One is the urban planner whose grad school thesis formed the basis of the Atlanta Beltline. The other grew up in Atlanta’s English Avenue community, struck it big managing famed musical artists and producers in Los Angeles, and is now a tech investor and serial entrepreneur.
Together, Beltline visionary Ryan Gravel and investor Donray Von want to transform the aging Mall West End along Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard into a $300 million mix of offices, hotels, homes, restaurants and shops. It’s the first time either has tried their hand at real estate development, but the ambitious plan could set the tone for the growth of neighborhoods south of I-20.
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A decade ago, West End and surrounding neighborhoods were rocked by the foreclosure crisis. Now the area is one of the city’s hottest, with soaring property values and developer speculation, fueling fears of displacement of longtime residents.
The mall is at the center of the action. It is a 12-acre site within walking distance of the Beltline’s southwest trail and the West End MARTA station, two amenities in high demand among residents and employers searching for commute alternatives.
The West End proposal is a for-profit venture, but what Gravel and Von describe is an outlier in Atlanta’s build-and-flip real estate world.
They’ve proposed training, small-business lending assistance and a $10 million to $15 million fund to help grow West End businesses — not just those on the mall site — that they say will create jobs and demand for surrounding merchants.
Von envisions the mall site as a media and technology hub just south of Atlanta University Center that not only would serve as a commercial anchor for the community, but would nurture a generation of new businesses by diverse founders in the way Georgia Tech’s Technology Square has helped stimulate Midtown.
"The mall has so much going for it except for perception," Von said. "Let's move away from the perception that black people have to deal with less. We can appreciate more. We can patronize more."
Gravel and Von’s company, Elevator City Partners, has the mall under contract and wants to take ownership this year.
Von said the mall would remain open for two more Christmases before being demolished, with phased development over the next five years.
Gravel and Von are still assembling their ownership and development team.
They have held pitches across the country for Wall Street-caliber investors. NFL player Calais Campbell is among the early backers. The West End is in a designated Opportunity Zone, and new federal tax incentives for these lower-income areas have piqued investor interest.
Gravel, Von and metro Atlanta economic development groups recently went to a Stanford University symposium on Opportunity Zones. The recent GOP-backed federal tax overhaul included new “OZ” incentives to encourage investment by providing significant capital gains tax breaks in exchange for long-term investments.
The city has 27 such districts, said Eloisa Klementich, CEO of Invest Atlanta, the city’s development agency. Invest Atlanta is aggressively marketing these sites to investors.
The challenge, she said: “How do we mobilize this market capital and get them to invest in areas they never would have invested in before?”
Beltline speculation has helped juice up the West End property market.
The community wants the mall to become the bridge linking West End across I-20 to the Atlanta University Center, said Terry Ross, who chairs Neighborhood Planning Unit T, which will review the mall redevelopment plans.
“We can’t forget the residents who are already here,” Ross said.
When longtime neighbors are displaced, “the resulting effect is devastating,” Ross said. “Families move, kids move, enrollment in schools drop and it’s a chain reaction.”
So far, Ross said he’s liked what he’s heard.
Gravel, who is white, and Von, who is black, say their goal is to create a development true to West End’s position as a hub for the arts and Atlanta’s black middle class. They said they won’t attempt to replicate Ponce City Market or trendy mixed-use projects on the city’s Westside.
"I see the transition in this community," said Von, who spent a lot of his youth at the mall's former Peppermint Records store. "My mother's house has quadrupled in value over the past four or five years."
“The neighborhood demographics also have changed,” he said.
The partners aim to attract new merchants while retaining many of the mall’s current tenants, which are mainly discount clothiers and some national chains such as Foot Locker.
Von said West End residents often look elsewhere for shopping and dining. “We are only serving the needs of a fraction of the community.”
Gravel said 20 percent to 30 percent of future apartments or condos on site will be reserved as affordable, but details are pending.
Ross said he and others suggested months ago that Gravel and Von hold neighborhood meetings. Ross called the partners’ town halls “the platinum model for community engagement.”
“The city of Atlanta deserves more of that,” he said. “We’re usually behind the eight ball with most of these developers.”
West End needs more job opportunities for current residents, Ross said. Workforce housing — or units at rents affordable for people who are employed but make below the median area income — is in short supply, and he said the mall project could help fill a gap.
‘Like moving Charlotte to Atlanta’
Gravel was a co-author of the Atlanta City Design, the city’s guidebook to steer and manage growth. A central thesis was “The Beloved Community,” a vision popularized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. of a diverse city of economic justice and inclusion.
If Elevator City Partners can attract the financing it seeks, it will give Gravel an opportunity to put what’s on paper onto the pavement.
"The region is going to grow by 2.5 million people in the next 20 years," Gravel said, referencing estimates by the Atlanta Regional Commission. "That's like moving Charlotte to Atlanta in 20 years — and really without doing much about transportation. And, it's going to put a lot of growth pressure on the places that already have access to transit and that are walkable."
That raises the risk of displacement.
If Elevator City doesn’t develop the mall, some other group will, Gravel said, and others might not weigh community concerns as highly.
“You can drive around a community like the West End and you roll down the windows and you can just smell the money coming,” Gravel said of real estate speculation. “This place is going to change whether we want it to change or not. How do we design that change that we want and include the community with it?”
J. Scott Trubey is the economy and environment editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He previously served as a business reporter for the AJC covering banking, real estate and economic development. Trubey is also a former investigative reporter, with a specialty in banking, real estate and public corruption. He joined the AJC in 2010.