West End neighborhood wonders what’s next for mall

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

NY developer pulls ambitious mixed-use plans for The Mall West End

The latest plan to remake The Mall West End has been put on ice, a victim of delays caused by the pandemic, according to one of the project’s developers.

New York real estate firm Tishman Speyer in March went under contract to purchase the mall and develop a 1.3 million square foot complex including residences, offices and retail. It was the latest effort to remake the 12-acre site after several previous attempts.

Tishman confirmed that it has exited the project in southwest Atlanta, although one of its local development partners, Ryan Gravel, said he’s still negotiating with the company about having a role.

Shop owners said they’d hoped the new developers would address a persistent crime problem in the mall’s parking lot, and they welcomed at least some new construction to replace aging buildings nearly a half century after the mall first opened. But they also worried that a huge new development would ruin the West End neighborhood’s character and displace longstanding Black-owned businesses.

Atlanta investor Donray Von, a business partner with Gravel, said Atlanta city officials were unable to approve financial assistance in a timely manner.

“The mayor has been focused, and rightfully so, on crime and COVID,” Von said. “The city needed to be actively involved for this to work but it was not possible with those two things in front of her.”

Von declined to elaborate on the type of financial incentives the developers sought.

A spokesman for Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in an emailed statement “our focus on crime and the pandemic has nothing to do with our ability to focus on economic development. We could not agree on terms.”

The latest plans released for The Mall West End were probably too ambitious for the low-income neighborhood, said Ladson Haddow, an Atlanta real estate consultant. A smaller-scale project could work since the mall is located near the Beltline walking path and tech industry developments on the Westside, he said.

“The property is in the path of growth but the concept …. needs to make sense financially,” Haddow said.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Several national retail chains have locations at The Mall West End, including Subway, Lids sports merchandise and teen clothing retailer Rainbow Shops. On Tuesday morning, at least two dozen shoppers circulated inside the small, dimly lit, sparsely decorated, single-level mall.

“It’s usually busy over there,” said Mugaisi Andega, manager of Afro-Centric Network, a health and wellness shop located across Lee Street from the mall’s main entrance.

Some community leaders said they’re disappointed in the latest setback.

“It’s very unfortunate because we liked their vision,” said Tony McNeal, president of West End Neighborhood Development. “It would have brought more restaurants, more diverse retail and it would have brought employment.”

Large real estate development projects in metro Atlanta have been a mixed bag during the pandemic. Some have continued with few delays, such as Midtown Union and Echo Street West on the Westside. Others, like High Street in Dunwoody and Revel Gwinnett in Duluth, have stalled.

A Tishman spokesman said in an emailed statement “while numerous elements of this (Mall West End) deal were successfully lined up, including financing, in the end, the project did not make sense for us.”

Charles Taylor, co-owner of the mall, declined to comment. The mall’s two largest tenants, Citi Trends and Foot Locker, did not return calls seeking comment.

Alicia Porter, owner of The Burning Sands by Alicia, a college apparel store inside the mall, said new housing and restaurants would help the West End community. But she worries that such a project would come at the expense of Black merchants and residents who have lived there for years.

“The West End is a haven for African American entrepreneurs and I don’t want to see that dissolved and pushed away,” she said.

However, Porter also said The Mall West End, which opened in 1972, is outdated and “could stand an upgrade to keep it in line with other modern facilities.”

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Afro-Centric Network benefits from the mall’s foot traffic, Andega said. But he worried that a huge development similar to Midtown’s Atlantic Station would put him out of business.

“When you start bringing over high-end stores, I’m thinking Starbucks and H&M and all of that, that would just completely take away the heart and soul of the entire area,” he said.

However, Andega also said a new development could possible help reduce crime in the mall’s parking lot, which has been a concern for years.

The Mall West End is located in a federally designated Opportunity Zone, which provides tax credits for development projects in low-income neighborhoods.

Gravel and Von declined to comment on the type of tax incentives they sought.

Gravel said he thinks the ambitious mixed-use concept is still valid for The Mall West End.

“I’m still convinced that, given a little more time with Tishman Speyer, we can still achieve” the mall redevelopment, Gravel said.