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Georgia Square Mall Redevelopment Plans Need Work, ACC Officials Say

Georgia Square Mall is half vacant, but county planners are not fans of a plan to redevelop it. Credit: Lee Shearer

Athens-Clarke County planning commissioners panned a proposed Georgia Square Mall redevelopment as unattractive, unimaginative and too car-oriented.

The project would involve tearing down much of the mall, leaving three big boxes intact, and adding more than 1,000 apartments in numerous buildings scattered across the property, as well as new commercial space, within a sea of parking with very little greenspace, bike amenities or access to transit. Overall, the development would have about 400,000 square feet of commercial space, about half as much as the current mall. With 1,743 bedrooms, it would be the largest multifamily development in Athens.

ACC planning staff raised concerns about apartment overdevelopment, with 14,000 bedrooms recently built, under construction or in the approval process already. They also criticized the limited mix of commercial uses—mainly retail and restaurants—lack of trees and biking and walking amenities, and the poor quality of roads within the development. The developer is requesting seven waivers to the ACC zoning code, such as asking for shared parking and a 15% tree canopy instead of the required 40%.

“The overall impression is that the development will significantly decrease commercial space, significantly increase multifamily development in the area, while adding little benefit to the general public in the way of public infrastructure, greenspace and tree canopy,” according to a staff report on the development.

Watkinsville land planning consultant Abe Abouhamdan pitched the $426 million project as “live, work and play,” although planners pointed out that, with mainly low-paying service jobs on site, most of the people who work there couldn’t afford to live there.

Abouhamdan agreed with some of the criticism, such as lack of trees and bike facilities, saying that he heard as much during a meeting with neighbors at the mall last month. “We do have some room to improve on landscaping and whatnot,” he said. “We want to address that prior to submitting the master plan for consideration.” As for the narrow range of uses, he said one of the big boxes could become a corporate office.

Along with some nostalgia for the 40-year-old mall, which is now less than half full, the main concern raised by nearby residents was increased traffic on already congested Atlanta Highway. The development would generate an estimated 7,000 car trips per day.

Planning commissioners, though, suggested that future Georgia Department of Transportation improvements along the corridor, like a new Loop flyover, could alleviate the problem. So, too, could adding an Athens Transit transfer station and bike infrastructure. “A lot of people who live around there might want to bike in, go to dinner, and bike home,” planning commissioner Matthew Hall said.

Most of the advisory board’s members said the plans need a lot of work. “It strikes me that this is a start, but it’s not imaginative enough, and it skimps on some amenities that could be crucial to making it successful,” like shade trees and public plazas, planning commissioner Jim Anderson said. 

A dog park was another suggestion, or an IMAX theater that could make the development a destination like the still-thriving Mall of Georgia in Buford. With a tax allocation district in place to plow new tax revenue from the development back onto the property, ACC has some leverage to gain concessions.

Lucy Rowland went even further, calling out a lack of forethought by the ACC government. It should be acquiring more property to the west of the mall, she said, turning a 70-acre megaproject into a mega-mega project. Rowland said the redevelopment should include a street grid, essentially making the property a second downtown—poetic justice for a mall that nearly killed the real downtown in the early 1980s. 

“This is a perfect opportunity to recreate a downtown, not a commercial development like the mall was,” Rowland said. “Jerry and I talked about that for years,” she added, referring to the late planning commissioner and Westside county commissioner Jerry NeSmith, who spearheaded efforts to revitalize Atlanta Highway.

Not all the feedback was negative, though. “I really like the proposal. I think it’s a fresh presentation for Athens,” said planning commissioner Monique Sanders, who compared it to Ponce City Market in Atlanta.

The Feb. 3 presentation was for feedback only, and Abouhamdan will formally submit plans at a later date. After a planning commission recommendation, the county commission will make the final decision. If approved, the development would be built in eight phases over a 5–6 year period. One of those phases would include a grocery store, and another would include “active living” units for seniors where the old dollar theater is now. In addition, 10% of the units would be set aside as affordable “workforce housing” for those whose income is 60-80% of the local median, or about the $30,000-$40,000 range.