But it could be a phoenix rising.”

A shrill whistle pierces the air of the mall, which even on a Saturday afternoon is nearly deserted. It signals one man’s effort to help Eastland Mall survive. “The Hottest Latin Music In Town,” proclaims a radio station’s sign draped over the edge of the ice rink where John Belk, now dead, cut the ribbon 34 years ago. A thump echoes as a player kicks a soccer ball high into the second-level of the mall. A giggling girl tosses it back to the floor below, where two teams — Mexican and Honduran — battle for possession.

This is Concrete2Green, urban indoor soccer, the brainchild of Akbar Majeed, a quiet 37-year-old who says he has staked several hundred thousand dollars on it. He grew up nearby and hung out here when, he says, East- land was as hot as SouthPark. He’s betting that Charlotte’s growing international community will allow his fast-scoring, scaled-down version of soccer to thrive. Leagues of teams, whose players or their parents came from Latin American countries, Russia, Bosnia, Morocco, England and elsewhere, pay $150 to $200 for an eight-week season. Majeed, who will reveal only that the terms of his lease were “very attractive,” started the business in January. About 30 teams play, so he isn’t getting rich — spectators who want to get close to the action on the removable court pay $2 — but he plans to grit it out. “Positioning is a beautiful thing,” he says, “if you can stay the course.”

Nearly all concerned, including Majeed, believe that Eastland will succumb to the wrecking ball. Few agree on what should replace it or what lies ahead for similar malls throughout the state. Fifty-eight shopping centers were completed last year in North Carolina at a cost of $774 million. None were enclosed malls. Faison still develops retail projects of up to a million square feet in most of the Eastern U.S., but he no longer builds malls. “The marketplace hasn’t found it advantageous to build enclosed malls in five years. That’s not what shoppers want.” The last opened in Jonesboro, Ark., in 2006.

What emerges from those involved, including Charlotte Economic Development Director Tom Flynn, is this picture: The mall is razed, its sea of asphalt, no longer needed for parking, ripped up. A few large, freestanding stores rise from the ruins. Narrow streets, lined with trees and small houses and condominium buildings curve through the urban village of Eastland. There’s a library and a police station. A streetcar line to downtown begins and ends here. The concept is catching on all over the country, says Hershkowitz of the shopping-center council. “What’s great is, everything is accessible from the outside. There’s entertainment — maybe a movie theater — sit-down restaurants, places to spend your leisure time. If there’s only one store you want to visit, you can park right in front of it and go in.” It’s the latest, hottest thing in shopping-center development, she says. “It’s just like a downtown.”