To live in the suburbs is to live with trade-offs: Dealing with Ga. 400 for better schools; having fewer hip restaurants in exchange for a backyard.
On Monday night, another suburban compromise was made.
Alpharetta’s City Council voted to approve a 24,000-square-foot mixed-use development that is essentially a cyborg enhancement to the once-glitzy, now-dated North Point Mall. It’s a move meant to save the mall from the slow drain of tenants and shoppers that has gutted many suburban malls.
North Point owners Brookfield Properties promised the Council a bicycle-friendly system akin to the Beltline and amenities like a play fountain inspired by Centennial Olympic Park, plus 300 apartments and new greenspace.
The only wrinkle is that another Alpharetta development already beat them to it — Avalon.
The much-anticipated Avalon opened in 2014 — bringing half a million square feet of upper-end retail, Whole Foods, a 12-screen movie theater, 250 apartments and a luxury hotel. It was built on a muddy hill overlooking Ga. 400 that for years stood as a failed development. Experts quickly declared it the darling of metro Atlanta development.
But even when council members were voting in 2012 to approve Avalon, their minds were two miles down the highway at North Point.
Two malls, one city
During the Monday vote on North Point, Alpharetta Mayor Jim Gilvin said the Council knew at the time that Avalon would hurt North Point, which opened in 1993. “Every one of us that made that vote … knew that we were going to have to be proactive in watching that (North Point) corridor,” Gilvin said Monday.
Gilvin said they discussed protecting North Point from Avalon poaching its tenants.
Mark Toro, managing partner of Avalon’s development company, “assured the Council he has no intention of cannibalizing the mall. However, he said requiring his company to reject offers from North Point tenants would be ‘unfair, unconstitutional and un-investable,’” according to a story from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the Avalon vote.
And so council members made no protections. Then Apple and Pottery Barn left for Avalon.
Management at Avalon did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Just last year, Alpharetta adopted a formal plan for the future of the North Point Parkway corridor.
A version of plan document summed up the tension between the existing mall and Avalon: “North Point has served as the center for retail and dining in North Fulton County, attracting thousands of visitors every week. Recently, new competitors have emerged and begun to capture the attention of consumers by creating a shopping experience less characterized by the automobile and sprawling parking and more by experience, walkability, compactness, and pedestrian-friendliness.”
But for Alpharetta residents, North Point Mall has been more than an economic driver. It’s a sentimental favorite. A city planning commission member took time out of a meeting earlier this month to get the developer’s word that the merry-go-round inside the mall would stay because it held such fond memories for her and her children.
But both Avalon and the North Point project show how malls struggle to keep up with changing consumer tastes. The ease of ordering goods online has ravaged retailers who still pay rent on stores. Retail experts say consumers now need new experiences to draw them to retail stores.
The North Point development will be built on land that used be a Sears, which declared bankruptcy in fall 2018 and closed the North Point store.
“The anchors have just lost their (retail sales) volume because of the internet, big box (stores) and outlets,” said Jim Bieri, a national retail expert based with Stokas Bieri Real Estate in Detroit. “… For North Point, it cut at the center.”
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The trend for developments like Avalon — and now North Point — where people can “live, work and play” isn’t going anywhere, Bieri said. “Planners are trying to figure out how to create lifestyles where people can walk everywhere and I think that trend will continue.”
The housing at North Point will have 175 one-bedroom apartments starting at $1,400 a month and 125 two-bedroom units for a monthly cost of $1,900.
Many suburban developers struggle to convince residents that dense housing won’t clog roads. Throughout the process of pitching the North Point redevelopment plan, few residents spoke against it. North Point developers pointed to studies that show the project will bring a net reduction in traffic to the mall now that the failed Sears is gone.
Conversations about traffic in the city were intense even before August 1991 when Alpharetta Mayor Jimmy Phillips rumbled a bulldozer across the red dirt and broke ground on North Point to the sounds of a live Dixieland band.
The mall later spurred roads and peripheral retail, built by the former owners of the mall land, to prepare for the “power center” effect North Point of drawing outlets and discount stores. As one councilmember said at the time, the mall “lit the fuse on an explosion.”
It did, but now many of those strip malls near North Point are at risk for the same reasons as the mall. Alpharetta now sees repurposing retail developments as a way to stay relevant in the suburbs.
North Point general manager Nick Nicolosi said this new project has been in the works for two years. Mall owner Brookfield, which boasts 161 American retail properties, claims this project is one of its five or so major remodels taking place to adapt to changing retail consumer trends.
When asked about Avalon’s effect on North Point, Nicolosi offered: “Competition comes online, competition goes offline, things change.”
“We have to reinvent ourselves to remain relevant with the consumers,” he said.
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