West End wants mall redevelopment to preserve neighborhood’s ‘soul’

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

A third developer is taking a crack at redeveloping the longstanding mall in a historic, but underserved, area of Atlanta

For the third time in roughly as many years, a developer is trying to breathe new life into the Mall West End.

The aging retail center in the heart of Atlanta’s West End neighborhood, a little more than a mile west of Center Parc Stadium (formerly Turner Field), would be demolished, the land split into quadrants by a grid of streets and transformed into a mixed-use district with hundreds of apartments, a grocer, restaurants and shops, according to recently released plans.

About 15 years ago, West End and surrounding neighborhoods, were the epicenter of Atlanta’s foreclosure crisis. Today, they’re some of the hottest neighborhoods in the city, powered in part by the Beltline and real estate speculation that’s stoked fears of gentrification.

Some say the mall, like many across the nation that are struggling, is a dying relic occupying valuable real estate in a fast-changing part of the city. Others like West End native Tory Jackson say the mall represents the centerpiece of a historic Black neighborhood that’s fighting to keep its identity.

Jackson, an Atlanta airport food service worker who frequents the mall with his kids, said he knows change will come — he’s seen the luxury apartments and breweries opening in his neighborhood. But he’s skeptical that the mall can undergo redevelopment without displacing longstanding Black-owned businesses and pricing out residents.

“The mall is the historic West End. It should stay here,” he said.

Built 50 years ago, the mall has proven a challenge to redevelop.

A developer released a plan in 2019 to repurpose the mall’s 12-acre site as a mixed-use destination with a 16-story office building, a hotel, apartments and retail space never got off the ground. That proposal featured a fund to nurture existing West End businesses while creating a media and technology hub just south of Atlanta University Center.

A similar attempt by a subsequent developer stalled out last year.

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Two New York firms, the Prusik Group and partner BRP Companies signed a contract to buy the land and would redevelop the property under a different mindset. Prusik co-founder Andrew Katz said prior plans were overly ambitious and wouldn’t have fit the character of the area.

“They were shooting for the stars,” said Katz, whose firm specializes in projects in lower-income areas. “But you really want to do something here that the community is going to appreciate. Something that is going to fit in and be contextual within the community.”

Prusik’s plan focuses on “necessity-based retail,” including a new grocery store and a box store anchor tenant. He said existing West End mall tenants will have space in the new project.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Atlanta City Councilman Jason Dozier, who represents the neighborhood, said the West End will go through change. Atlanta’s Westside has been transformed by the Beltline, high-end apartments and large job investments, like Microsoft’s upcoming Grove Park campus that’s expected to house 2,000 employees.

But he said residents don’t want to be lumped in with West Midtown, a conglomerate of rebranded Atlanta neighborhoods that have seen large amounts of corporate investment. They want the West End’s culture preserved.

The West End traces its roots to the 1830s, with tree-lined streets dotted with historic homes. The neighborhood flipped from majority white to predominantly Black in the middle part of the last century and became a African-American religious, educational and business center.

“People don’t want to be erased,” said Dozier, who is supportive of the mall’s scaled-back redevelopment plans. “People don’t want to see their community change in a way that is unrecognizable.”

‘Here we go again’

Vacant storefronts have become commonplace within the mall as its future remains up in the air.

A fourth of the mall’s stores are empty, including its largest anchor tenant space. Janeshia Ligon, who works at a nearby salon, visits the mall’s beauty depot frequently because she gets a discount, but she said that’s the only reason she visits these days.

“It needs some new life,” Ligon said. “Nobody comes here unless it’s last minute.”

While the new plans differ from prior developers’ visions, the basic formula remains the same — break up the property with new roads, improve MARTA access and add apartments. The proposal would split the mall into four blocks, three of which would have housing.

“We don’t want it to be sort of a fortress,” Katz said. “That’s not the way we look at building communities. The concept of breaking the property into quadrants allows for there to be a thoroughfare. It makes the shops more approachable, accessible and it really brings the community together.”

Credit: Prusik Group & BRP, via West End Neighborhood Development

Credit: Prusik Group & BRP, via West End Neighborhood Development

The plan includes 650 to 900 apartments with up to 25% being reserved as affordable units. Atlanta requires all new residential developments to set aside at least 10 to 15% of their units as affordable, depending on rent price. The developers are also considering a 200-room hotel they say will appeal to parents of students at the Atlanta University Center, a collection of historically Black universities north of the West End.

Myrna Fuller, who became president of the West End Merchant’s Coalition in 2021, said crime and derelict streetscapes need addressing to create an inviting atmosphere for visitors. Her organization is working with the city, police and local businesses to improve safety, but she said the mall’s redevelopment could boost that effort.

“Things have just kind of festered, and there has not been any catalyst for people to look at (their businesses) differently,” she said. “I want every business owner to be proud to have a business in the West End.”

The redevelopment project could also feature a police substation and is expected to create about 500 jobs.

Fuller said the constantly changing plans surrounding the mall’s future has led some residents to become apathetic.

“People have been a little bit skeptical, like ‘OK, here we go again,’” she said. “But I also know that they’re excited for change.”

Preserving West End’s culture

Katz, who described the area as a food desert, said a grocery store is part of the up to 250,000 square feet of planned retail space. A Kroger and Big Bear Foods are the closest options for fresh food.

“A grocery store would be very helpful,” Dozier said. Choice, he said, “... will make the community even more vibrant this it currently is.”

Bruce Choe, Big Bear’s manager, said a redeveloped mall would likely bolster business. He added that regulars won’t abandon Big Bear, a community pillar for more than 40 years.

“A lot of customers have been coming for so long that they grew up and are grandmas and grandpas now,” Choe said. “They still come here with their (grandchildren).”

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Mugaisi “Gai” Andega’s family owns Afro-Centric Network, a health and wellness store that like many have been around West End for generations. He wants the developers to make sure local stores have their place in and around the mall for generations to come.

He said gentrification, where wealthier people move into an area and raise rents and prices, is a looming threat. West End deserves quality businesses, but he wants to make sure the development caters to longtime residents.

“Property values have skyrocketed, and there’s an entertainment center just down the road that you don’t see too many Black people frequent,” he said of the Lee + White restaurant and brewery district along the Beltline’s Westside Trail. “... Making (the mall) a high-end type of development will definitely rip the soul out of the West End.”

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

The mall is located in a federally designated Opportunity Zone, which provides tax credits for development projects in low-income neighborhoods. Katz wouldn’t disclose how Prusik and BRP plan to fund the project, but he said they’re “exploring every possible option to ensure the project gets developed.”

Prusik has developed multiple projects in underserved areas, including Harlem and South Bronx, but this is the company’s first project outside of New York. Katz said they’re optimistic they can break ground next year.

Tony McNeal, president of West End Neighborhood Development, said there will be several upcoming community meetings with the developers, but he’s confident the plan will fulfill the wants and needs and his community.

“Once completed, this redevelopment will show that the West End is a sleeping giant of untapped commercial potential,” McNeal said.