The Rise and Fall of the Epicentre
Until a few years ago, Afshin Ghazi’s nightlife hub was the place to be, and be seen, in Charlotte. But the good times quickly faded with financial troubles, increasing violence, COVID, and, today, foreclosure and its third sale. What happened, and what’s next?
Loose cobblestones clattered underfoot one day this winter in the courtyard at the Epicentre, under the gaze of empty windows and vacant storefronts that once held the city’s most popular clubs, restaurants, and bars. Paint peeled from metal railings and blocked-off staircases.
A few years ago, clubbers swarmed through here—headed to Whisky River, Howl at the Moon, Bubble, and Suite—and mixed with bachelorette parties, bowlers bound for Strike City, dinner-and-movie dates at Studio Movie Grill. The Epicentre hosted events for the CIAA, the 2012 Democratic National Convention, the 2019 NBA All-Star Game, and the popular Alive After Five concert series. Now, a young man on a Lime scooter zips at full speed around the first and second floors, unconcerned that he’ll hit anyone.
On March 14, a Superior Court judge approved the foreclosure of the property, which had been under the care of a court-appointed receiver after its owners defaulted on an $85 million loan, and headed for its third sale in 14 years.
“It makes me sad to even think about. There was a time when we would end up there multiple times a week,” says Nikki Wolfe, a longtime Charlotte marketer. Wolfe says she spent more of the late 2000s and 2010s at the Epicentre than she’d care to total. Her favorite: endless Sunday afternoons washing down football with beers at Strike City. “Everyone’s got an Epicentre story,” she says. So what happened?
In some ways, the Epicentre is just snakebit, a good idea that ran into bad timing. The Epicentre opens in 2008; the Great Recession strikes. The Epicentre bounces back after bankruptcy; the 2016 Keith Lamont Scott protests and riots sweep through with smashed windows and bad publicity. In 2019, a bullet fired during a fight kills a visiting CEO blocks away. In 2020, COVID delivers the coup de grace.
But the Epicentre was also hobbled from the beginning by poor design decisions and a reliance on clubs and bars in a city that’s not exactly Miami Beach. Urban planners warned for years about the Epicentre’s forbidding façade of blank walls that faced the streets; auto-dependent design reminiscent of a suburban mall; and separation from the adjacent light rail stop and urban sidewalks meant to be its blood vessels.
It’s far from clear what the nearly deserted Epicentre’s future looks like. Whoever buys it has three main options: Refurbish, seek new tenants, and relaunch; keep some buildings and replace others; tear it down and build anew. Each has its own complications. A teardown-and-rebuild seems simplest, but the three hotels stacked above the retail buildings have different owners and wouldn’t be included in the foreclosure. Tearing down some buildings and renovating others would be complicated and expensive, with no guarantee of success. And slapping on fresh paint and a new name might just create Epicentre 2.0, with the same problems that bedeviled it the first time around.
The Epicentre began with developer Afshin Ghazi and his partners. The group worked with the city in 2005 to demolish the old, vacant Charlotte Convention Center, which took up a block bounded by Trade, College, and Fourth streets and the Transit Center. The block was central to a rapidly transforming uptown. Next door, Charlotte Area Transit System was adding a Blue Line light rail stop, while a new Ritz-Carlton hotel rose across the street. A block away, the Charlotte Bobcats had just started playing in their new arena. Amid this boom, the Epicentre opened in 2008.
“It’s been like giving birth, and I’ve been patiently waiting in the delivery room. Every day has been a challenge,” Ghazi, a young man with big ambitions, told the Charlotte Business Journal. (Ghazi didn’t return a message for this story.) With three floors of clubs, bars, and restaurants; a sleek, nightlife-oriented bowling alley; and the novelty of a movie theater where you could order drinks from a full leather recliner, the Epicentre was an instant hit. The $180 million project combined one of Charlotte’s most cherished traditions—the demolition of relatively young buildings for speculative real estate development—with the heady glitz of the new.
“I was so excited for Epicentre,” says Clayton Sealey, a Charlotte native and longtime urbanist who runs the popular CLT Development social media accounts. “I thought it was going to be the thing that finally made Charlotte world-class.”
I moved to Charlotte in 2009, knowing no one and nothing about the city. I quickly learned that the Epicentre was the place to go, the spot where every night had a reason to start—or, more likely, end. My girlfriend (now wife) and I sang along with the dueling pianos at Howl at the Moon and caught movies at Studio. In one of my proudest moments, I celebrated an early-20s birthday with a ride atop Whisky River’s bull. I stayed on for a good three or four seconds before the operator flung me off to make way for the waiting bachelorettes.
The Epicentre’s popularity obscured its initial problems. The recession vaporized plans for a 50-story condo tower, leaving rusty rebar sprouted from the roof. Even before it opened, contractors and lenders sued the developers and each other over building permits, condominium rights, and financial issues. In 2010, the complex, facing foreclosure, declared bankruptcy. Ghazi and his partners gave up ownership in 2012 as part of a settlement with the new owners.
Then the Epicentre stabilized for a few years. The 2012 DNC was a high point; MSNBC broadcast from a temporary on-site studio, and the clubs hosted parties night after night all week. In 2014, the Los Angeles-based real estate firm CIM Group bought the Epicentre for $131 million. Separate developers built a dual-branded hotel atop the footings for the failed condo tower. The clubs and restaurants were full, and after it hosted major events like the Charlotte Hornets’ rebranding celebration that year and the Carolina Panthers’ Super Bowl pep rally in early 2016, the Epicentre’s status as the hot core of Charlotte’s social and cultural scenes seemed secure.
James Mack owns Epic Times, a jewelry store and one of the few businesses that remained at the Epicentre in early 2022. Standing behind a case of watches, he reminisces about starting his business in 2015 from a kiosk in the courtyard.
“I knew it was the perfect location,” Mack says. “From that very first day, I made upwards of $1,000.”
“There’s days I go in and make zero.”
The Epicentre’s fortunes turned in 2016. The first major blow: House Bill 2, the “bathroom bill” that the legislature passed in March, which nullified Charlotte’s new LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinance and similar protections throughout North Carolina. Numerous events were canceled. That fall, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott in the University City area, which led to massive uptown protests that coalesced at the Epicentre. Demonstrators smashed windows and caused other property damage. News photos and footage of shattered glass, National Guard troops, and armored vehicles parked in front of the Epicentre left a mark.
“I noticed a big change” in the aftermath, Mack says. “We started seeing less and less traffic.”
Fear of crime intensified, especially after a fight at the Epicentre in October 2019 led to a stray bullet that, blocks away, struck and killed Maryland resident John Holaday, the 74-year-old CEO of a drug-disposal company. Local headlines tell the tale of the Epicentre’s final decline:
October 2019: “Out-of-town doctor, CEO dies following shooting in uptown Charlotte”
November 2019: “Epicentre has more violent crime than anywhere in Charlotte”
August 2020: “The Epicentre is a ghost town as more businesses move out”
October 2020: “Can the Epicentre survive the pandemic?”
October 2020: “Five Epicentre tenants evicted”
December 2020: “Four more businesses evicted from the Epicentre in Charlotte”
July 2021: “Epicentre owner defaults on loan, foreclosure ahead”
By the end of 2021, the Epicentre had become a late-stage Eastland Mall in the middle of uptown. As of January, its vacancy rate was about 70%, according to court-appointed receiver CBRE.
“I wish we could get paid for saying, ‘I told you so,’” says David Walters, an architect and professor emeritus at UNC Charlotte. A longtime urban planner, he’s warned about the Epicentre’s design flaws since the entertainment complex opened—especially its grounding in an earlier, more auto-dependent and suburban era.
In a 2009 story in this magazine—headlined “Evil Epicentre?”—quoted Walters, who complained that the Epicentre was little more than a mall with a missing roof.
“No one cared when the 20-somethings were there partying like there’s no tomorrow,” Walters says now. “Once you take that veneer away, the design flaws are totally evident.” Fixing the Epicentre isn’t as simple as cosmetic repairs and leases with new nightclubs. In his view, the Epicentre is focused inward: It pulls people off the street and deposits them into a dead end. It functions like a fortress, separate and shut off from the streets around it. “They’re trapped in the dying world of the shopping mall,” he says. “It contradicts every principle of good pedestrian urban design.”
Vibrant urban neighborhoods—Greenwich Village, for example—incorporate a mix of uses that appeal to pedestrians: ground-floor shops, cafés with outdoor seating, benches, and storefronts that attract customers on foot.
Compare that vision to the Epicentre. From the light rail stop on Trade Street, you first encounter a huge blank wall and trash-littered steps that lead to the rear of a CVS. A narrow bridge spans the canyon-like gap between the stop and the complex. Fumes rise from the hotel’s parking entrance below and suffocate thoughts of a sidewalk café. Trade Street yields more blank walls. Shops and restaurants are elevated and set back from the street. On Fourth Street, only a dark staircase to the interior courtyard and two parking garage entrances interrupt a block of blank walls.
A new buyer could reinvigorate the Epicentre with a connecting walkway from Fourth to Trade, or by opening those walls with storefront windows and sidewalk seating, Walters says. But it would require a lot of time and money. “If the sustainability equation wasn’t so horrid,” he says, “the best thing would be to knock the whole thing down.”
In the decade after the Epicentre’s 2008 launch, Charlotte—along with elder millennials, like me, who used to spend evenings and money there—did some growing up. Entertainment options exploded: dozens of breweries, Topgolf in Steele Creek and University City, new restaurants. Even far south Charlotte, the city’s sprawling, suburban bedroom community par excellence, became a seedbed for trendy restaurants and a Whole Foods built on the site of an old golf course.
The proliferation of places to kick back and meet friends—venues with free parking and no cover charges—took a toll on the Epicentre. For years, local real estate agent Jonathan Osman hosted weekly watch parties for Washington football games every Sunday at Whisky River (owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a Washington fan). As the shine wore off the Epicentre, the gatherings dwindled from a peak of hundreds to dozens.
“It started to get harder and harder to get people to come out,” Osman says. “The location deterred people. South End kind of rose up and took it all away. Nobody was there hanging out.”
But the site still has its selling points. The biggest is simply where it sits. “The reason that we still talk about the Epicentre is that No. 1 rule of real estate: location,” says Michael Smith, president and CEO of the uptown booster organization Charlotte Center City Partners. “It is highly connected and interconnected to the Spectrum Center, to the Charlotte Transit Center, to Tryon Street, the Rail Trail, Overstreet Mall.”
Adam Williams, a real estate broker focused on urban retail at Legacy Real Estate Advisors, sees plenty of opportunity for whoever buys it—especially when and if the entertainment sector bounces back after two years of COVID. “When that happens, you’ve got an extremely well-located asset that is a little bit of a blank canvas,” Williams says. “There’s a lot of good things you can achieve with a blank canvas and some money.”
That doesn’t mean Charlotteans should expect a focus on entertainment, or even the same name. “I don’t think it needs to be nightclub-based,” he says. “I’ve seen plans to reorient it to the street, and I’ve seen plans to keep retail on the ground floor and keep it more office-centric as you go up, maybe even add more density. I get that it’s fun to make fun of Epicentre. (But) if you don’t believe there’s an opportunity to make the Epicentre great, that almost seems like a bet against uptown Charlotte.”
For thousands of Charlotteans, the Epicentre marks a specific stage in their lives and perhaps a slightly embarrassing reminder of the people they used to be. But for Mack, the Epic Times owner, the Epicentre is a dream—one gone sour, yes, but still the fulfillment of his aspiration to open his own store.
“That would be so sad, for me to put in all this work in and let it just simmer away,” he says. A Black entrepreneur with no major financial backer, he says he’s tried to lease other spaces uptown, but only the Epicentre has given him a shot. “I feel Charlotte is still segregated, in a sense,” he says. He hopes a reimaged Epicentre can include an independent, Black-owned jewelry store, but he knows a new owner will raise the rent.
That’s because a reimagined Epicentre will likely have to lure a nationally known retailer or a novel destination—I spoke with one developer who suggested an esports arena—to draw people back and give them a reason to make the trip uptown. With so many more places that compete for Charlotteans’ time and money, the new Epicentre will need something splashy, like, perhaps, Charlotte’s first Zara or something similar.
Whatever the next chapter brings, the future still looked a long way off on an unseasonably warm Thursday evening this winter. At World of Beer, the happy-hour “crowd” lingered in the single digits as the lone bartender doodled cartoon characters on a notepad. A handful of customers drifted into a cigar bar and the ground-floor diner, but only a few stray people made their way past the closed shops.
A security guard trailed one man who wandered through the empty courtyard and yelled loudly at no one. His shouts mixed with another sound: rhythmic, syncopated pounding, the dull thud of mallets on stone. Outside the closed and darkened restaurants, below the clubs’ carcasses, five men slowly mortared the loose cobblestones. They adjusted their caution tape as they went and repaired the courtyard, a few feet at a time.
Ely Portillo spent a decade as a reporter in Charlotte, much of it covering growth and development. He’s now assistant director for outreach and strategic partnerships at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.