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Stranger Things Mall Needs More Than Hollywood Magic To Come Alive Again

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Gwinnett Place Mall and its immediate area needs to go on an asphalt and retail diet.

Gwinnett Place Mall Northwood Ravin
The closing Sears anchor at Gwinnett Place Mall is in the process of being purchased by Northwood Ravin.

The mile-and-a-half stretch of Pleasant Hill Road that straddles Interstate 85 is a four-lane major east-west artery, lined with 1980s-era strip malls and fast-food restaurants.

The area, which makes up the bulk of the 4-square-mile Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District, instead needs to focus on housing and pedestrians to encourage a transformation over the next two decades, one of its most prominent real estate owners said.

Northwood Ravin became a stakeholder in the area last year when the firm purchased the shuttered Sears store that is anchored to the dying Gwinnett Place Mall. Northwood is one of five owners of the 1.2M SF mall, including Moonbeam Capital, which owns the mall's main retail area, where most of the third season of Netflix's Stranger Things series takes place.

Moonbeam has been a source of frustration for county officials; the landlord has let the mall's main shopping area deteriorate as storefronts went dark. The other mall department store anchors are owned by other entities, including Macy's.

Northwood has seldom spoken publicly about its investment in Gwinnett Place and its potential plans for its Sears holding since the purchase. Director of Development Ben Yorker will be among Gwinnett real estate stakeholders and officials at Bisnow's upcoming Future of Gwinnett County and Northwest Atlanta event.

“I think the whole area needs to go on a bit of a parking diet and a street diet,” Yorker told Bisnow.

He said the Gwinnett Place Mall area evolved into islands of separate, sprawling retail centers “separated by huge oceans of asphalt.” And here, perception may indeed match reality.

Ackerman & Co.
Ackerman & Co. President of Retail Leo Wiener

Some 40% of the Gwinnett Place CID's land area is dedicated vehicular parking, Gwinnett Place CID Executive Director Joe Allen said. Gwinnett County also is one of the most-retailed in all of Metro Atlanta. More than 65M SF in more than 4,000 retail buildings sprawl across its 437 square miles, servicing a population of more than 900,000.

Cobb County is the only Atlanta county with more retail space than Gwinnett, by a slim margin, according to Cushman & Wakefield. The Gwinnett Place CID represents 13% of the county's total retail.

Yorker's vision for the area would be to replace some of its retail with multifamily and housing. Right now, thanks in part to the CID and county's road work along Pleasant Hill Road, most commuters pass through the area instead of staying and patronizing local retailers.

“If you also remove some of the retail, you have sort of a retail diet — like you get rid of the mall, for instance ... and instead replace it with people need goods and services, that will create almost a Darwinian cycle where the best retail places will start to enjoy success, and that will eventually lead to higher rents and land values,” Yorker said.

Ackerman & Co. President of Retail Leo Wiener agreed that the area needs much more residential along Pleasant Hill Road, but that may only come if and when the county expands mass transit into its confines. Earlier this year, Gwinnett voters rejected a plan to fund a MARTA heavy rail line into the county.

“Right now, there's no easy way to get in and out of that area, other than by car,” Wiener said. "You have a lot of people working in the area. If you can build reasonably priced apartments, there's going to be demand for it, but the infrastructure has to change all around it. At the end of the day, it's still a quarter-mile off I-85.”

Wiener is chairman of the Gwinnett Place CID, and Yorker is a board member.

The Gwinnett Place CID is spearheading a program called “complete streets” along the two main corridors inside the CID that will reduce traffic lanes in exchange for pedestrian paths and green spaces. The CID also is pushing a number of road and intersection improvements.

“Gwinnett Place is the poster child of the 1970s, 1980s auto-centric development,” Allen said. “We need more green space. We need to cut back the number of surface parking [lots]. So again, we're beginning that process right now.”

Moonbeam capital
Gwinnett Place Mall in suburban Atlanta was one of the main sites where Stranger Things' third season was filmed.

While he is vocal on what the larger Gwinnett Place area needs, Yorker remained vague on what Northwood Ravin's plans are for the former Sears store. While Northwood Ravin is a multifamily developer, Yorker said the group is part of Northwood Investors, which has expertise in everything from office and hotels to mixed-use projects.

“We don't yet have a specific business plan or a master plan," he said. "What we're doing right now is doing our research … and trying to find out what would serve the area base and what would be the strongest demand."

The mall did gain some national attention recently – mostly positive attention — since being featured in the third season of the Netflix series Stranger Things. Renamed Starcourt Mall, filmmakers transformed parts of the mall into how it appeared during its heyday in the 1980s. 

But since the end of filming, the mall has returned to its mostly dormant condition. 

And Allen, in a recent Atlanta Journal-Consitution op-ed, wrote that using the mall as a filming location is only a short-term way to raise revenue, and not a long-term solution.

"The political climate and changing winds may have Hollywood leave or significantly reduce their activity here in Georgia and then what? Is there a better long-term plan for Gwinnett Place than just using a dead mall as a filming platform?" Allen wrote. "Thriving commercial properties mean more sales tax, more property tax, more jobs and less of a burden on residential properties. A rising tide lifts all boats. Dying properties mean more crime, fewer jobs, a shrinking tax base with more tax appeals from other commercial property owners and more troubles thrust upon local government."

Yorker did confirm that he was in discussions with Moonbeam, as well as the other stakeholders at the mall, although he didn't characterize the specifics of those discussions.

“At this stage, I don't want to either tip my hand or accidentally say something that changes the mind of the parties involved. I will say we are in active conversations with these groups and we are definitely open to working with all of them,” he said. “For us, the whole process needs to be methodical. But we first need to arrive at a business plan that is compelling. Until we have that business plan, we're kind of talking with these guys [about] what their interest is and what they would like to see.”

Hear more from Yorker and Wiener, along with North American Properties partner Adam Schwegman and more at Bisnow's Future of Gwinnett County and Northeast Atlanta Aug. 22 at the Hilton Atlanta Northeast in Peachtree Corners.