Gwinnett County to buy Gwinnett Place Mall, development plans unknown

Caption
Gwinnett County commissioners on Tuesday agreed to buy the struggling Gwinnett Place Mall. The mall will be purchased by the county for $23 million. The seller is Moonbeam Capital, which had promised improvements upon buying the mall in 2013, but never delivered them. The county’s Urban Redevelopment Agency made the purchase, which includes 39 acres of mall property. The anchor tenants will continue to own their property

After years of urging from frustrated residents and business leaders, Gwinnett County commissioners on Tuesday agreed to buy the struggling Gwinnett Place Mall.

The $23 million purchase by Gwinnett’s Urban Redevelopment Agency leaves a lot of questions, including what the plans will be for the 39 acres at I-85 and Pleasant Hill Road near Duluth.

Three of the five county commissioners who approved the purchase are leaving office at the end of the year, and leaving the vision for the property to their successors. Additionally, three anchor tenants will maintain control of their buildings and parking lots, while a fourth anchor — the former Sears ― is owned by a real estate investment firm.

The county will not have control of those properties.

The current mall owner, Moonbeam Capital Investments, has allowed Gwinnett Place to fall into disrepair since it purchased the property for $13.5 million in 2013. Promises of new restaurant anchors, a hotel and residences on the property never materialized.

Instead, tenant after tenant left the mall. Nick Masino, then-senior vice president of the Chamber of Commerce’s economic development arm, Partnership Gwinnett, called for Moonbeam to go in 2017.

“We have to replace Moonbeam development, they talk and talk and talk and do nothing,” said Masino, who is now president of the Chamber of Commerce. “The answer is we don’t have a professional developer that owns the property that knows what the hell they’re doing.”

Later that year, the body of a 19-year-old woman was found in the empty food court. In 2018, Stranger Things took over a wing, recreating a 1985 mall in the existing building.

Masino said Tuesday that the future of the mall was a constant in nearly every recent political discussion that took place during this election year. He expects a residential component to whatever development takes shape, as well as connections to nearby parks.

Masino said he thinks Gwinnett Place’s redevelopment could be a catalyst for the entire area: “It’s arguably the most important part of Gwinnett County. ... I absolutely cannot believe it finally got done.”

Tuesday, someone who answered the phone at the mall listed just nine stores that remain open, in addition to the three anchor tenants ― Macy’s, MegaMart and Beauty Master. None of the interior stores are national brands.

“That’s about it,” said the woman, who said she couldn’t comment on the sale.

Messages left for Moonbeam were not returned and no one from the three anchors responded to requests for comment.

County records show the mall sold for $68.1 million in 2007 before Moonbeam’s purchase. It was advertised for sale between $35 and $40 million after Moonbeam put it on the market earlier this year, said Jace Brooks, the outgoing Gwinnett County commissioner who represents the area.

Brooks pushed for the mall’s purchase the entire time he was in office, said Charlotte Nash, the outgoing commission chairman. Nash said she was excited by the purchase, calling the mall “prime for redevelopment.”

The current board has championed other development and redevelopment efforts, including at the former Olympic tennis center near Stone Mountain and for a new project, Rowen, near Dacula.

For his part, Brooks said he doesn’t see “any long-term use” for the mall itself, and expects it to be torn down. He thinks it’s time to re-envision the area, which he said will eventually include a transit hub, in addition to the Class A office space and restaurants that are currently succeeding near the mall.

Brooks described his vision as an international commercial business district, with entertainment options and people who live in the area.

“I’m just so excited,” he said. “We’ve wanted something like this to happen here.”

The Gwinnett Republican Party leases offices at the mall, and party head Edward Muldrow said he pays less than $1,000 a month for the space. The mall has had maintenance issues, he said, and isn’t generating much revenue for the county.

Still, Muldrow said he has concerns about the county’s decision to buy the mall, including whether it will require a tax increase.

“What’s their plan?” he asked. “Has this really been thought through?”

The existing board isn’t the one to make those determinations. The property closing isn’t expected for 90 days, long after three Republican commissioners finish their terms this month. They will be replaced by three Democrats.

Kirkland Carden, the incoming commissioner who will represent the area, said he first expects to talk to the Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District to create a master plan for the property. He expects housing and office space to be part of the eventual proposal, but said patience will be needed to ensure the best project is built.

“The sky’s the limit,” Carden said. “It’s not going to be overnight.”

Joe Allen, the CID’s executive director, has been a champion for improving the mall for years. He said he was glad “bold action” had been taken in an area that has long been referred to as the county’s downtown.

Gwinnett Place Mall, which opened in 1984, was the “center of the universe” when he was a teenager, Allen said.

“It’s a good day for all of Gwinnett County. It’s a good way to end a very strange and challenging year,” he said. “The best days are yet to come.”

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