Avondale Estates ends agreement with multi-use developer, anxious to try again

Nearly six years ago,  Florida-based Century Retail was planning a sprawling, ambitious 375,000-square-foot mixed-use development in downtown Avondale Estates.

Today the single testament to the city's project with Century Retail – which filed for bankruptcy last fall --  is what locals call "the erector set" -- a two-story steel skeleton of building that has stood unfinished and untouched for 2 ½ years.

Last week, after years of discussion, acquisitions and accusations, the development agreement came to a quiet end during a Board of Mayor and Commissioners Regular Meeting.

“We are going to move forward in pursuing discussions with development companies," Mayor Ed Rieker said. "We want to get the word out that Avondale is developer friendly.”

Located east of Decatur, 87-year-old Avondale Estates is known for its Tudor-Revival architecture, a favorite of city founder George Francis Willis who revered Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon. But the proposed project, to cover 5.6 acres and be called Avondale Marketplace, was unlike anything the city had undertaken.

“It was planned for eight to 10 phases,” Commissioner David Milliron said. “The only one we ever discussed was Phase 1-A, which included a Publix, a public garage, and a mixed use of restaurants and condos.”

Mike O’Keefe, longtime owner of Avondale Pizza Café who, along with four other businesses, relocated to get out of the development’s way, said, “It was going to be beautiful, man -- streetscapes, shops, everything.”

The potential development covered roughly a three-block stretch on East College Avenue. Commissioner and real estate attorney Michael Payne estimates Century Retail bought out “10 to 15 separate landowners” along that tract paying $23 million, a price most say was far too high.

But despite the acquisitions and despite an agreement in early 2008 that would have given Century Retail special zoning and building variances outside of the city’s existing zoning laws, no dirt was ever turned.

One business owner who didn’t sell was Bonnie Kallenberg, who founded and runs Finders Keepers Consignment.

“We had just built our new building 10 years before Century came to us [in 2005],” she said. “I didn’t want to tear it down, but finally I said I would sell if they would build me a building. They agreed to that. They wanted to work with us, they wanted to show they weren’t ruthless.”

Kallenberg’s plan was for her business to occupy the new building’s lower level, while she and her husband lived in an upper-level condo. Construction began in early 2008 on the building two blocks west of the proposed development, and it is what is referred to now as "the erector set."

About that time, Clai Brown was hired as the fifth city manager in three years, and Ed Rieker was elected mayor, both indications of the city's pro-development direction. But later that year, the economy tanked.

“I passed by the [new] site one day, I think around September [of 2008],” Kallenberg said, “and I didn’t see any hardhats. A few days later, they were back picking up their stuff. I knew then we were in trouble.”

Many business owners said the project’s failure lies with both the city and the developer. Century Retail likely overpaid for property. It also filed for bankruptcy and finally defaulted on its agreement. Brown said that of the $50,000 owed the city by that agreement, Century Retail paid only $12,500.

Ted Sandler, a Sandy Springs-based attorney who represents Century Retail in Georgia, confirmed the company's troubles.

“[Century] filed for bankruptcy last fall,” Sandler said. “I think there’s a likelihood there will be some kind of reorganization plan to pay off all creditors. But in truth, I don’t know what will happen for sure, and I have no idea how long [bankruptcy proceedings] will take.”

Some blame the city’s business methods back when the relationship began.

“In hindsight, it was too big of a project for the city to take on back then,” Kallenberg said. “It was a whole different city council, and we had people who don’t even live here anymore who kept holding things up. For all the people who wanted this done, there was a lot of opposition. People were worried about the lights, the noise and traffic.”

Milliron said the city is better equipped to manage such a project.

“This city wants development, no question about it,” he said. “Plus, we now have the right [government] infrastructure in place, which we didn’t have [six years ago]. We now have the right city manager, we have a full-time city planner and an economic development officer.”

Even so, the city can't do much until Century Retail's bankruptcy case is resolved and the property is sold.

“Yes, we want to be proactive," Milliron said. "We want to facilitate conversations [with developers]. We really want to get going on some project. But we can’t do anything until we know who the next landowner is.”

Meantime, the three-block area of downtown Avondale Estates, with the exception of Kallenberg’s Finders Keepers, is a ghost town.

“There’s no real business synergy here,” Kallenberg said, “and it’s pretty scary at night when we close up. I just hope [the city] can get going on something new as soon as possible.”