Centre of Attention

Afshin Ghazi knows that his reputation—and a lot of money—is on the line with his $275 million EpiCentre project, which is as highly touted as it is doubted  

The world of developers, says developer Afshin Ghazi, is divided into three groups. There are the small fries, a status which, he says, even the writer of this article could achieve. Buy a piece of land, subdivide it, and build some houses for a project under $5 million. Then there’s the middle rung, where he hung out for a number of years. A shopping center here, a mixed-use project there, for less than $50 million. In Ghazi’s ranking system, you haven’t broken into the big leagues until you’ve built something worth more than
$60 million.

“And that,” he sighs, “is where a lot of people run into trouble.”

He’s hoping he doesn’t become one of those people. At the age of thirty-five, after less than fifteen years in the development business, he’s deep into his first nine-figure deal. The $275 million EpiCentre project—including a retail and entertainment complex, a hotel, an office building, and a 400-unit residential tower—is rising on a three-acre city block bounded by College, Trade, and Fourth streets.

Even getting work started on the mixed-use behemoth is a stunning achievement. The site —home of the old Charlotte Convention Center—languished for a decade as proposal after proposal by certified big-leaguers fell through. It becomes even more impressive when one considers that in a town where many developers come from a long family line, Ghazi has no such pedigree. Which helps explain why he has so many doubters.

Despite his obviously Middle Eastern surname, Ghazi is reluctant to discuss his heritage, he says, for “political reasons.” But he otherwise shares an inspiring immigrant story.

He landed at the Washington, D.C. airport in July 1976, at the age of four, while this country was deep in the midst of its bicentennial celebration. Speaking only Farsi (the official language of Iran), his mother, who had been widowed when Afshin was just a month old, had come to study nursing at Catholic University’s graduate school. A few years later she married an orthopedic surgeon, and Ghazi settled in for a happy suburban childhood in Louisville, Kentucky, with two younger half-siblings.

He graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1993, around the same time Charlotte’s old convention center was shutting its doors for the last time. He promptly veered from his family’s typical career path, which would have meant becoming a doctor, lawyer, or engineer.

He wanted to build things. He picked Charlotte to do it in, he says, because he thought it was an up-and-coming mid-size city where he could make a mark. He didn’t have any youthful delusions of invincibility, however.

“Part of my business plan was bankruptcy,” he says. “I thought: If life goes to hell in a handbasket, I can go to the beach and open an ice cream shop or go to the mountains and teach skiing.

“How bad could it be?”

His first real estate deal was a duplex on Sardis Road, which he bought in 1994 with about $10,000 in seed money from his parents. He fixed it up himself, rented out the nice half, and lived in the other half. At the same time, he used his credit card to buy
a We Care Hair salon franchise in Weddington. Through being a tenant at Weddington Corners shopping center, he says, he learned his first lessons about commercial real estate.

His first commercial foray was a small shopping center on Pineville-Matthews Road, next to Charlotte Catholic High School, where there are currently a Starbucks and a Japanese steak house. Ghazi got the property properly zoned and prepped, then sold it to a developer to do the actual building because, he says, he didn’t know how to get construction financing then.

Once he figured that out, a string of so-called medium-size developments followed: the Terraces at SouthPark on Sharon Road in 1998, the Grand Promenade in the University area the next year and, more recently, ParkTowne Village and the Shops at Montford, at the corner of Park and Woodlawn.

Today he lives the life of a big-time developer on a five-acre spread in SouthPark, shared part-time with his six-year-old daughter. His company operates out of a 5,000-square-foot, century-old house on Fairview Road, where a half-dozen black luxury cars can often be seen parked out front. Wearing jeans and a button-down, his head shaved clean, he greets visitors in the house’s grand foyer with a firm handshake and intent gaze.

His break into the big leagues hasn’t been without some missteps, however, and even he says he believes his streak will end some day.

His $600-million-plus mixed-use plan for St. Louis’ Bottle District recently fell through, despite Ghazi’s insistence to a St. Louis newspaper reporter last May that they were “100 percent definitely coming out of the ground,” as rumors of trouble swirled. Ghazi says his contract with the landowner expired before he could get government subsidies for the project nailed down, and the landowner wasn’t willing to extend his time limit.

Matt Bernsen, marketing director for the now in-limbo project, says what happened was “a little more complicated than that.”
“We had a contract that had already had extensions of ten or eleven months,” he says. “We parted on good terms, but it just became a situation that wasn’t going to work out.”

Things are clearly coming out of the ground at EpiCentre. Ghazi pegs March of this year as the date that the first sections of retail and entertainment space will be up and running. The loft-style hotel from W Hotels comes at the end of the year, he says. The fifty-plus story residential tower, to be built by Indianapolis-based Flaherty & Collins, is slated for early 2008.

The project, which is on tap to receive $6.4 million from the city and county governments for infrastructure improvements, has generated plenty of opinions about what it will need to be a long-term success.

“When I look at the renderings, I see a lot of sizzle,” says Tom Low, the Charlotte office director for urban planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. “It’s all very flashy and exciting. Maybe that’s the way you market things, but that’s not necessarily what makes great places for people to gather.”

Low, who emphasizes that he is optimistic about EpiCentre and projects like it, says EpiCentre planners need to “calm down the sizzle” to create a sense of authenticity and community. He says that the massive residential component, for example, needs to be integrated with the retail and entertainment section. He fears it and many other planned residential towers could become more like “cul-de-sacs in the sky” or gated communities, where all the amenities—pools, gyms, dog walks, putting greens—are twenty stories up, high above street level.

Bill McCoy, retired director of UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute, says the seven recently announced restaurant tenants—including a Planet Smoothie and Moe’s Southwest Grill—have the feel of a food court. “No one is going to come downtown to go to Moe’s,” he says.

McCoy says the movie theater—which recently morphed from a sixteen-screen megaplex by a national theatre giant to an eight-cinema operation to be built by an unnamed independent group—has some crowd-drawing potential.

Real estate consultant Frank Warren of Warren & Associates says Ghazi will have to ensure that the planned light rail station nearby connects seamlessly to the development. “They’ll have to make sure that people can get off the light rail and up and into their project easily,” he says.

Uptown momentum is in Ghazi’s favor, Warren points out, especially given the city’s plan to create a walking district between Charlotte Bobcats Arena, which sits cater-cornered to the EpiCentre site, and the planned NASCAR hall of fame.

Ghazi says he hears the opinions, including the skeptical comments expressed on local blogs and Internet forums that his brother Armin, a principal in his firm, checks every month or so.

“It’s amazing. We’re in full-swing construction with two cranes that swing every day and I still hear, ‘It’s not happening,’ ” he says. “What do these retards think I’m doing out there?”

Still, he acknowledges that he is not immune to market forces. He points out that he got into real estate in the mid-1990s, shortly after a downturn, and there hasn’t been a slump since. There’s bound to be one again some day, he says.

“In my business, there’s something called a ‘forced vacation,’ ” he says. “I’m told that when the spigot turns off you just hang up your jacket and relax for a few years.

“Thank God I love vacations.”

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