Lone female developer helping reshape suburbs

Developer Cheri Morris helped make the new Alpharetta City Center happen. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Developer Cheri Morris helped make the new Alpharetta City Center happen. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Cheri Morris played a key role in successful city centers in Alpharetta, Woodstock

In a well-appointed conference room of the new Alpharetta City Hall, Cheri Morris talks about the well-appointed Alpharetta City Center with its mix of retail and office spaces, 200 new homes, a new library, 5-acre Brooke Street Park, Town Green, and a dozen restaurants surrounded by parks and green space.

If you haven’t ventured into the commercial development of late, you’ve probably heard about it. It’s stunning.

But you might not have heard of Morris, the equally stunning 68-year-old grandmother of four redefining commercial real estate as we know it.

Not only does she stand out for being a successful female developer in a male-dominated industry, but also for pushing the boundaries of green-friendly luxury real estate development.

It might not have happened except one day Morris’ husband, Terry, asked her why her career path was to make men rich. It was a good question.

By then, she had founded Morris & Fellows, a marketing firm that consulted with retail developers. If there was an existing project, her firm would do market research and analyze the sales of stores, assessing why the property was performing well or poorly. For instance, if shoppers weren’t going to a property’s second floor, it could be the sign of an outmoded department store serving as a weak anchor.

While America was all about malls, Morris was about more creative types of retail, working with a city on its historic walking district, or at a resort on the retail village on the beach.

She was also starting to get involved on the front end, consulting with properties under development — her first love — from when people are coming down the street to how they store their car, when do they start seeing storefronts, how to motivate them to experience all the offerings.

At the same time, developers were branching out from traditional malls to alternative retail, but often making mistakes that hampered the success of the properties. As she looked around, Morris began to realize that if the real estate wasn’t right, there was no way to market your way out of it. Real estate problems needed real estate solutions.

Cheri Morris (right) speaks with construction superintendent Scott Thompson at the new Alpharetta City Center earlier this month. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Cheri Morris (right) speaks with construction superintendent Scott Thompson at the new Alpharetta City Center earlier this month. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Morris & Fellows shifted from traditional marketing to development strategy, identifying and solving the problems that held underperforming centers back and ensuring that what clients built had strong market appeal and avoided functional mistakes that can come with innovation. It was Morris who had to figure out what a project was going to be, how it was going to look and how it was going to work, from the mix of shops and restaurants, to everyday concerns such as trash removal.

“Because we were strategic planners, my firm would get pulled into the leading edge of what was happening in retail real estate,” Morris said. “If lifestyle centers or resort villages began to happen, we’d begin working on those, blending traditional retail science with the new art form.”

As she consulted with developers, her husband would say, “You just helped that company do their first $50 million project. Why don’t you do it yourself?”

“He called my hand and said just do it,” Morris remembered recently. “In 2003, I started doing it for myself.”

For years, she had been working on downtown mixed-use real estate projects. And having worked with both cities and with private developers, she understood both perspectives. So she took the path of developing city centers in public-private partnerships.

Rising profile in retail projects

Morris’ career began in earnest more than a decade earlier in 1969, soon after eloping on a motorcycle with Terry Morris, whom she met on the gymnastics team in her freshman year at Florida State University.

It was love at first sight, she said.

After settling in Tallahassee, the couple went to work at a mall — Terry as a regional store manager and Cheri as the mall marketing director. When the mid-’70s recession hit Florida, they headed to Kansas, where the economy was healthier and where Terry managed a real estate brokerage office and Cheri landed a job as marketing director with Simon at one of the country’s first large regional malls.

Then in 1978, after helping Simon open 22 malls, Atlanta beckoned. This time, Morris had been named vice president of marketing for Cousins Properties, owner of the Omni Hotel chain, three Omni International mixed-use properties and holder of the largest portfolio of shopping centers in the Southeast. She was the only female executive at the company.

Two years later, she started Morris & Fellows, as a strategic planning firm that would eventually expand into a commercial real estate development firm. While her husband rose to become president of Northside Realty and then GMAC’s national brokerage firm, Cheri was honing her skills in creating retail projects. More and more, she was being sought for her expertise in creating mixed-use properties, downtown walking districts, resort retail, adaptive reuse of historic buildings, high-end specialty centers and other complex retail.

Ensuring a woman’s voice is heard

Although Morris grew up in the ’50s in a military family between two brothers and was something of a tomboy, she was constantly reminded of her place in the world.

“I was told don’t run so fast, don’t raise your hand in class — the boys won’t like you. Don’t bring home the trophy for the 50-yard dash, let the boys win,” she said.

It took her husband to remind her that it was in her also to win.

And so in 2003, Cheri Morris took her rightful place as Atlanta’s first female commercial real estate developer.

Although there are other women making their mark either as partners or employees of other firms like Katharine Kelley of Newport US RE, Sarah Kirsch, executive director of the global nonprofit Urban Land Institute, said Morris is the first to own her own company.

The Alpharetta and Woodstock city centers are her latest projects. The Woodstock revitalization ranks in the top 2 percent of shopping centers nationally for sales and is considered a powerful catalyst for economic development, spurring over $600 million in new projects within 1 mile.

Cheri Morris (right) talks with Kathy Edwards, owner of the Ballog shop, at the new Alpharetta City Center recently. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Cheri Morris (right) talks with Kathy Edwards, owner of the Ballog shop, at the new Alpharetta City Center recently. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

“It’s a very different place, and to be successful, one has to do things differently,” Morris said, referring to her role as a female developer in multi-partner mixed-use projects. “The retail voice, the aesthetic and placemaking voice, can sound like simply the female voice, and heard as naive of standard practice rather than an improvement on standard practice. Women are taught to go along to get along. Sometimes in real estate, you have to stand up for your agenda, have a louder voice than your mama taught you to.”

Morris employs all of those skills, she said, to make sure that the retail experience, design aesthetics, and placemaking are given a full role in the complicated, multi-partner mixed-use development process.

Her goal? To bring us back to the timeless roots of how towns and cities evolved throughout history around the downtown marketplace.

Much of her inspiration comes from the European villages and towns she has visited, and a passion that comes from working with cities wanting to revive and amplify their historic downtowns.

Since the Alpharetta City Center inception, for instance, two-thirds of all new homes in the city are within a half-mile walk, and most of the new office developments are in downtown.

City officials say the Alpharetta City Center would not be as successful or as much a part of the community were it not for Cheri Morris. From the beginning, Morris understood the vision — a downtown that would be the heart and soul of the community and a place where neighbors and friends gather.

Alpharetta City Administrator Bob Regus said the city has had the advantage of working with some of the best developers in the country who’ve made amazing marks on the community.

“Cheri, though, invests more than money,” Regus said. “She invests her heart and soul into everything. She is a businessperson with an eye on profitability, to be sure, but most developers just do not invest their heart into it the way Cheri does. That is what really sets her apart.”

Morris said her firm has simply taken the suburban development pattern of linear growth along the highway and altered it to become focused on downtown.

“This is the way people want to live: walk into downtown for an ice cream cone with their children after homework or hop on a bike to get to their business appointment,” she said. “I don’t know how much of it stems from my career path or from being female, but I feel strongly about what I leave on the earth. Of course, I am profit-driven, like any developer, but I try to look at the larger picture. It’s not just about the project, it’s about changing how we develop metro Atlanta, and bringing back the timeless roots of how a downtown functions as the heart of its city. It’s about building community and pride of place around the downtown core. It’s about creating a place people can fall in love with.”

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