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.

Author:Martin, Edward
Position:COVER STORY
 
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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.

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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.

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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...

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