On the 50th anniversary of Northlake Mall’s grand opening in northeast Atlanta, elected officials and developers gathered in front of shuttered storefronts to talk about the retail center’s future.

They stood feet away from where Santa would greet children each holiday season for decades. Despite the exposed drywall and empty stores, the room was filled with optimism for the mall’s redevelopment, which includes an emphasis on office space and attracting corporate tenants.

ATR Corinth Partners, a Dallas, Texas-based real estate company that purchased the million-square-foot mall in 2016, is in the process of converting shut-down shops into rentable office space. With only about 70 current retail tenants in place, the new owners said Northlake’s future won’t look anything like the thriving mall that opened in 1971.

“This is a prime area for us to reimagine this to become a job center,” Tony Ruggeri, a partner with ATR Corinth Partners, said at a meeting hosted by the Tucker-Northlake Community Improvement District. “We felt like it wasn’t going to survive for another 10 years as a retail mall because of what’s happening, but we saw tremendous opportunity for office (space).”

Several state, county and city officials were guided through the mall’s closed-off portions Wednesday morning before construction crews returned to work. The tour brought back fond memories for many attendees, who remember working at the mall as teenagers or shopping with their families.

Rep. Billy Mitchell, who represents portions of Tucker’s Northlake area, said he used to come to the mall frequently but hadn’t been in years.

“I used to come here all the time when the mall was flourishing,” he said while peering in the glass windows of a shuttered J.C. Penney. “To see the state it’s in now is unbelievable, but it’s exciting to see what’s coming.”

Attracting companies

Most of the mall’s big box stores have closed, but Macy’s will remain as Northlake’s retail anchor tenant. The former Sears location at Northlake is being converted into office space for a new corporate anchor tenant, Emory Healthcare.

It’s leasing 240,000 square feet of space to accommodate 1,600 employees. Becky Willis, Emory University’s senior associate vice president of government and community affairs, said they’ll begin moving workers to the Northlake offices in December.

“We love this location. It’s so geographically close to everything,” she said of the mall’s proximity to I-285 and several MARTA stations.

Frank Mihalopoulos, another partner with ATR Corinth Partners, showed off several renderings of what Northlake Mall should look like in 2022. He said CDC Federal Credit Union had agreed to open a branch at Northlake, and he said the mall’s ample parking availability and space should lead to more companies to relocate to Tucker.

“What we have here is available buildings and available parking, and we can really make good economical deals to get people to come here,” Mihalopoulos said. “By using existing buildings and being in the position that we are, we can attract other businesses from Midtown, Buckhead, downtown and give them a better financial package.”

He also mentioned that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the market for outdoor dining, so his company plans to partner with three or four restaurants to open locations with ample porch space along the front of the mall. Those won’t open until next year.

A 50-year history

Gil Kann has owned a store in Northlake Mall since the ribbon-cutting five decades ago — an event attended by a yet-to-be-President Jimmy Carter

His store Stamp & Coin has sold trading cards, rare coins and vintage stamps to loyal collectors since the ‘70s. While other stores have come and gone, Kann’s livelihood hasn’t moved.

“Even if collectors move away, they still come back,” he said.

While business looks different in the 21st century, Kann said savvy business owners have had to stay with the times to keep up. He has some reservations about mall’s pivot to office space, but he hopes it increases his customer-base and attracts some new retail merchants.

“I’d like to see how it develops,” Kann said. “I’m hoping that we can get more name brand merchants into the mall that could bring more clients that live around the area.”

The struggling mall was annexed into Tucker’s city limits in 2019 at the request of ATR Corinth Partners. Tucker Mayor Frank Auman said the Northlake area of the city won’t be recognizable once the redevelopment project is finished.

“It’s the kind of thing that instantly transforms an area,” Auman said. “We’re going to wonder how it ever was whatever it was before. And that’s a good thing.”