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The Avalon Effect: How One Big Success Turned Into Suburban Mixed-Use Mania

Before it was a household name, mixed-use development first sprouted up in suburban Atlanta in 1997, when developers carved out a few parcels in an Alpharetta office park parking lot for a hotel, a strip center and a gas station. 

“That is what mixed-use in the '90s was,” said Jennifer Koontz, a director at Pope & Land Enterprises, which developed the new uses in the office park, Northwinds Summit.

Then, in 2014, Avalon opened, and mixed-use forever changed in North Fulton.

Avalon's retail corridor at the mixed-use project in Alpharetta

“Avalon became the mixed-use of today because it took out all that parking,” Koontz said. “They have changed how it's done.”

The 86-acre Avalon project was built by North American Properties, which established that an urban-style, dense, mixed-use project could be a success in a typical American suburb. Alpharetta was a landscape of isolated offices connected by asphalt and surrounded by tree-lined, single-family neighborhoods.

Avalon upended all that. The 2M-plus SF campus holds a hotel, two office buildings, a movie theater, retail, apartments and townhouses connected by a grid of two-lane streets and sidewalks, with most of the parking confined to a single deck.

The project forced people to get out of their cars and wander. It encouraged them to explore, to shop, eat and maybe even live there.

The success of Avalon and its impact on North Fulton will be among the topics discussed at Bisnow's Neighborhood Series: North Fulton event Wednesday, Feb. 6, at Preston Ridge IV.

Avalon's success has given developers a new confidence in the viability of mixed-use in the suburbs. Today, mixed-use projects are becoming a mainstay all along the Georgia 400 highway spine, from Central Perimeter all the way to Forsyth County, where RocaPoint Partners is underway with the Avalon-like Halcyon project.

Before Avalon, the city of Alpharetta only saw one mixed-use development gain approval from the council. Since Avalon, according to city officials, the city has approved or is considering 10 major mixed-use projects, including Pope & Land's NorthWinds Summit, 360 Tech Village — with loft and high-rise offices, a boutique hotel, restaurants, retail and apartments and condominiums — and Windward Park, a mixed-use project being spearheaded by the developers of the State Farm campus in Central Perimeter.

Even the owners of the longtime retail juggernaut of North Fulton, North Point Mall, are in the process of gaining approval to transform a shuttering Sears into apartments, restaurants, retail and public gathering spaces.

"Avalon was a game-changer for North Fulton at a time when mixed-use projects were not all that common,” Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce President Kali Boatright wrote in an email. “It was a transformational project for our community and a catalyst for growth all around us. The fact that the office space in Avalon is full and 10000 Avalon is coming out of the ground now with several pre-announced tenants should tell us much about the continued success of this type of development.”

Select Fulton Economic Development Administrator Samir Abdullahi

Select Fulton Deputy Director of Economic Development Samir Abdullahi said North American Properties proved that the kind of intensive mixed-use projects developers were unleashing in the city of Atlanta could in fact work in its suburbs.

This is especially true when it comes to multifamily. The project demonstrated that apartments were not a thing that should be feared by suburban municipalities and NIMBY activists.

“It was that big proof of concept that I think in North Fulton that you could do multifamily in a successful way that made sense for both the community and the developer,” Abdullahi said.

The Retail Effect

Morris & Fellows President Cheri Morris at Alpharetta City Center

The effect Avalon had on suburban development goes beyond just the acceptance of apartments.

“Avalon broke the barrier and caused it to be believable that retailers and restaurants could pay the rents needed to create and support excellent real estate development,” Morris & Fellows President Cheri Morris said. "You no longer had to build the cheapest strip shopping center you could build based on the rents you could capture."

Morris & Fellows is part of a cadre of developers that has created Alpharetta City Center, the city's six-block downtown historic district. The development team turned the area into a mixed-use realm with the city hall, a new library, 55K SF of restaurants, 168 luxury apartments, 40 single-family houses, 45K SF of retail and a 36K SF office building occupied by Datascan. The city is also building a new STEM high school on the periphery of the downtown district.

Alpharetta had been amassing land around its city hall for years with the expectations of developing a project. In 2014, two years after Avalon was approved and already building momentum, the city canvassed developers to provide a vision for its property.

Morris & Fellows, MidCity Real Estate Partners and South City Partners' plan was selected, and it was mixed-use.

“My project was enabled by Avalon, because my message was believable to the tenant marketplace because of Avalon's success,” Morris said.

There is good reason for retailers to be hungry for a mixed-use location. A customer typically visits just one or two shops when going to a traditional strip retail center, Morris said, dropping into Kroger for food and maybe on occasion going to the dry cleaners or nail salon next door. Mixed-use projects see customers visiting an average of four or more stores, she said.

“We already see teenagers with their backpacks walk from school and go to one of our restaurants,” she said. "That's how we ought to live."

Hear more from Abdullahi; Boatright; Morris; Pope & Land Enterprises Managing Director Kerry Armstrong; and more at Bisnow's Neighborhood Series: North Fulton event Wednesday, Feb. 6, at Preston Ridge IV.

CORRECTION, JAN. 18, 3:40 P.M. ET: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported the opening date and size of Avalon. The project's first phase opened in 2014 and it is 2.3M SF in total.