Greenbriar Mall boosters hope for its survival

Marva Kenny may be Greenbriar Mall’s greatest booster. She had the funeral procession of her husband, John, the mall’s maintenance chief, pass through Greenbriar’s parking lot.

“The mall is part of my family,” she said.

So she is apologetic when speaking about the 44-year-old Greenbriar, one of the city’s first enclosed malls.

“When I moved to this neighborhood [in 1970], Greenbriar Mall was a flourishing mall with several good stores,” she said. “But the mall is going down. When nicer stores do a study [of the area], they don’t come. There’s a lot of low income.”

Increasingly, the mall’s offerings are not her style. “Greenbriar is predominantly urban wear; the five-inch heels and little skirts aren’t my bag,” she said with a laugh, but added that she still shops there and still is pulling for its revival.

Greenbriar has endured some blows recently: the AMC Magic Johnson movie theater, once seen as a boost to the Southwest Atlanta community, closed in October; a clothing store suffered a smash-and-grab robbery this month, and merchants here, like those everywhere, complain about a dearth of shoppers.

But Christmas is here and Greenbriar Mall, like shopping centers everywhere, is making its holiday push, decking the halls, making space again for Santa and hoping for better days.

Merchants like Salim Bhayani may be the key to the mall’s future. He and his wife, Shaboo, just signed a 10-year lease at Greenbriar, moving their jewelry store named for her from South DeKalb Mall. In fact, Bhayani had been on a waiting list to get into Greenbriar for several years, he said.

Bhayani is excited as he shows off the well-lighted store he has occupied for about six weeks. “This used to be a GNC [health products]; we have spent a lot of money to be here,” he said. “I believe in this mall. That’s why I signed the lease. Greenbriar Mall is in the city limits. There is potential here.”

Atlanta developer Charlie Hendon, who has co-owned the mall since 2006, said Greenbriar “has stood the test of time.

“It has morphed from a mall to a community center,” he said. “Folks are loyal to the mall. They take ownership in it.”

It is also for sale. Asking price is $44 million. Hendon said his Canadian partner wants out of American properties but he would like to stay with the mall if he can.

“We feel the future is bright there,” he said.

A history of struggle

Greenbriar Mall has been counted out many times since opening in 1965. And it has witnessed as many rebirths. It’s history is almost a microcosm of that of an ever-changing city.

Designed by famed architect John Portman, Greenbriar was one of the region’s first enclosed malls and the birthplace of the modern food court concept, with Chick-fil-A opening its first store there in 1967.

But white flight in the surrounding southwest Atlanta neighborhoods cut deeply into its white clientele, contributing to many fits and starts through the years. In 1985, J.C. Penney, one of the mall’s two original anchors left, bringing protests from residents and black leaders, including then-Mayor Andrew Young. “There is as much income in this neighborhood as there is in any other neighborhood in the city,” he said at the time.

A blossoming black middle-class population in the area caused developers to keep bringing improvements to the mall because, as has often been noted, metro Atlanta’s south side is underserved in shopping capacity. In 1993, grocer Cub Foods opened a 63,000- square-foot, free-standing store on the property and in 1996, the Magic Johnson’s Theatre complex opened.

But a decade later, Cub Foods pulled out of the region. This fall, the 60,000-square-foot theater closed. Both remain vacant.

Greenbriar Mall has also gained a place in black popular culture consciousness. It was here that Jermaine Dupri discovered the two members of the platinum-selling group Kris Kross. And rap artists ranging from Ludacris to T.I have mentioned the Greenbriar in song.

In 2004, Ludacris explained why he wanted to use the mall for a video shoot. “Greenbriar is like a car show each and every day — without cameras,” he said. “That’s why I’ve always wanted it in my videos. I finally get to show off some real ATL!”

‘Good neighborhood mall’

Recent visits to the mall find a facility that is old but clean and mostly occupied — 92 percent, says its proprietor. There are 12 shoe stores, eight jewelry stores and more than 20 clothing stores.

Mall leasing agents have had to be inventive. It has a barbershop, a beauty shop, a nail salon, a post office and two dialysis centers.

Joe Mitias, who runs C & J Menswear, has been at the mall for 25 years and said the proprietors have done well to keep the storefronts rented.

“It’s a good neighborhood mall; Greenbriar is known as a place where people come to shop, not to browse,” said Mitias, who said he sells “fashion, not just clothing. We bring colors and style. We bring something new.”

Mitias shrugged when asked about the closing of the Magic Johnson movie theater, most recently operated by theater chain AMC. The 12-screen complex sat off by itself hundreds of feet away from the mall and there never was much cross-pollination between the two businesses, he said. “Didn’t help us, didn’t hurt us,” he said.

Edith Ladipo, vice chairwoman of Neighborhood Planning Unit-R, the development advisory board whose area includes Greenbriar, said the mall had become known as a teen hangout, which discouraged many people from shopping there. It has changed for the better with the new owners, she said.

“I’m encouraged a lot of young professionals shop there, more than they used to,” she said. “It’s not just the cheap teenage clothing anymore.”

However, she said the mall management has not embraced the community as it could. She said it could work more with the NPU and other neighborhood organizations to seek residents’ input.

Trying to create buzz

Hendon said the mall often reaches out to the community. This year, it provided space to the city for a police department mini-precinct. The station was a welcome addition to the mall, which had suffered several high-profile smash-and-grabs and shootings in 2007 and 2008. The city pays just $1 a year for the 1,900-square-foot space.

Still, even with the police presence, shoppers are urged to be wary. The Georgia Power office has a sign warning patrons: “Possible scam artists operating outside. Do not turn your payment over to anyone outside the office.”

Hendon said security at the mall has increased. But “it’s a mall, not a fortress,” he said. “You can’t have so much people don’t want to come.”

Creating a buzz has been the key, he said. There are talent and fashion shows on a stage near the Burlington Coat Factory (which long ago filled the Penney’s space). On a recent Sunday, a young gospel singer entertained three dozen people and other curious shoppers.

“We don’t try to compete with a Lenox [Mall] or a Phipps [Plaza],” Hendon said. “We try to focus more on servicing the community.

“You always have to reinvent and reinvest,” he said. However, the economic downturn has curtailed much of the reinvestment he would have like to commit to the mall.

Signs of hope?

Through the years, the Greenbriar area has been a focus of city efforts for renewal. An Atlanta Development Authority study found a “stagnation of the Greenbriar Mall retail area” and suggested the Campbellton Road corridor could benefit from a tax allocation district, which freezes property tax receipts at a certain level and then reinvests any increases in that area. Such a TAD has been put into place; any tax increases could help fund streetscape and road improvements along Greenbriar Parkway, which is mostly a collection of fast-food businesses.

Hendon pointed to actor and producer Tyler Perry’s studio nearby and a mega-church built by Bishop Paul Morton as positive signs in the area.

As far as complaints about the types of shops in the mall, Hendon responded, “You can only do so much. You can’t please everyone.”