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Amid Rise In Shootings, Retail Landlords Increasingly Look To Evict Problem Tenants

Connie Donley was one of 991 victims of gun violence in Atlanta in 2020 when she was shot during an altercation at Ghost Bar, a nightclub in the Sweet Auburn District, the night of Aug. 25.

Donley survived multiple gunshots that night, she said in a lawsuit she filed in January against the entities she is trying to hold financially responsible: the owners of the nightclub and their landlord, MPR Holdings LLC.

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MPR didn’t wait until the resolution of the suit to take some form of action: It evicted Ghost Bar from its property on Edgewood Avenue two weeks ago, its attorney, Marcia Guinyard, told Bisnow

“My client was concerned about the number of violent incidents” at its property, said Guinyard, an attorney with The Fuller Law Group. “The violent issues have unfortunately been going on for about two to three years in a heightened state. We have hundreds of pages of incidents alone in that area.”

Violent crime has been on the rise in cities across the country, including Atlanta, which saw shooting incidents rise from 488 in 2019 to 711 in 2020 and 752 last year, according to the Atlanta Police Department. More than 1,800 people were shot in the city in 2020 and 2021.

Many of the shootings that have drawn the most attention have happened on commercial properties, and the commercial real estate industry has taken notice. More landlords are taking safety more seriously, boosting spending on private security, requiring more scrutiny on potential tenants and establishing curfews.

A handful have gone even further: evicting tenants based solely on repeated incidents of violence.

Two months ago, a patron of the popular Midtown eatery Loca Luna went on a shooting rampage in its parking lot. It was the third shooting at the tapas and cocktail bar over the past year, including one in which a 23-year-old Acworth man was shot and killed in the parking lot, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Days after the shooting, the owner of the Amsterdam Walk property where Loca Luna is located, Halpern Enterprises, forced the business from its premises, a move many say was unprecedented.

“[Loca Luna] was the first, but there will be more,” said Robert Fransen, the president of Atlanta-area commercial real estate firm Coro Realty Advisors, whose firm owns a number of retail properties in Midtown.

Landlords say they are feeling the pressure to help stem the tide of violence, not only from local residents and lawmakers, but from the economic damage these incidents can inflict on properties.

“I think owners are getting very sensitive, especially in Midtown and Buckhead, about what people think about their properties,” said Peter Kruskamp, a prolific restaurant and retail broker in Atlanta who runs The Shumacher Group. “It affects their bottom line in the end.”

345 Edgewood Ave. in the Sweet Auburn District, the former home to Ghost Bar where a 2020 shooting left Connie Donley with multiple gunshot wounds.

For years, most of the public scrutiny around violence and illegal activity was placed on the bars and restaurant owners.

Neighbors of establishments proposing to get a liquor license would sometimes come out in force at Neighborhood Planning Unit meetings to argue against recommending liquor licenses, said Penelope Cheroff, a longtime restaurant and retail broker in Atlanta who is also the vice chair of NPU-E, which covers much of Midtown. The city consists of 25 NPUs, which are bodies of residents that advise city officials and council members on zoning, land use and other planning matters.

“It's not a new problem. There are problems with gas stations selling liquor and gang violence at clubs in the past. We've seen it for years,” Cheroff said. “I think landlords should take a more active role. It's unfortunate when they don't. If all they're looking for is the money and [they] don't care what happens to the neighbors or the neighborhood, that's unfortunate.”

The pressure is building in the legal system as well — when repeated incidents occur at a property without action, it can open up landlords to liability, and many are getting nervous over being targeted as violence has continued to rise.

“Landlords now are getting sued. They always go for the deep pockets, which is the landlords,” Fransen said. “All of that has made landlords more aware of the issue, but also more aggressive.”

But property owners’ legal options are limited. If they are arguing an eviction in court, landlords have the burden of proof to show that their tenants have been remiss in controlling customer behavior, which is a difficult prospect.

“For the landlord to evict the tenant based on violence ... there are some hurdles,” said Stephanie Friese Aron, a prominent Atlanta commercial real estate attorney with the firm Chamberlain Hrdlicka. “The landlord doesn't have police power.”

Habif Properties is trying to evict a tenant, Encore Hookah Bar and Bistro, which has had repeated “criminal incidents that occurred outside,” Michael Habif told Bisnow in an email. But it is having more difficulty removing Encore from the property than MPR and Halpern had in their cases.

Habif said the hookah lounge operator had previously agreed to vacate the space at 320 Luckie St. in September, but never did. Habif then filed an eviction proceeding with Fulton County in December, Michael Habif said.

“We reached out to the tenant’s attorney numerous times to request again that the tenant voluntarily vacate the premises, but we have not received a response at this time,” Habif wrote. “We continue to work toward our goal of removing this tenant as soon as permitted by law.”

Last month, a patron at Encore shot and killed a 28-year-old security guard after being forced to leave the premises, according to news reports.

In the suit against MPR and the proprietors of Ghost Bar, Donley and her attorneys didn’t provide specifics around the circumstances of her shooting, only claiming that she was shot multiple times. Donley’s attorneys, with the firm Stewart Miller Simmons Trial Attorneys, declined to comment.

“Our attorney is going to pass on the interview as he works to settle this case,” Stewart Miller Simmons Executive Marketing Manager Tiffany Lee said in an email.

Local media reported at the time that an altercation occurred between a group of club-goers and Ghost Bar private security spilled outside when the security guards fired their guns, hitting two unidentified bystanders.

Donley, in her suit, claims that the club operators and the landlord failed to provide adequate and competent security. In a legal response to the suit, MPR said it isn’t liable for Donley’s injuries because it didn’t operate the establishment and was an out-of-possession landlord. Guinyard, representing the landlord, told Bisnow that she expects her client will be dismissed from the case.

“They don't control security and things of that nature,” Guinyard said. “Under Georgia law, unless the landlord was in some kind of way complicit or participated in the issue, they are not liable.”

Regardless of liability, Guinyard said MPR evicted Ghost Bar from its Edgewood Avenue property last month, after Donley’s suit was filed, for not having an active liquor license and for not having insurance that indemnified the landlord.

“In that way, there was not an avenue for my clients to really put them out,” she said. “But being vigilant landlords and being responsible landlords, they wanted to make sure they did their part in reducing violent incidents along Edgewood.”

At least one Atlanta retail landlord has hired more security in recent years in response to violence in the city.

While evictions and eviction attempts stemming from violence are still rare, more and more landlords are implementing additional safety measures at their properties.

After a massive brawl broke out at Atlantic Station in Midtown in November involving some 300 youths, Hines, which owns the retail at the project, imposed a curfew that prohibits people 18 and under from being on the property after 3 p.m. without an adult guardian. The same rules apply for those under 21 after 9 p.m. Simon Property Group also instituted a 3 p.m. curfew for people 18 and under at Lenox Square Mall in Buckhead in response to the uptick in crime at retail centers.

Coro has beefed up its private security force at its Midtown properties in the past two years, Fransen said, today spending about $500K a year. Fransen said Coro has strengthened the language in its leases, clearly defining the number of times a tenant can violate city ordinances before the firm can push for eviction.

Coro’s motivation is simple, Fransen said: Reports of violent incidents can create a perception that a property is unsafe, and that perception can hurt the overall value of the property.

“If your shopping center has a reputation … at some point that becomes a commercial decision. I mean, how do you attract a tenant if patrons are worried about getting shot there?” he said. “Landlords should do the right thing.”

Jamestown President Michael Phillips said at a Bisnow event last month that landlords can only do so much to stem crime without better public enforcement. Jamestown owns Ponce City Market in Midtown.

“I don't think the idea that you allow bad actors to continue to be bad actors in our space,” Phillips said. “I think the municipalities need to do a better job. People will survive this, but Atlanta needs to do a much better job.”

While the city can use codes and ordinances to police the activity that some tenants may be enabling, Atlanta City Councilman Byron Amos told Bisnow landlords still bear some responsibility to police their tenants. Amos — who owns a private security firm in Atlanta — said commercial property owners in the city are largely doing a good job.

“It is incumbent on the landlord to monitor what is taking place in their property,” Amos said. “The risk is the continued violence that we see. The risk is the damage to the city of Atlanta's nightlife. So it is a serious risk physically and economically if we do not get the violence in the city under control.”