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Georgia Square Mall Redevelopment Deal Poised to Pass

Credit: Lee Shearer/file

After several delays, a plan to devote $189 million in future tax revenue to redeveloping Georgia Square Mall appears likely to pass after winning backing from a key committee.

An agreement months in the making and finally ironed out at the end of last week would give developer the Leaven Group, headed by local homebuilder Mark Jennings, access to $189 million in future property tax revenue that will be generated by the $650 million development. In exchange, the Leaven Group is providing “community benefits” like affordable housing, reduced rent for minority- and women-owned businesses, walking and biking trails, sidewalks, traffic circles, a transit station on Atlanta Highway, stormwater drainage improvements, 19 acres of greenspace, 800 more trees, a Boys & Girls Club and a daycare or other educational facility.

Four members of the Mall Area Redevelopment Committee—Mayor Kelly Girtz, Commissioner Jesse Houle, and school board members Linda Davis and Mumbi Anderson—spoke in support of the agreement at a town hall meeting Friday afternoon. A fifth, Commissioner Mike Hamby, said only that he heard “some valid concerns” from the public.

“I’m delighted by this project,” Davis said. “I like what I see.”

On Monday, the MARC voted unanimously in favor of the community benefits agreement, sending it on the Athens-Clarke County Commission for a vote Tuesday night.

Because school taxes are also involved, the Board of Education also had to vote on extending the TAD from 2030 to 2043 at a called meeting Monday. The board approved that measure 3-2, with Davis, Anderson and Tim Denson in support, and LaKeisha Gantt and Mark Evans opposed. (Four board members did not attend.)

The Leaven Group’s final extension on an option to buy the 70-acre mall property from owner Herndon Properties expires at midnight on Tuesday, according to Jon Williams, president of W&A Engineering, the company that designed the project.

The tax funding would come not from existing revenue, but from additional property taxes on new developments at the mall site over the next 30 years through a tax allocation district (TAD) created in 2020 to encourage redevelopment of the dying mall. That’s revenue the county wouldn’t see otherwise, because the developers say they can’t build the project without a subsidy.

Anderson said at the Friday MARC meeting that she was initially skeptical of TADs but has come around to the project. “We were really hard on the developers,” she said, and the agreement includes safeguards to ensure TAD revenue is properly spent and to hold developers to their promises. The alternative, Anderson said, is to continue to let the mall deteriorate, which will make it even more expensive to redevelop down the line.

The Leaven Group’s current proposal incorporates criticisms of a previous plan that’s been referred to as the “Lego plan,” which consisted of simply building apartments in the mall’s vast parking lot. Including the amenities listed in the community benefits agreement added $189 million to the cost, Williams said.

“Just because the cost goes up doesn’t mean we’re able to charge more rent,” he said.

Among the most recent additions to the community benefits agreement: apartments set aside as affordable will be affordable for more people. Ninety-nine units, or 10% of the total, will be affordable for people who make 60% of the area median income for the next 20 years, instead of 80% of AMI for 40 years.

However, that doesn’t mean those units will be cheap. Because the Athens metro area includes more affluent Oconee County, the AMI as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is $82,300 a year for a family of four, making 60% of the AMI about $49,000. Under HUD guidelines that households should spend no more than 30% of income on housing, that would put rents at over $1,300 per month.

County officials and developers also agreed that Clarke County School District employees will have priority for the subsidized housing. In addition, the Leaven Group agreed to set aside 14,000 square feet of commercial space at half-price rent for women- and minority-owned businesses, to hire minority contractors and to provide internship opportunities for CCSD students.

Belk—the last remaining anchor store—and the mall’s other tenants will be allowed to stay open during construction, said landscape architect Scott Haines, as the plans call for preserving the mall’s central area while demolishing the wings. New construction will include about 1,000 apartments, 200 townhouses and 70,000 square feet of new commercial space. 

About a dozen people spoke during the public comment period, with some expressing concerns about traffic and transparency, and others pushing for the inclusion of clean energy. One speaker even compared the TAD to “the mark of the beast” in the Bible. 

The Athens Area Chamber of Commerce came out in favor of the TAD and the project after a Zoom call with members last Thursday. “It will create an incredible boost for the entire Atlanta Highway corridor,” President and CEO David Bradley said.