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Athens News Matters: Development Plans for the Georgia Square Mall are on the Table

Sofia Gratas

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Exit the Athens Perimeter, make a right off Atlanta Highway and you’ll find yourself in the sprawling parking lot of the Georgia Square Mall. Inside, only one large department store remains open, paired with a quiet food court and scattered retailers on the first and second floors.

The mall opened in 1981 bolstered by former commercial giants, JCPenney, Davison's, Sears and Belk. Downtown Athens was left to smaller merchants as retailers followed department stores to a growing West Athens. Over the years, commercial development slowly shifted to corridors in Oconee County, and the mall was hit hard when Macy’s closed its doors in 2017.

40 years after opening, only one department store — Belk — remains.

As the mall loses shops, development seems more likely. At the end of last year, Oconee County-based company ABE Consulting submitted a proposal on behalf of Athens Construction Group. The 75-acre multi-use development proposal includes over 1,000 apartments in three to five story buildings with additional spaces for restaurants and businesses. Maybe even a grocery store.

The Athens-Clarke County Planning Commission is expected to hear public input on that plan at a meeting on Feb. 3.

Credit Sofia Gratas

“This is massive. We talk about redevelopment projects a lot in this community, and this is going to dwarf most of them,” says District 6 Commissioner Jesse Houle.

Prior to Houle’s appointment in 2020, revitalization plans for the mall had been thrown around for years. A corridor study in 2015 suggested a greenway from the mall to downtown to address “poor accessibility” along Atlanta Highway. The mall’s also been called a “high-opportunity area” for affordable housing projects. The Mayor and Commission voted to place the area within a Tax Allocation District in 2020, incentivizing future developers to consider projects with “community benefits.”

But it took more than a year for a developer to come forward, and Houle says the commission — which often tries to act quickly — is going to take it’s time on this.

“We're not rushing into a vote on this right away, it's probably going to take some time, I'd be surprised if we're making a final vote on this before the end of the summer,” Houle says. “And there's a decent chance it'll take even longer than that.”

Former Athens resident Paula Loniak meets me at Georgia Square Mall. She pulls out multiple folders filled with commission meeting agendas and notes, showing me photos.

“This isn't there anymore, this isn't there anymore, this isn't there anymore,” Loniak says. “A lot of these stores probably aren't. And it's just a waste. It's a waste.”

Over the years, she’s attended hundreds of local government meetings advocating for things like affordable housing, community greenspaces and rezoning. According to her records, Loniak provided public input in 2018 suggesting shuttered storefronts at the mall be repurposed for living spaces.

“You just have to use your imagination and say, what do the people want out here? There's nothing out here unless you want to buy a car,” Loniak says.

The proposal from ABE Consulting is far from final. It’ll have to pass the planning commission first, and as it stands, the Mayor and Commission will also have to vote on waiving certain zoning requirements, including greatly decreasing the number of shade trees required under existing ordinances.

Commissioner Houle says they’re taking time to focus on public comment before pushing an agenda of their own, but that housing affordable for low income people — those below 80% of area median income — is a priority. The existing proposal says 10% of apartments would be set aside for workforce housing, though details on that are unclear.

“So it's always about trying to kind of strike that balance of, well, what do we want to push for that's for the benefit of the community? And how much can we get to keep developers remaining at the table,” Houle says. “I think with something of the scale, we have the ability to push for a lot, but what the specifics are and how far we can go with them remains to be determined.”

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