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Mall town hall brings residents, developers in conversation

Sofi Gratas

Inside an empty storefront at the Georgia Square Mall on Thursday night, a team of developers addressed community concerns about a new revitalization project. The presentation was largely led by Mark Jennings ofAthens Construction Group and engineer and planner Abe Abouhamdan.


“We’re trying to revitalize, we’re trying to bring something of a destination to the community, and this is going to be it," Abouhamdan said.


Concept maps for a multi-use development on the mall’s property were submitted to the Athens-Clarke County Planning Commission at the end of last year. 


A retail exodus has left the mall at 46% occupancy with only one department store left open. The multimillion-dollar project will need to pass approval from the planning commission first, and zoning waivers will also need to be approved by the Mayor and Commission before plans are finalized.


According to Mayor Kelly Girtz, who attended the town hall, a Regional Impact study is also on the books for the 75-acre development. Conducted by the state Department of Community Affairs, these studies are standard for developments expected to have “regional effects beyond the local government jurisdiction in which they are location.”


Credit Athens-Clarke County Planning Department

Touting affordability

The new project is being presented as mixed residential and commercial with an affordable housing component. Existing plans list 10% of apartments — approximately 114 — will be set aside for “workforce housing.” Those units would have requirements based on Average Median Income, with some accommodating people below 80% and others below 60%, developers said.


In Athens, the AMI is around $55,000 a year.


District 6 Commissioner Jesse Houle, spoke at the meeting.


“It’s basically a way of ensuring that people are living in the same place, and even though they’re making well below the median income here, they’d be ensured access to all the same facilities and things," Houle said.


But that, along with other public amenities, is largely dependent on money from theTax Allocation District where the mall sits, which was approved by the Mayor and Commission in 2020. Access to TAD dollars act as an incentive for developers to build projects with community benefits. Developers at the meeting also teased the construction of family-friendly greenspaces, age-restricted apartments and a public transit hub with frequent stops.


Jennings said developers are waiting on recommendations from theInclusionary Zoning Working Group to finalize income requirements. Established by the Mayor and Commission, the group is supposed to develop zoning plans and practices that favor affordable, single- and multi-family housing. Commissioner Tim Denson, who attended the town hall, said the group should be prepared to present its findings this March.


Unclear fate


Several residents from the Lake Meeler neighborhood on Cleveland Road voiced concerns about traffic that could further plague the already congested area. Some retailers still operating in the mall said they felt blindsided by the development plans. As it stands, phase I of redevelopment will involve demolition of all but two sections of the existing structure. Belk, which allegedly signed a 20-year lease extension for its current space, will remain operational.


The sale between Hendon Properties and the developers won’t be finalized until this summer. If the project gets approval, retailers still in the mall will have to sign contracts for new commercial spaces. At this point, it’s unclear what will happen with their existing leases.


Houle addressed concerns at the meeting.


“I think there’s an inevitability we have to accept that something is going in here at some point, and therefore as it comes here, what do we want it to be?" Houle said. "Do we want it to be something that’s slapped down by right, or do we want it to be somethings that’s molded with community input?"