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Commission Delays Votes on Georgia Square Mall Redevelopment

Georgia Square Mall sits mostly empty. Credit: Lee Shearer/file

The Athens-Clarke County Commission voted unanimously at its Tuesday night meeting to table the Georgia Square Mall redevelopment plan until Feb. 21.

The vote came just hours after Dan McRae, an Atlanta lawyer hired by ACC to negotiate the use of tax funding for the redevelopment, told the county’s Mall Redevelopment Committee (MARC) that the two sides need more time to work out specifics for the $189 million in future tax revenue the developer, The Leaven Group, has requested.

“I’m hopeful that we’re going to get all the information we need and get an agreement that’s to everyone’s liking in time for [the Feb. 21] meeting” said Commissioner Jesse Houle, who represents the mall area. They emphasized that the two-week delay has nothing to do with the project’s design, which was also up for a vote Tuesday but will now be voted on Feb. 21 as well.

Almost a third of the funding for the approximately $600 million project would come from property taxes generated by the development over the next 30 years through a tax allocation district (TAD) created in 2021. ACC and the Clarke County School District would continue to receive the taxes they already collect based on the current value of the mall property, plus additional taxes from any other redevelopment projects near the mall and increased sales tax revenue.

Scott Haines, a landscape architect with Athens-based W&A Engineering, supported the delay.

“We understand that it is necessary to align the planned development vote with the community benefits agreement,” he said.

The community benefits agreement outlines what public amenities ACC will receive in exchange for the TAD investment. In this case, they include setting aside 10% of the 1,200 planned residential units as affordable for the next 40 years, a new bus transfer station that will allow for expanded transit service, walking and biking paths through the development, greenspace and a Boys & Girls Club facility. The project is also expected to create at least 350 jobs and spur more redevelopment along the aging Atlanta Highway commercial corridor.

The Clarke County Board of Education must also vote to extend the TAD period from 2040 until 2053 to accommodate the project. That vote was scheduled for Thursday, but Mayor Kelly Girtz told the MARC that he asked BOE President LaKeisha Gantt to schedule a called meeting next week.

The mall’s current owner, the Herndon Group, set a deadline of Feb. 28 for the Leaven Group to exercise its option to buy the property, W&A President and CEO Jon Williams said last week. But the Leaven Group needs zoning approval and a TAD agreement in place before it can do so.

Once all those pieces are in place, the group would go to private financiers for up-front funding. ACC would only be responsible for reimbursing the developer for eligible expenses after the fact. ACC could terminate the agreement if the developer doesn’t live up to its end of the bargain, according to McRae.

In other business, the commission voted unanimously to authorize $525,000 for a new contract to provide medical services at the Clarke County Jail because Sheriff John Q. Williams said the current contractor isn’t providing enough services.

The commission also tabled District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez’s request for $267,000 to form a three-member task force devoted to prosecuting gang-related crimes, preferring to deal with that request through the normal budget process. But it did vote to move forward with a study of ACC attorney’s salaries, which Gonzalez has blamed for numerous vacancies in her office.

Also tabled was a proposal for a multi-use path along Barber Street. Several commissioners said there needs to be more opportunities for public input, although the plan has been in the works for years, with several open house sessions already held and surveys sent out to residents and property owners. 

And the commission authorized a $237,500 settlement for London Rozier Best, an Alpharetta resident who was tased by ACC police outside a downtown Athens bar in 2020.