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Georgia Square Mall Redevelopment Votes Postponed Again

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

Athens-Clarke County officials again delayed key votes on the Georgia Square Mall redevelopment last week as they continued to negotiate with developers The Leaven Group about what taxpayers will get in exchange for $189 million in public funding.

The Leaven Group is asking the ACC government to spend the property taxes that will be generated by the development over the next 30 years on the development itself, through a tax allocation district created in 2021. The tax revenue would pay for utility upgrades, stormwater infrastructure, walking and biking paths, a transit station, a daycare, a Boys & Girls Club facility and 99 affordable housing units.

The Clarke County Board of Education canceled a called meeting scheduled for Feb. 20 to extend the school district’s portion of the TAD from 2030 through 2043. The ACC Commission held a called meeting Feb. 21 to approve zoning for the redevelopment plan and a TAD community benefits agreement, but pushed both votes off until Mar. 7.

Commissioner Mike Hamby, who has not been directly involved in negotiations, argued for taking a harder line with The Leaven Group and demanding more concessions in exchange for TAD revenue, even if it means risking them walking away.

But that is unlikely to happen, according to Commissioner Jesse Houle, who serves on the Mall Area Redevelopment Committee. “I continue to be optimistic we’ll have a solid community benefits agreement in place,” Houle said.

In particular, Hamby said the affordable housing on the site should be more affordable, and there should be more of it. The community benefits agreement currently calls for 10% of the nearly 1,000 apartments to be affordable for people making 80% of the area median income. Hamby said that 20% of the units should be affordable for people making 60% of the AMI.

“We’re not taking an opportunity to do that with $189 million?” Hamby said. “Are you kidding me?”

Houle and Mayor Kelly Girtz have been pushing for more concessions on housing, but so far The Leaven Group has refused. Without the $189 million public investment, the developers say they can’t provide amenities like affordable housing or greenspace within the $630 million development.

The plans call for demolishing about two-thirds of the 40-year-old, mostly empty mall, leaving just Belk’s and the surrounding portion, where the remaining tenants will be given an opportunity to relocate. New development would include 1,200 apartments and townhomes, with some intended for seniors, and 72,000 square feet of new commercial and office space.

In other business, the commission discussed:

• purchasing a truck, trailer and other equipment for a second crew to pick up litter.

• a plan to spend $2.5 million in federal American Rescue Plan funding for affordable housing, with $1.3 million going toward housing, $625,000 to support services, $125,000 each to capacity building and operating costs, and $330,000 for the Housing and Community Development Department to administer the grants. Recipients have not been chosen.

• a proposal to loosen regulations on carrying alcohol beverages during festivals.

• public art for SPLOST projects at Bishop Park and the Firefly Trail.

• a study of sheriff’s deputies’ salaries, prompted by Sheriff John Q. Williams’ complaints that his employees are not paid as much as police or firefighters.

• a resolution “pledging to practice and promote civility.”

• a special use permit for a halfway house on Highland Park Drive.

Those items are scheduled to be voted on Mar. 7.