Forsyth County’s Halcyon part of wave of suburban mini-cities

Phil Mays stands at the center of a sprawling construction site and points to a future food hall, a brew pub and rows of boutiques taking shape behind a curtain of trees along Ga. 400 in south Forsyth County.

Hundreds of high-end apartments — some geared specifically to seniors — will rise over a central common and will be flanked by a luxury CMX movie theater. Want to sip a beverage and stroll? That won’t be a problem. Forsyth officials approved an open container law on the grounds.

And all of it will be linked to the Big Creek Greenway, a popular trail that winds through south Forsyth, Alpharetta and Roswell. Halcyon endeavors to bring a taste of hot intown Atlanta neighborhoods and the Beltline to south Forsyth, a sea of quintessential metro Atlanta suburbia dominated by estate homes, fast-food joints and strip retail along the busy McFarland Parkway.

“Unless you are running around Inman Park, you can’t find this anywhere else,” said Mays, a principal at RocaPoint Partners, which is developing Halcyon with The Georgetown Co.

The $370 million project, about 30 miles north of downtown Atlanta, is part of a wave of mixed-use developments that outside-the-Perimeter communities hope will help to inject some intown cool in the suburbs. They're also part of a broadening trend of bringing experiences and entertainment to a challenging world of brick-and-mortar retail.

Traditional retail has struggled during the current economic boom amid increasing competition from online merchants, such as Amazon, and changing consumer tastes. Mall developers also have sought to update their rosters of tenants to fend off competition from new waves of open-air, mixed-use retail centers that feature food halls, luxury movie theaters, breweries, high-end dining and other forms of entertainment.

Alpharetta's Avalon became a roaring success, luring intown restaurateurs and high-end retailers to north Fulton County. The Atlanta Braves' Battery complex in Cobb County opened with SunTrust Park, while Doraville's Assembly project on the old General Motors factory site, and a massive mixed-use development called Revel in Gwinnett County are among the highest-profile suburban mini-cities currently underway.

Still others are in the offing. The owner of North Point Mall, which has been squeezed in part by the success of Avalon, wants to convert some 80-plus acres and a former Sears location into apartments, restaurants, a rock-climbing wall and a splash pad.

Even Buckhead's venerable Phipps Plaza is adding a Nobu Hotel and restaurant, another office tower and a fitness center in the place of an old Belk store.

Harold Shumacher, a real estate broker for restaurants, said Avalon’s success helped launch a wave of imitators.

“Retailers and developers move as a herd,” Shumacher said. “The success of Avalon … surpassed most people’s expectations.”

Intown migration has captured a lot of attention, but the suburbs continue to boom, with many young couples opting for closer-in suburbs when they have kids.

“People move to the suburbs for a variety of reasons, but they bring their intown tastes,” Shumacher said.

Those suburban newcomers, and longtime residents too, are demanding new experiences. Shumacher said that’s meant developers have honed “a keen interest in finding one-of-a-kind restaurants in the suburbs or dragging operators from the city to the suburbs.”

“And it’s worked,” he said.

Among the challenges, however, is ensuring these new mini-cities are distinguishable from one another and finding labor for the service jobs in less densely populated areas than the city. Restaurants and retailers won’t have trouble operating on the weekends, but in these new centers, the businesses need to find ways to ensure enough traffic is coming through their doors.

Mays says that’s where tenant mix and activities play a role. Halcyon, which will open its first phase this summer, will eventually have 300 market-rate apartments, 160 rental units reserved for people 55 and older, 73 standalone homes for sale and 132 townhouses. The development also will include about a half-million square feet of retail and office space and two future hotels.

Some 10,000 households are connected by the Big Creek Greenway, Mays said.

The development will have a mix of national eateries — a Kilwins ice cream, for instance — but generally more local fare such as a Cherry Street Brewing brewpub, the second location of Butcher & Brew, and Hog Island by the team behind Tin Lizzy’s.

The mix, Mays said, has to provide consumers with something unique.

“There are a lot of food halls and movie theaters, but you have to be careful at how you put it together,” he said.

Successful projects such as Avalon have morphed into business recruitment tools — not only to lure new companies, but other development, said Michael Paris, president and CEO of the Council for Quality Growth, a trade group for the real estate industry.

“It gives these suburban communities a competitive edge … in attracting residents and employers,” he said.