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How A Revitalization Plan Could Help A Zombie Mall Earn Its Halo

The Global Villages redevelopment proposal for Gwinnett Place Mall

As chairwoman of the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners, Nicole Love Hendrickson has seen her share of dead or dying malls. While looking for ways to redevelop the mostly vacant Gwinnett Place Mall, she and other local leaders have joined many fact-finding missions to see how other communities addressed their own retail white elephants.

Hendrickson said what they saw on those tours is a major reason why she is so excited about a new plan to bring the Gwinnett Place property back to life. 

The Gwinnett Place Mall Site Revitalization Strategy lays out a vision for the site that does not look like any of the properties she toured. Instead, the plan considers the unique demographics and needs of one of Georgia’s fastest-growing counties.

“I absolutely love the new revitalization plan because it is something that we haven't seen in other areas,” she said. “And that's exactly what we wanted: to make sure that this site was not a cookie-cutter development that we’ve seen somewhere else. We really want this to be a signature development for Gwinnett County.”

Known as the “Global Villages” plan, the revitalization strategy proposes a mixed-use town development anchored by a 50K SF activity and international cultural center. The plan has an estimated 20-year build-out and calls for mostly residential development and a limited amount of retail and office space. Green space is planned throughout, including a 4.4-acre central park and trails.

The strategy calls for as many as 3,800 housing units to be built at seven residential “villages” on the property’s 90 acres. Each site would include 150 to 500 units of market-rate and affordable multifamily housing in buildings ranging from four to seven stories in height. 

“The Global Villages concept really mirrors what the area is all about,” Hendrickson said. “It plays on one of Gwinnett’s strongest features and assets, which is our global diversity. It's really going to be a signature legacy project for Gwinnett County.” 

Gwinnett County’s more than 900,000 residents are the most ethnically and racially diverse population in the Southeast. Hendrickson praised the plan’s authors — Gwinnett County, the Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District and the Atlanta Regional Commission, as well as urban planning firm Vanasse Hangen Brustlin — for performing extensive and direct outreach to learn residents’ priorities and concerns. 

The plan was developed simultaneously with the county’s own equity study of the area. Hendrickson predicted that the new community that results from this groundwork will create a new economic and cultural center of gravity for the region. 

But it is equally important that the Global Villages is a place where people want to build and invest, she said.

The plan shared this month with the county board is the result of substantial market data analysis to ensure the Villages concept will pencil for developers. It presents several scenarios for how the development could ultimately be laid out, including one that envisions a mixed-use town center and another that is more prominently anchored by a new cultural center. 

“VHB went above and beyond by looking at the realities of the market because the plan has to make sense for the private sector to want to invest,” Hendrickson said. “They did their homework and they came up with varying degrees of proposals that would make sense to a developer, whether it's a joint venture, a public-private partnership or a single business.”

This upfront work might help the county avoid surprises and delays when it begins to talk to potential developers. For instance, the planners found that the expense of building and maintaining structured parking for an estimated 1,000 vehicles could be a major financial impediment to development.

“The plan proposes that the county itself could either take on the cost of building the structured parking or offer the developers some type of financing,” she said. “Those are the kinds of things that we're looking at as a board to help make the return on investment palatable to investors. It's just market realities and we want to make sure we're being fully transparent to the development and investor communities.”

The original Gwinnett Place Mall opened in 1984 and followed the familiar rise-and-fall trajectory of other malls across the country. Today, it is mostly empty and owned by the county, excluding three retail businesses still in operation. It might be best known as a filming location for Stranger Things.

Like other dead malls, Gwinnett Place has been a drain on the local community, resulting in a sort of economic and civic doughnut hole in the middle of an otherwise bustling area. Hendrickson said the revitalization strategy could be a boon for the many restaurants, retailers, hotels and residential areas in the slightly more than 3-square-mile Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District.

“A lot of those businesses are looking forward to the redevelopment’s halo effect on the vitality of their businesses once this is fully built out,” she said. “This will create jobs, housing opportunities and a sense of place. It will be a key driver for economic development and we're really excited about the possibilities.” 

The plan next will be reviewed by elected officials and staff for possible adoption by the county's board of commissioners. The strategy calls for a 100-day action plan for tasks that can start right away, with a 20-year timeline of key actions for Gwinnett County and its partners.

"Gwinnett County, the Atlanta Regional Commission and the Gwinnett Place CID are committed to redeveloping the mall site," GPCID Executive Director Joe Allen said. "Continued engagement with the community is important because everyone has a place at the future Global Villages and a voice in its progress." 

This article was produced in collaboration between Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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