For city largely left out of development boom, new complex could signal change

The adjectives used to describe this piece of land have not been kind: A “sea of asphalt.” “Desolate.” “A black hole.”

It’s a bleak shopping center just outside the Perimeter in Doraville, but developers are hoping to change that. A large-scale redevelopment could give new life to the property through a mix of retail and more than 300 apartments.

On the surface, it seems like a standard redevelopment project targeting another decades-old shopping center. But to Doraville residents and city leaders, it’s much more. For years, they said, development and urbanization along Peachtree Industrial Boulevard has skipped over Doraville, as nearby cities celebrated new high-budget projects. That has caused Doraville, a city of 10,500 that straddles I-285 in northern DeKalb County, to miss out on potential businesses and new residents, officials said.

“During the campaign in 2017, a lot of residents were coming out and saying, ‘Listen, why is it happening everywhere else? Why isn’t it happening here?’” Councilman Robert Patrick said, referencing discussions he had while running for office. “This is our effort to say it’s happening here.”

The PawStand's sign can be seen on a sign for the shopping center in Doraville. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Casey Sykes

Credit: Casey Sykes

The project, which the City Council could approve next month, targets the Village at Tilly Mill Crossing, previously known as Friday’s Plaza. The spacious center, coated in a mustard yellow paint, is currently less than 25% occupied with only five tenants, according to a memo filed with the city.

The developers, Kaufman Capital Partners and Atlantic Realty Partners, hope to demolish about 70% of the existing commercial space and replace it with two new buildings and a private street running between them. Most of the three- to five-story structures will consist of apartments, with retail and office space on the ground floor facing the street. The project could also add one acre of green space.

“We’re going to dramatically change the landscape,” said Garry Sobel, a senior vice president at Kaufman. “It’s going to provide a viable project that will provide a gateway to Doraville. We believe it’s Doraville’s time.”

Waiting for growth

On a recent June afternoon, a few cars were clustered near businesses in the outreaches of the Village at Tilly Mill Crossing parking lot, which can fit up to 621 cars.

One of the businesses that will stay after the development is The PawStand, a beloved pet store on the southern edge of the property. Though she has concerns over the availability and accessibility of parking options after the construction, co-owner Jennifer Andreae said new development is a welcome addition to this suburb.

A sign from a closed movie theater still stands in the strip mall. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Casey Sykes

Credit: Casey Sykes

“This area really needs to be revitalized … so that it’ll be a destination point for a lot of the local neighbors,” Andreae said. “I really want to see this development done the right way.”

Andreae used to work at the old General Motors plant in Doraville that shuttered in 2008. It would be more than a decade before a development emerged to fill the empty industrial site. The mini-city named Assembly, which welcomed its first business earlier this year, is just two miles from the Tilly Mill plaza and represents another sign of the economic investment beginning to reach the city.

» RELATED: ‘City within a city’ rises on site of shuttered GM plant

Over the past several years, development in metro Atlanta has snaked northeast from Buckhead along Peachtree Road as the corridor turns into Peachtree Boulevard, and eventually Peachtree Industrial Boulevard. But the trend “jumped over Doraville,” which has a smaller population and more industrial history, Andreae said.

A draft design for the new mixed-use complex.

Credit: Kaufman Capital Partners / via city of Doraville

Credit: Kaufman Capital Partners / via city of Doraville

On Peachtree Road, the city of Brookhaven for years has attracted shoppers, diners and businesses to Town Brookhaven, a 54-acre mixed-use district that includes amenities like a luxury dinner-and-a-movie theatre. Up the road, Chamblee is working to turn its downtown into a true "town center," with new housing and the Peachtree Station shopping center opening in recent years. Just past Doraville in Peachtree Corners, the city opened its swanky town center earlier this year, with a dine-in movie theater, a spa and townhomes.

The prospective redevelopment in Doraville represents the growth the city has experienced over the past decade. Once an industrial suburb, Doraville’s population has grown since 2010, reaching an estimated 10,500 people last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The median household income of its residents has also jumped 25%, from about $39,800 annually in 2010 to $50,000 in 2017. And it continues to have an ethnically diverse population, with 55% of its residents identifying as Hispanic or Latino, according to the latest Census numbers.

The Village at Tilly Mill Crossing is just 25% occupied. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Casey Sykes

Credit: Casey Sykes

A changing city

Following the progress at Assembly, officials hope the development will signal a turning point for Doraville — one that the city is willing to hang its name on.

At a meeting last month, the City Council suggested adding a large “Doraville” sign to the top of the apartment building — similar to a bright red “Chamblee” sign that sits atop a building overlooking Peachtree. Sobel and the other developers seemed open to that idea.

Council members have generally hailed the Tilly Mill project as a welcome addition to Doraville, and suggested it could set the tone for future upscale, mixed-use projects.

Mayor Donna Pittman said she hopes a coffee shop can take up one of the spots in the complex, while Councilwoman Pam Fleming said she thought more space for businesses would better serve the tenants.

Co-owners Donna Raney (left) and Jennifer Andreae stand in front of their business, The PawStand, in Doraville. They have concerns that the parking spaces directly outside their store could be taken away following the development at the center. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Casey Sykes

Credit: Casey Sykes

But some business owners like Sharon McCarty Armstrong aren’t as excited about the development. The Allstate insurance agent works in the part of the building slated to be demolished, and said she only learned of the plans in June. She’s worried about having to find a new location for her office by late this year or early 2020, when construction could begin.

“I’m all for redevelopment and trying to get businesses here,” said McCarty Armstrong, whose business has been in the center for seven years. But, she added, “I like this area. I really don’t want to move.”

There are a few concerns from nearby residents, including increased traffic and a possible jump in the cost of living, though many agreed the area was in need of revitalization. Most of the worries expressed by City Council members concerns the more immediate problem with parking. The latest renderings do not include parking spots directly outside of PawStand, while the business’ owners said those spots are crucial for disabled customers or people bringing in injured pets for therapy.

PJ the Pack Leader (@pjthepackleader on Instagram) is a 2-year-old yellow lab who greets shoppers at The PawStand (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Casey Sykes

Credit: Casey Sykes

“We just need to take care of our customers, make it convenient for them to come to our store and bring their dogs in for rehabilitation,” Andreae said, adding that “not everybody is in their 20s, and they need assistance sometimes and they need to have access.”

In response to the concerns, Sobel said the developers would look into the possibility of changing the parking lot design.

“It’s really important that you work out something,” Pittman said during the meeting, “and we would greatly appreciate that.”

The City Council is set to vote on the proposal during its Aug. 5 meeting.

— Newsroom Data Specialist Jennifer Peebles contributed to this report.

Follow DeKalb County News on Facebook and Twitter 

About the Author