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Gwinnett County District 1 Commissioner Candidates Weigh In On The Mall, Transit And The Future Of Gwinnett Place

Atlanta Economy
Gwinnett County District 1 Commissioner Candidates Kirkland Carden and Laurie McClain

In the race for three seats on the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners, transit and redevelopment are major campaign topics, especially in a county that is projected to be the state's most populous by 2040 with 1.5 million residents.

For Laurie McClain and Kirkland Carden, another topic is at the forefront of their vision for the county's future: Gwinnett Place Mall. The 1.3M SF suburban shopping center, a relic of the heyday of malls in the 1980s, has long been ailing under its current ownership, which has drawn repeated criticisms from local business groups like the Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District and Partnership Gwinnett.

Carden, who is running as a Democrat, and McClain, a Republican, are vying for the District 1 commission seat, whose jurisdiction covers Gwinnett Place Mall and the surrounding properties. As they detail in a question-and-answer session with Bisnow, the mall needs new ownership. But the candidates differ on who should be the new owner and what should happen to the mall itself.

Bisnow: What is your plan for redeveloping Gwinnett Place Mall? 

Kirkland Carden, Democrat: Gwinnett’s past leadership has neglected the Gwinnett Place Mall area at the expense of the adjacent communities and businesses. I will utilize all available resources to address this issue. I propose creating a high-level task force of county officials, business leaders and CID stakeholders to create and implement an area-wide revitalization master plan. Components of this plan should include a public-private partnership, such as tax and financial incentives, to encourage adjacent redevelopment, and amending zoning ordinances to allow for more height and density in the area.

Laurie McClain, Republican: I know that the Gwinnett Place CID and the Sugarloaf CID work very closely together, and I would hope that the new developer for the Infinite Energy project and a new developer for Gwinnett Place Mall would work together to create a synergy between the two locations that makes available many different forms of work-live-play concepts. This is what is best for Gwinnett and the community.

Gwinnett Place Mall in Duluth, Ga.

Bisnow: Who or what do you see as the ideal buyer, and what do you envision should be done with the property?

McClain: In a perfect world, all the parcels of the mall area would be owned by a single entity. This would help to clear up some of the legal snafus that were created when the mall was built in the 1980s and would consequently make the property more valuable. Alas, we do not live in a perfect world and that may not be an option. So, we will have to use the legal options available to us to entice a private developer to recognize the business opportunity of building something new and fresh in the heart of Gwinnett.  

Carden: The ideal buyer would be the county’s Development Authority. New ownership presents new opportunities. Through the Development Authority, a long-term plan can be implemented to ensure redevelopment is in line with the county’s vision. This is a model that has been used in municipalities within Gwinnett, including Duluth, Sugar Hill and Lawrenceville. With bold government leadership, we can ensure that Gwinnett Place has a bright and sustainable future.

Bisnow: How would you make sure the community’s needs are being met in the mall’s redevelopment process? 

Carden: Any redevelopment plan would start with community input, respecting the ideas and concerns of the adjacent communities.

McClain: When we talk about Gwinnett Place Mall, it is important to remember that the area known as the Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District is vibrant, robust and generating a huge economic impact. This has been true for many years even though the mall property has deteriorated into an eyesore and an embarrassment to this county. So, whatever we do — or cause to be done — to the mall area, it must be done in a way that does not damage what has been accomplished surrounding it. 

Gwinnett County wants to turn the mall into a new regional destination.

Bisnow: What is your vision for improving transit in Gwinnett Place, both if the referendum passes and if it does not?

McClain: I won’t opine on whether or not I think the referendum will pass. Instead, I will say that regardless of the outcome, I will push for Bus Rapid Transit to be implemented in the Satellite Boulevard corridor and Arterial Rapid Transit from the Gwinnett Transit Center to Doraville MARTA station as quickly as is humanly feasible. The list of 82 projects submitted to the ATL regional transportation authority includes BRT from Jimmy Carter to Sugarloaf Mills, with some distances being in mixed traffic until heavy rail is implemented.  

At best, heavy rail would not exist for at least 14 years. Gwinnett Place cannot wait that long. Should the referendum fail, we have the funds to begin and continue the planning phase while we prepare diligently for a SPLOST — a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax — referendum in 2024, when the current one expires. I believe there are overlapping projects where economic savings can be achieved by including transit projects along with projects already approved and funded with the 2014 and 2017 SPLOST.

Carden: Any countywide transportation plan should include Gwinnett Place as a hub for all modes of transportation. My vision for transit at Gwinnett Place is an inter-county transit system that moves people around the county in a manner that encourages resident patronage, with strategic links to metro Atlanta. 

We must make sure we have public transportation in place to accommodate our present and future population and potential business growth. Any decent long-range plan must include a rail system. Currently, all rail systems within Georgia must meet the requirements of the ATL regional transit authority. What type of rail and the timeline will depend on voter preference and public finances. 

If the referendum passes, my priority would be to ensure timely, efficient and transparent project progression. If the referendum does not pass, I would solicit resident input and develop alternative solutions. If we want Gwinnett to remain competitive for business, we have to improve public transportation to support our growing population.

Bisnow: Where does Gwinnett Place fit into the fabric of a denser, very diverse, more connected Gwinnett County? 

Carden: As one of the country's most diverse counties, diversity has been our strength. Anyone seeking a leadership position in Gwinnett must confidently value and honor this strength. My vision for Gwinnett Place is to maintain its vibrant businesses, ethnic and cultural diversity, and economic strengths while enhancing pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. With new progressive leadership, the Gwinnett Place area can become the epicenter for advancing workforce housing, transit and green infrastructure in the heart of the fastest-growing county in Georgia.

McClain: Gwinnett has long been a preferred place to live. Residents of all ethnicities have come here to take advantage of the lower cost of living, award-winning school system and the quality of life. And longtime residents have benefited from the enormous variety of opportunities for entertainment, dining and shopping, as well as diverse religious offerings and business investments. Gwinnett Place, specifically, has embraced that diversity and capitalized on it for 20 years. They have it figured out. If the ideal developer can’t be located and, as a last resort, the mall area would need to be acquired through eminent domain, I would not hesitate to build an international cultural center, celebrating our many residents, right there on that property. I have proposed international events for this area for years and a building devoted to that diversity would be a national treasure and a very popular tourist attraction, further supporting the businesses in the area.