Why developers are betting big on urban-style projects in Gwinnett

The idea of mixing shops and restaurants with places to live in a single development is not an earth-shattering concept, even in the suburbs.

But the sheer scope of several urban-style, mixed-use projects going up in Gwinnett — and the sizable amount of housing planned — is a notable departure from past development trends in one of metro Atlanta’s largest counties.

And the projects represent big bets on behalf of some of Atlanta’s top developers.

"We're not leaving the urban markets where we've been active," said Jim Borders, the president and CEO of Novare Group, the longtime Atlanta developer now behind a sprawling new residential project near downtown Lawrenceville. "But we do believe that there is a need to be served, and a big market, in the suburbs."

Significant swaths of Gwinnett County, which currently has a population nearing 1 million and is projected to add another 500,000 residents over the next two decades, have become more urbanized with dense development for several years now.

Developers hoping to build townhomes or multifamily housing still find themselves embroiled in zoning battles from time to time, but such developments are far more common than even five years ago.

Projects like the one Novare and partner George Berkow Inc. are undertaking in Lawrenceville take that to the next level.

New renderings were released Monday of the megaproject being planned for downtown Lawrenceville. (City of Lawrenceville/Novare Group)

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The $200 million, 32-acre SouthLawn project, which will officially break ground later this month, includes plenty of retail and a town green. But it also includes more than 600 residences, everything from apartments and townhouses to single-family and homes for older adults.

“You’re beginning to see the development pattern go back to what it was 20 and 30 years ago, to activity centers,” said Lawrenceville City Manager Chuck Warbington, who is also the chairman of Gwinnett’s planning commission.

Jeff Fuqua, another high-profile Atlanta developer, recently proposed a mixed-use project across the interstate from the Mall of Georgia. In addition to some 400,000 square feet of nonresidential uses, including a hotel and a "a golf entertainment complex … with a full-service restaurant and bar," the project would offer around 500 apartments.

Then there's Revel, the enormous project being undertaken by North American Properties, the team behind Alpharetta's successful Avalon development and several other high-profile Atlanta projects. Documents filed with the state regarding Revel — which will cover 118 acres on the existing Infinite Energy Center campus — will include a hotel, more than a million combined square feet of office and retail space, and nearly 1,000 residential units.

Those are in addition to several town center-type projects in various Gwinnett County cities, which haven’t always had residential components as part of development plans.

“I think it’s very much a sign of the maturing of the county, of the transition we’re going through, the recognition that in certain areas more dense developments are appropriate,” Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said. “I think the development community has begun to recognize and deal with that, that it’s not a waste of time to propose those projects.”

Known for decades as a county of subdivisions, the demographics, age and attitudes in Gwinnett County have changed significantly over the last decade or so and, experts say, the post-recession housing industry is now starting to catch up.

The Exchange @ Gwinnett, as it s listed in a rezoning application recently submitted to Gwinnett County s planning department, would include about 500 apartments. It also would involve roughly 400,000 square feet of non-residential development, including a hotel, a fitness center and a golf entertainment complex. (Via Gwinnett Planning Department documents)

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A development analysis completed by Gwinnett in 2016, the last one available, predicted that multifamily housing will continue to account “for a great share of the county’s housing market.”

“Gwinnett County’s single-family homeownership rates may fall as more persons opt out of homeownership in favor of renting, and thus more apartments may be built,” the analysis said. “Other factors including a tighter credit market, slow new job creation, stagnant wages, and poor credit as a result of a previous bankruptcy or foreclosure may impact future homeownership rates and thus slow single-family home building activity.”

Gwinnett permitted the construction of 990 multifamily housing units in 2016 — about one-third of all housing units for the year.

Increasing density may also make it easier to find state and federal funding for transit projects, which is the hottest-button issue in Gwinnett these days. The county's Board of Commissioners approved last week a contract with MARTA and scheduled a referendum on joining that system — with a network that could include heavy rail, bus rapid transit and other extensive offerings — for March.

The biggest backlash to the county's new transit push has been from folks wanting the vote to happen sooner.

Mark Toro, managing partner of North American Properties, isn’t surprised.

Toro said that part of the attraction of developments like Revel is that “people just want to get out of their cars” — that suburban folks are fed up with the auto-centric grind.

The appeal also registers on a higher level, he said.

“People seek community,” Toro said. “And I mean that from a social sense. They’re seeking the opportunity to commune. And that is what we’re seeing is driving the viability of these projects. And Gwinnettians are no different than the rest of America.”