Earlier this year, when a little-known developer began touting an ambitious plan to turn a nearly empty Morrisville mall into Chinatown, the skepticism was palpable in the real estate community.
And when the developer, Mark Herman, failed to close on the property and move forward promptly, it seemed all too easy to forget about project because, well, it’s Chinatown.
But the project is still very much alive, says Govind Chandak, owner of the Prime Outlets mall across Interstate 40 from Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Chandak said he took a trip to China two weeks ago with Lian Xie, president of the Carolina China Council, to meet with people interested in opening a cultural center and perhaps a school to teach Chinese acrobatics on the property.
“We are moving in a positive direction, and in this time and age financing is not easy but I think it’s going to work out in the next two months,” Chandak said.
Herman is no longer involved in the project, Chandak said. He said Xie, one of the driving forces behind the effort, expects to hold a meeting next month with developers from Florida and China who are interested in being involved.
The $130 million project promoted by Herman called for the nearly deserted outlet mall to be transformed into two parking decks, a five-star hotel and a cultural center. The project would be completed in two phases over several years.
Chandak said the plan remains pretty much the same, although the name of the project could change to “World Village.”
“Even if it we call it Chinatown it will pretty much have the international flavor,” he said. “But the Chinatown concept is very well-established across America. So that is why we are leaning towards that. But in fact it will be more like a world village.”
Chandak expects to stay involved in the project at least through the initial years of development.
Chandak is perhaps best-known locally as a hotel investor, and was part of a partnership – along with his nephew, Sanjay Mundra, one of the developers behind the failed Soleil Center project – that sold a portfolio of Southeastern hotels in the late 1990s.
Chandak and his son, Prateek, still own The Siena Hotel in Chapel Hill, which is now undergoing a $3 million renovation.
Chandak also owns about 165 acres of vacant land in Zebulon. He had plans to turn the property into a mix of commercial and residential developments, but those plans were put on hold when the financial crisis hit.
In May, Chandak paid $900,000 at auction for the 2209 Century Drive office building near Crabtree Valley Mall. The 30,000-square-foot, five-story building was built in the early 1970s and is about 40 percent leased. The price Chandak paid was significantly less than the $1.52 million that the property fetched at auction last year.
“I’m a value investor so anything I can buy at a bargain price I like to have it,” he said.
Chandak plans to make some renovations to the property and approach the city about improving the visibility of the building, which is shrouded by trees.
As for his take on the local real estate market, Chandak said a full recovery is still several years away.
“I think things are getting better and things will dramatically improve after 2015,” he said. “It will take a couple of years.”
News researcher Brooke Cain contributed.