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Plans to Redevelop Georgia Square Mall Are Underwhelming So Far

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

Athens-Clarke County officials and neighbors of the Georgia Square Mall hope to see a better version of a redevelopment plan for the moribund 77-acre Atlanta Highway site when the Athens-Clarke County Planning Commission convenes next week.

Nearby residents and planning commission members found much to dislike when Oconee County developers submitted preliminary plans for a mall makeover earlier this year. The advisory Planning Commission is scheduled to consider a revised proposal at its next monthly meeting Apr. 7.

That first iteration fell far short of normal requirements for such development plans. Developers asked for deep exceptions to requirements such as minimum levels of tree planting, and the plan was unimaginative, some said. Neighbors also feared that an additional estimated 7,000 daily vehicle trips would increase traffic congestion on one of Athens’ most heavily traveled corridors.

The first-look plan submitted by Watkinsville land planning consultant Abe Abouhamdan, estimated to cost $426 million, called for demolishing the middle part of the sprawling mall building, where three of four large anchor store spaces are empty, and over several years dotting the big parking lot with multi-story apartment buildings—more than 1,000 apartments with nearly 2,000 beds, complemented with restaurants and retail stores, including a grocery store at some point during years of phased construction. Critics also wanted to see more connectivity within the development and with surrounding neighborhoods—an ironic contrast with reactions when planning for the original mall began in the late 1970s and neighbors wanted to be shielded from the big business center.

The stakes are high for the community, according to ACC Commissioner Jesse Houle, among others. “I think it’s incredibly important to get whatever goes into the mall project right. It’s just a staggeringly large thing,” said Houle, who represents the mall area. In Houle’s view, what happens at the mall will not only shape development in the Atlanta Highway corridor now, but “a generation from now,” just as the mall itself did in its way.

Principles already formulated in various corridor studies and the Envision Athens future growth plan should guide decisions, said Jennifer Martin Lewis, director of the University of Georgia College of Environment and Design Center for Community Design and Preservation. Lewis posed a series of questions based on those principles.

“Does the current proposal address the need and desire for affordable, multi-family housing that is also integrated with adjacent neighborhoods?” she asked. A good plan should also help with issues such as the needs for more outdoor spaces and better stormwater handling, she said. “Have they included amenities as incubator spaces to stimulate job growth, or gathering spaces to stimulate community connections?

“Ignoring these desires dismisses all the time and effort that Athenians put into community-building meetings,” according to Lewis. “A proposal that goes above and beyond what zoning allows to reach these desires will be embraced by the community and will ultimately be more successful than ones that look for variances to do less than the minimum requirements.”

Malls in the past were seen as competition for downtowns, but actually were catalysts for downtowns that needed to reinvent themselves, she pointed out. That happened in Athens in the 1980s and ‘90s, when a thriving music scene grew up as downtown Athens repopulated itself with bars, music clubs, restaurants and a different mix of retail stores when department stores decamped for the mall. Meanwhile, Georgia Square Mall, like many others, has grown emptier and emptier in recent years as shoppers turned to the internet.

Both the developers and the guardians of the city face choices, in Lewis’ view. “Do the malls try and embrace the same characteristics that make downtowns successful, but without the benefit of the authenticity and layers of history that a city center has?” Lewis said. “Or is there an opportunity for a completely reimagined development that uses the inherent qualities of the site—large acreage, access to major corridors, single ownership—to create a true destination, distinct from what is available regionally, rather than compete against downtown Athens and the Oconee County shopping centers?”

So far, the mall redevelopment proposal falls short of such goals. “It has changed some from the preliminary submittal, not a lot,” with some additional greenspace and trees, Athens-Clarke County Planning Director Brad Griffin told a new advisory committee in a Mar. 22 online meeting.

“Still really limited in terms of provision of public infrastructure. It’s basically the loop road, apartments and a lot of parking lots, is the concern that we have at this point,” Griffin told members of a Mall Area Tax Allocation District Advisory Committee. “We’ve still got a lot of things we are looking at closely before we put out our formal report [this] week.”

The ACC Mayor and Commission appointed such advisory committees for each of the six tax allocation districts it created in 2020—geographical districts in which additional tax revenue generated by new development over the next 20 years is to be plowed back into the district. The additional money can be used for direct government expenditures, but also for subsidies to developers who promise their project will provide certain “community benefits,” specific goals including infrastructure improvements, bicycle paths and green areas, job creation, youth development and school support, or affordable housing.

The would-be mall developers requested a TAD application form but have not submitted it, Caitlyn Dye, Business Development and Incentives Coordinator in Athens-Clarke’s Economic Development Department, told mall TAD committee members. The committee began organizing itself in weekly meetings earlier this month, anticipating a request for TAD funding from the mall developers.

Only one request for TAD money has surfaced so far, Dye told the committee—from investors behind the 501-unit Trinitas project slated to go up on Lexington Road. That real estate team proposed adding a new multi-story building of affordable housing to the project, altering the terms of a planned development blueprint which Athens-Clarke County commissioners had previously approved, in exchange for $2.9 million in TAD money. But when the advisory committee did the arithmetic, they found that what the developer proposed in community benefits in exchange for the TAD money fell far short of the county’s TAD goals and would tie up for a long time a big chunk of TAD funds available in the district. The county commission rejected the application.

The Lexington Road project also revealed a disconnect between requests that go through the Planning Commission and related requests for TAD funding. TAD elements shouldn’t be add-ons after planners and the ACC Commission have approved a development plan, but part of the original plan, Griffin said.

“Community benefits should be part of the [planned development] process,” Griffin said. “We don’t think those all need to be funded through the TAD program, in my opinion,” he told the committee.