Located on the east side of Charlotte, Eastland Mall seems to be going the way of the dodo, at least in its current state. Opened in 1975, Eastland was, for a time, the biggest and best mall in all of North Carolina, before Hanes Mall in Winston-Salem unseated it in size a short time later. However, demographic changes, urban sprawl, and the perception of crime have all but sealed Eastland’s fate as a dead mall with an uncertain future.
As time progressed through the 1970s and 1980s, Eastland Mall reigned with anchor stores Belk, JCPenney, and Ivey’s, and trumped even SouthPark by having an ice skating rink. In the late 1970s, Richmond-based Miller & Rhoads joined as junior anchor and Sears got on board in 1979. Through the 1980s Eastland was considered to be on-par or even superceding SouthPark in terms of size and store selection.
In 1991, the winds of change brought Carolina Place Mall to south-suburban Pineville, indicative of a retail shift from the core of Charlotte to the periphery. Around the same time, SouthPark management began to upscale the mall’s offerings, adding Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom in the process. The addition of Carolina Place meant that the competition for ‘top dog’ in the market would be fought between it and SouthPark, with Eastland left a distant third.
Eastland didn’t go down without a fight though. Around the same time Carolina Place opened and SouthPark upscaled, Eastland went through a massive makeover, updating its 1970s look to a more “modern” early-90s feel with muted, cerulean pastel tones, which actually look somewhat dated by the standards of 2008.
Even with the upgrades, the inevitable outcome of being a distant third place didn’t bode well for Eastland. Built with the intention and veracity of being number one in 1975, being third by the late 1990s created an odd juxtaposition between the large, super-regional mall and the notable vacancies within it. The retail outcome of this decline included the loss of anchors, beginning with JCPenney in 2002. After a few years of being an ominous (read: Closing Soon) JCPenney Outlet Store, the space was broken up into Burlington Coat Factory and Fred’s Discount Store. Next came Dillard’s, who packed up the normal wares and converted to an outlet location in 2005, sealing off their lower level. Then, in February 2007 came the worst blow to the mall as Belk departed, leaving only Sears as the last traditional anchor to the mall. In addition to the anchor woes, the retail spectrum in the mall’s corridors has fared no better, as Limited Brands closed all five of their Eastland stores. Other recent departures included Harris Teeter, Chik-fil-A, Things Remembered, American Eagle, and Spencer’s.
Another important factor in the decline of Eastland is the perception of crime. However, unlike some situations when a mall merely changes demographics, (from mostly white shoppers to a mixed or predominantly black shopper base) the perception of crime is not without basis in fact here. Several shootings, none of them fatal, have occurred in or around the mall in recent years. This has certainly kept even loyal and neighborhood customers at bay, causing them to drive across town to other malls.
In addition to all of this, the physical condition of Eastland is deteriorating rapidly, so much so that Glimcher, the mall’s current owner, has deemed the mall a “fixer-upper” and Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory was quoted in 2007 as saying “We built crap. We built pure crap. I call it corridors of crap…and we’re paying for it now” referring to Eastland and the struggling, semi-abandoned strip malls near it.
Despite the downward spiral into oblivion, it seems some astute community leaders and business owners are committed to redeveloping the site for a sustainable future. The movie theatre, which closed in 1996, was reopened in 2007. Also, In March 2007, the Urban Land Institute Advisory Council of Washington shared its findings in a comprehensive report about Eastland, ultimately suggesting the mall be torn down and a mixed-use center be put in its place. Their full report, which is an interesting read for those of us interested in how outdated retail architecture can be successfully repurposed, outlines a number of solutions and explains why a retail-only site would not work for the future.
But why did this all happen? In order to put together an accurate picture of Charlotte’s retail history, one has to analyze how growth materialized over the past several decades in the area. When Eastland Mall opened in 1975, a few miles east of downtown, it was extremely well-positioned on the frontier of what would become Charlotte’s largest expanse of sprawl, mostly to the east and southeast of downtown. However, as the built environment sprawled farther out, so too did the demographic base, including upper-middle class and upper class families who drive the machine of retail location. As such, new convenience strips of big box and even newer malls, such as Carolina Place, Northlake Mall, (which opened in 2005) and the expansion and upscale positioning of off-freeway center SouthPark Mall took over the limelight from aging regional centers such as Freedom Mall and Eastland Mall. This, combined with the perception of crime at the center, has even kept those who live nearby away, and the mall has become an open wound, bleeding anchors and in-line retailers alike.
We visited Eastland Mall in September 2005 and took the pictures featured here. We can’t help but wonder what winds of change the blowing sun, Eastland Mall’s logo, will usher in for the future.