Gwinnett officials’ work on large-scale development projects may transform county for decades

Gwinnett Place Mall is nearly empty of stores and shoppers with many entrances locked Wednesday, Dec 23, 2020.  The mall is being purchased by Gwinnett County, and is working on redevelopment plans for the neglected space.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) AJC FILE PHOTO

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Gwinnett Place Mall is nearly empty of stores and shoppers with many entrances locked Wednesday, Dec 23, 2020. The mall is being purchased by Gwinnett County, and is working on redevelopment plans for the neglected space. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) AJC FILE PHOTO

Eight Gwinnett County development projects are moving forward with government assistance or full-scale involvement, a pace that until now has been unusual in the second-largest county in the state.

The scope of the government’s participation could transform several large-scale sites in the 437-square-mile county and set the tone for the area, sometimes for generations. Gwinnett is spending more than $160 million to buy land, build or develop the projects. In one case, a government tax break is expected to fund $25 million in infrastructure improvements. In another, a developer would build on land the county already owns.

While some projects are slated to open this year, others could take far longer to finish. For some, there is not yet a timeframe or a plan to work from.

The projects range from west in Norcross to east in Dacula, from the southern gateway outside Stone Mountain to Buford near its northern tip, from Lawrenceville at Gwinnett County’s center to Gwinnett Place Mall, its default downtown.

While the county’s new leaders are all Democrats, it was their Republican-majority predecessors who laid the groundwork for this board of commissioners to control a number of important parcels.

“It just presents a really good opportunity for us to be creative,” said Nicole Love Hendrickson, the county chairwoman. “I’m thankful they decided they were all really good investments.”

The projects include an entrepreneur center in Lawrenceville’s downtown and a 2,000-acre “knowledge community” called Rowen that’s envisioned as a local version of North Carolina’s research triangle. In between are a water innovation center in Buford; the remake of a long-abandoned Olympic tennis center outside Stone Mountain; a planned entertainment district near the county’s Duluth-area convention center; a potential transit hub near Norcross; and a new retail development near the Mall of Georgia.

Plus, commissioners on Tuesday affirmed their predecessors’ decision to purchase much of Gwinnett Place Mall, agreeing that they would sell up to $25 million in bonds to fund the mall’s purchase.

“Am I worried they’ve bitten off more than they can chew? Yeah, there’s reason to be worried,” said Ellen Dunham-Jones, a Georgia Tech professor of architecture and urban design.

Dunham-Jones questioned whether Gwinnett had the knowledge or the human capacity to shepherd so many projects through. If the government doesn’t, County Administrator Glenn Stephens said, they’ll find it.

“When you don’t have the capacity internally, you go out and get it,” he said.

Stephens said the government made the right move by pushing so many projects to move forward at once. Many are so-called catalyst sites or at county gateways, the first places people see when they enter Gwinnett.

Gwinnett is strong financially, Stephens said, and has the ability to be patient until the right project is ready to be built.

Carrie Soltay, who lives in Suwanee, said she’s suspicious of government involvement in development.

“I just don’t think the government does anything efficiently, effectively or fiscally responsibly,” she said.

‘Not going to be ramshackle sprawl’

Some developers and other locals said they are excited about the extent of the county’s involvement. Lisa Anders, the executive director of Explore Gwinnett, said she thinks county leaders were strategic. Several run down the I-85 spine of Gwinnett and are naturally connected.

Emory Morsberger, executive director of the Gateway 85 Community Improvement District, said he thinks a number of the projects could not have been done by private developers.

He said county leaders have the advantage of thinking long-term, where developers don’t. That allows for planning that will benefit residents for decades, he said. He also said he expects leaders to plan for transit to be expanded in Gwinnett and to prioritize density.

“It’s not going to be ramshackle sprawl,” Morsberger said.

Jeff Fuqua is the developer of The Exchange @ Gwinnett, the Buford-area retail project that he and others said would not have gone forward if not for the county’s creation of a Tax Allocation District to help fund development. He’s also in negotiations with the county to develop the former tennis center property, outside of Stone Mountain, as a mixed-use project.

Fuqua said in a county of nearly 1 million people, eight projects isn’t that many.

“These are giant assets not producing as they should,” he said. “For the size of what they are, it’s a drop in the bucket, it’s nothing.”

Charlotte Nash, the former county chairman, said before she left office last year that the focus on real estate was merely the most recent version of other leaders’ then-ambitious decisions to build a countywide water and sewer system, or to create a professional fire department.

As Gwinnett continues to mature, she said, it’s appropriate that government work to ensure that good jobs come to Gwinnett.

“We’re just seeing a different side of Gwinnett; they’re being really aggressive,” said Nick Masino, president and CEO of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, who said the focus on development “warms my heart.”

Others are skeptical about the possibility of success. Abe Schear, a partner in the real estate group of Arnall Golden Gregory, cautioned that former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s real estate ventures sometimes did not pan out as intended. Underground Atlanta was recently sold to a new developer after the city’s sale to WRS, Inc. failed to produce the promised redevelopment. And there has been no movement at the Civic Center, where the Atlanta Housing Authority is supposed to be leading a mixed-use development.

Gwinnett has its own history of bad bets. Coolray Field, where the Braves’ AAA affiliate team plays, has been last in the league in attendance since 2010, after opening in 2009. It never became the economic driver leaders said it would.

Stephens, the county administrator, said he made sure to do “extra due diligence” on these projects as a result of Coolray Field.

“We were trying to find a reason not to do it for every one of those projects on that list,” Stephens said.

Harvey Newman, a professor emeritus of the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University, said it was troubling that one government was taking on such a range of projects — especially at its borders, where the effects will spill across the metro area.

Fulfilling the outgoing administration’s ambitions may be hard for new leaders, he said.

“This is going to be a very difficult challenge moving forward,” Newman said. “I think they’re going to need to set some priorities.”

Hendrickson, the new chairwoman, said she’s still getting a handle on all she has to work with. If the projects aren’t good investments, she said, it’s government’s role to turn them into good investments.

“I won’t position any one as a priority,” she said.


UPCOMING PROJECTS

Gwinnett’s government is involved in eight different development projects in the county.

♦ The Exchange @ Gwinnett — 2529 Buford Drive in Buford — Gwinnett County leaders in 2019 approved a tax allocation district to aid the development of 103 acres near the Mall of Georgia. The $350 million Fuqua Development project will get a tax break to help with infrastructure costs; the project is under construction.

♦ Gwinnett Entrepreneur Center — 405 North Perry Street in Lawrenceville — A former preschool is being turned into a $1.5 million entrepreneur center to help local residents build their businesses. It should open this year.

♦ Gwinnett Place Mall — 2100 Pleasant Hill Road in Duluth — Tuesday, Gwinnett County commissioners agreed to let up to $25 million in bonds to pay for the purchase of 39 acres of the mall property. There are not yet plans for the mall.

♦ OFS — 6305 Crescent Drive in Norcross — Gwinnett County bought 103 acres from the fiber optic cable manufacturer OFS in 2018 for $35 million. The county intends to use part of the site for a multi-modal transit hub. OFS is still operating there and the site is used for movie production.

♦ Olympic Tennis Center — 5525 Bermuda Road in Stone Mountain — Gwinnett County is in negotiations with Fuqua Development to build a mixed-use center at the now-demolished former Olympic Tennis Center. The 26 acres in south Gwinnett were acquired through a land swap with the Stone Mountain Memorial Association Board of Directors. That purchase cost $1.2 million; the demolition cost about $1 million.

♦ Revel — 6400 Sugarloaf Pkwy in Duluth — The developer of this 118-acre project to create an entertainment district outside Infinite Energy Arena dropped out last year. The county owns the land the arena is on; renovations there continue.

♦ Rowen — Drowning Creek Rd and Ga. 316 in Dacula — Gwinnett County leaders agreed last year to pay for a 2,000-acre research center with $67.7 million in bonds. The project is envisioned as similar to the Research Triangle in North Carolina and will focus on innovations in agriculture, medicine and the environment.

♦ The Water Tower at Gwinnett — One Water Way in Buford — The Water Tower project is a $30 million innovation center on the campus of the F. Wayne Hill Water Resource Center. It’s scheduled to open next year.