Development newcomer promises to transform tiny Lake City

On the site of a shuttered grocery store in Lake City, about nine miles southeast of the world’s busiest airport, an upstart developer is pitching a dream of high-rise condos with lush rooftop terraces alongside office and hotel buildings that look almost like tumbling glass dominoes frozen mid-fall.

The futuristic high-rises would surround a covered 7,500-seat amphitheater on land along Jonesboro Road the developer would lease from a county agency for almost nothing.

In all, the $800 million proposed luxury development would be unlike anything Clayton County has ever seen.

“We want to make this zip code here in Clayton County the must-have zip code of the world,” said Jacques Roman, the project’s developer.

A pair of ceremonial groundbreaking events Aug. 26 drew enthusiastic Clayton officials who marveled at the possibilities of a glitzy development for a part of metro Atlanta long overlooked by developers. But a review of public records and interviews conducted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution raise questions about whether the project — called The Roman — will ever get off the ground.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Roman United, the development company, has yet to seek local zoning or regional and state reviews of its plans. The developer, his company’s vice president of sales and the project’s Dubai-based architect gave conflicting answers to the AJC about key project details.

Until recent days, Roman United featured on its website three projects — a shopping center, a botanical garden and a college innovation center — that do not exist, the AJC found, with images that actually depict a German mall, a UNESCO world heritage site and Harvard University.

Roman and his architect have said they have international investors for the project, which will be “privately funded.” But they have offered few specifics about project financing.

And court records show Roman was evicted from his Dunwoody apartment in 2019 for failing to pay more than $2,700 in rent and utilities.

Brian Olasov, executive director of financial services consulting at law firm Carlton Fields, said it’s unusual for foreign companies to partner with an upstart.

“When foreign capital moves into a new market, the best practice is to go with a developer that’s very established, very reputable who has a demonstrated track record,” Olasov said.

Commercial real estate observers also say Clayton is an unlikely location for one of the largest luxury projects proposed in metro Atlanta. Nearly 17% of Clayton residents live below the poverty line, and the county has one of the region’s highest unemployment rates. Despite being the home of around 300,000 residents, Clayton does not have common national retailers like Target. The lack of such amenities is a long-standing complaint in this majority-minority county that for years has courted residential and retail development common in Atlanta’s northern suburbs.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Roman said the amphitheater and a 27-story condo building would be built within a year. Experts told the AJC that’s an extremely aggressive timeline, particularly when plans haven’t been submitted for government review.

If Roman can pull off his vision, the project could transform part of metro Atlanta that’s been starved for reinvestment for decades. But if not, it could become another in a line of failed Clayton projects.

“There’s been a lot of hard work put into this project,” Roman told the AJC. “It’s definitely going to happen.”

A placeholder portfolio

At the groundbreaking ceremonies, Roman touted his stint as a linebacker for Appalachian State University. The South Georgia native said football fostered his “winning mentality,” and his professional career kept him close to the gridiron.

He worked in construction and sales of artificial turf. A press release quoted Roman about turf installation at Daily’s Place, a sports and amphitheater project next to the Jacksonville Jaguars stadium in 2017.

He founded Roman United Construction LLC in 2019 at the address of a Dunwoody apartment, state records show. DeKalb County court records show Roman and his wife were evicted from that apartment the same year over missed payments. Roman did not answer questions about the eviction.

In 2021, his company took out a $20,000 Paycheck Protection Program pandemic assistance loan to help pay for one employee’s salary. Roman said his company, which moved to a Buckhead office building, now has 25 employees.

Before Aug. 26, Roman United’s website listed three developments on its “Completed Projects” page — Olympiad Shopping Center, Delaruse Botanical Garden and Gello College Innovation Center.

The AJC found more than a dozen real estate company websites that featured their representative projects using the same names and the same photographs as those on Roman United’s page. Some of the websites also included the same text as Roman United’s page.

The project descriptions and pictures were misattributed. The shopping center is the Sachsen-Allee mall in Germany. The AJC could find no records of a Gello College, and the image of the innovation center is actually Harvard’s main campus library. The picture of a gazebo meant to represent the botanical garden is really a UNESCO world heritage site in Singapore.

Credit: Charles Krupa

Credit: Charles Krupa

Credit: Basile Morin

Credit: Basile Morin

Roman acknowledged the projects on his website in an initial interview as ones his company built. The website was updated after the groundbreaking ceremonies and the three projects removed.

Later, when questioned about the origin of the photos, Roman said the portfolio page was a placeholder using generic photos and text within the website designer Wix.

“There was no intention or anything for those pictures being on there,” Roman said. “There was no rhyme or reason for that. Those pictures were immediately taken down.”

An AJC reporter found the three project photos on the Wix platform.

‘Let’s take this risk’

Clayton has long dreamed big for the 26-acre property at 5711 Jonesboro Road.

The land near Clayton State University features an abandoned Ingles store. Multiple redevelopment proposals have fallen through, including a film-focused town center.

Invest Clayton, the county’s development authority and the site’s owner, requested proposals in 2019 to attract developers. Three bids were placed, and Invest Clayton Executive Director Larry Vincent said the board chose Roman United.

The company’s pitch includes two condo buildings, an office tower, a hotel, the amphitheater and a small business incubator, with underground parking. The four high-rises will all be at least 25 stories, the tallest south of I-20.

Vincent told the AJC he is confident in Roman’s financial wherewithal and the authority’s board was in agreement: “Let’s take this risk.”

“All the great developers in Atlanta started somewhere,” he said. “And I feel good about these gentlemen, and the county feels good about them.”

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

When asked about the vetting process, Vincent said he wasn’t with the authority when Roman was chosen. Vincent referred the AJC’s questions about Roman’s false portfolio and eviction to Roman.

Despite the grandiose scale of the project, it’s received little attention during public meetings.

Invest Clayton and Roman United signed a development agreement in October. Two months later, Roman United entered into a 50-year ground lease for the shopping center site, and the company pays a $10 annual rent payment to use the land. Invest Clayton can restructure or terminate the lease if Roman United defaults on payments. The first 10 years were paid in advance.

Vincent said the project lacks Lake City and county zoning. A development of regional impact (DRI) assessment, a state infrastructure report for large projects, has not been submitted. A DRI review can take three months, calling into question Roman’s accelerated timeline.

$4M in government funds

Vincent said Roman United has not asked for any incentives, and county officials say taxpayers aren’t on the hook if the project fizzles out.

As part of the project, Roman agreed to build a 17,000-square-foot small business incubator, funded with $4 million in sales tax money. The funds will reimburse Roman for construction costs, Clayton COO Detrick Stanford said.

The agreement includes a claw back provision forcing Roman to repay funds if the project is not completed or abandoned. The incubator development agreement is voided if construction does not begin by 2024.

Clayton Commission Chairman Jeff Turner said the county will build the incubator with or without Roman United.

He said Clayton needs to be ambitious to grow its economy.

“If someone is going to take a chance on Clayton County, we want to be supportive of them,” Turner said. “... And if it doesn’t come to fruition, we just move on to the next.”

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

At an evening event Aug. 26, county leaders rubbed elbows with Roman and his Dubai partner at a posh reception at the Lake City Community Center. Attendees snacked on salmon sliders, sampled shrimp and grits served in cocktail glasses and sipped on wine from bottles bearing Roman United’s logo.

This project is just the beginning, Roman boasted.

“We want to see high rises all around, up and down Jonesboro Road. There’s no way that Atlanta should have a Midtown and downtown and Lake City doesn’t,” he said of the city with roughly 3,000 residents.

International investment

Two partners Roman identified are Detroit-based design firm Yamasaki and Dubai-based architect Bad Consult.

Bad Consult founder Hussein Bakri flew to Georgia to show off his designs. He told the AJC he met Roman last year through a mutual friend.

While Roman and officials danced and drank during the reception, Bakri smoked a cigarette outside and detailed his vision for “new urbanism.” The company’s renderings are highly futuristic.

Bakri’s focus is on opulence and he said none of the 800 planned condos will be reserved for affordable or workforce housing.

“This is high-end,” he said. “You’re not just buying a house. You’re buying a way of living.”

Bakri’s company made headlines in 2020 when it partnered with the R&B singer Akon to announce Akon City in Senegal. The $6 billion project in the west African country has missed construction deadlines and has yet to break ground despite reportedly raising at least $4 billion from international investors.

One of the singer’s former business partners has made claims in a lawsuit that question whether the entire plan is a Ponzi scheme, a form of fraud where new investors are lured to pay off the debts of previous investors. Akon’s representatives have denied the allegations.

The Roman development includes these proposed elements

  • A 17,000-square-foot small business incubator that could be made solely of 3D-printed materials. Clayton County will use $4 million in SPLOST funds to finance this aspect of the project.
  • Two 27-story condos towers that each include about 780,000 square feet of space. Each building will include 400 condos, a penthouse, a rooftop pool and ground-floor retail space.
  • A 25-story luxury hotel with 365,000 square feet of interior space, including ground-floor retail. There will also be an “endless pool” on the 16th floor, encircling the tower.
  • A 25-story office tower with nearly 420,000 square feet of Class A office space. The ground floor will be retail space.
  • A 7,500 seat amphitheater with a partially retractable roof. The entrance will be surrounded by retail space and places for street food vendors.

Bakri showed the AJC renderings of Akon City with pride and touted how The Roman would create thousands of jobs. He said investors are clamoring to take part.

“We have been talking to a lot of investors, but we cannot go further with any investor unless we have approval from the government, which we got today with them all here,” he said of the groundbreaking.

International investors, he said, “won’t even talk to you unless they know that you have something solid in your hands.”

One government official who seemed to doubt the project is Lake City Mayor Ron Dodson. He told the crowd he met the developer more than two years ago and told him the ambitious plan was “not going to happen.”

He remains skeptical.

“A project this big on the south side of Atlanta and the (developer) has no real name recognition, I want to see it start,” he told the AJC. “Then I’ll be convinced.”