OPINION: Will Macy’s exit make Greenbriar close? It’s an open question

Atlanta mall beloved by Black community has survived many major setbacks
People make their way into the Greenbriar Mall in southwest Atlanta on Friday, May 1, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
People make their way into the Greenbriar Mall in southwest Atlanta on Friday, May 1, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

The announcement last week from Macy’s was a real dis to Greenbriar Mall and to southwest Atlanta.

“Macy’s is committed to rightsizing our store fleet by concentrating our existing retail locations in desirable and well-trafficked A and B malls,” said the retailer in a statement.

I guess they’ve categorized Greenbriar as a “C mall.”

The decision is not unexpected. Macy’s is closing stores all over, as are many retailing dinosaurs. This means Greenbriar, one of the region’s first enclosed malls, will be book-ended by two dead anchors. (J.C. Penney bailed in 1985 and was eventually replaced by Burlington Coat Factory. Also gone.)

A mall in trouble is nothing new. Gwinnett County last month purchased the woe-begotten Gwinnett Place Mall and is figuring out what to do with it. And North DeKalb Mall has become so vacant they are shooting zombie movies there. No, really.

Charlie Hendon, Greenbriar’s co-owner since 2006, said he’s “going to make lemonade” from Macy’s sour departure. And he said losing the remaining anchor is no death blow.

“We hate to see them go, but Macy’s did not drive a lot of traffic,” Hendon said. The mall, he added, is a “steady performer for us.”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Hendon said retail staples like Foot Locker, which is already there, have the drawing power and are the new “anchors.”

“We probably sell $20 million of shoes (a year) out of that mall,” he said, referring to a number of stores selling footwear there.

Greenbriar’s demise has been foretold before. In 1985, a resident named Paul Howard (later to become Fulton County’s district attorney) wrote an editorial saying: “I have been part of a group fighting to keep Penney’s at Greenbriar because the move could begin a chain reaction that could lead to the closing of Greenbriar and other major businesses along Campbellton Road.”

In December 2009, during the Great Recession, I wrote about the mall’s precarious nature after the AMC Magic Johnson movie theater, once seen as a boost to that region, closed. Greenbriar was for sale and Hendon’s Canadian partner wanted out. He later pulled in an Israeli partner. “It was worth staying in, even for the land value,” he said.

The mall, which opened in 1965, was designed by John Portman and was the birthplace of the modern food court concept, with Chick-fil-A opening its first restaurant ever there in 1967. One is still there.

Then the area started changing racially and Greenbriar became what comedian Chris Rock joked about: “Every town’s got two malls: They got the white mall, and the mall white people used to go to.”

But Greenbriar survived and has even become a touchstone in the African American community, almost like a modern Main Street, getting mentions in all kind of rappers’ songs, from Ludacris to T.I.

The Rev. Herman “Skip” Mason, an Atlanta native who created the popular Facebook site “Skip Mason’s Vanishing Black Atlanta,” said his site has been flooded with comments about the Macy’s at Greenbriar announcement.

“Greenbriar Mall has been an anchor in the southwest Atlanta community for years,” he said. “It infused energy and vitality into the community.”

As a child, Mason’s family stopped there after church. “I learned to eat fried chicken with a fork at the Piccadilly’s there. Everyone was dressed up. To me, as a child, it was magic.” Later, he worked at the mall at a Baskin-Robbins and then at a yogurt joint and a clothing store.

“But unfortunately, it appears that Greenbriar and the area have been overlooked by potential development opportunities,” he said. “It seems like a nail in the coffin to the vitality in the area. Now you have both anchors empty.”

Most everyone in Atlanta’s Black community of a certain age has memories of the mall.

Credit: Herman "skip" Mason

Credit: Herman "skip" Mason

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, in a text, said she is “heart broken” to hear of the Macy’s closing.

“It’s been the cornerstone of that mall and community for as along as I can remember,” she wrote. “Greenbriar was EVERYTHING when I grew up. It’s where we shopped, went to the movies, had dinner (Piccadilly was my dad’s favorite), and hung out as teenagers. The meeting point was always either Macy’s (Davison’s), JC Penney (on the other end), or in the middle at the movie ticket booth. We’d walk from one end to the other, loop around, and walk back the other end, multiple times on a Saturday.”

“If there was a special occasion, like a school program or Easter, Macy’s is where my mom went for my dress. My fondest memory is attending Continental Colony Elementary school and our chorus singing outside of Macy’s in the mall.”

She added, “There are already so few shopping options in the area. Many seniors in the community don’t have the ability to shop anywhere else.”

During a visit Monday, I found mall traffic that wasn’t too bad considering it was a rainy, post-Christmas January evening during a pandemic. About 90% of the stores are rented, Hendon said. Greenbriar has gotten inventive with the mix, adding a dialysis center, a post office, salons, hookah shops, and even a corner bodega in the middle of the mall.

Competing jewelers Suhel Shaikh and Mike Baul differ on the impact of Macy’s closing. “It will go down,” Baul said of the traffic. “The anchor is the heart of the mall. It is the blood.”

Asked about the impact, Shaikh said, “Nothing. As long as we have Foot Locker, we’re fine.”

In 2009, I spoke to Joe Mitias, who runs C & J Menswear, a mall tenant since the mid-1980s. Three years ago, he moved to Riverdale. The mall, he said, “became a younger crowd, more hip-hop. My clientele is older, more business people.”

Credit: Bita Honarvar

Credit: Bita Honarvar

Renette Scott, a longtime resident and member of the neighborhood planning unit, said the Macy’s provided community groups with meeting space, and the mall still draws senior citizens like herself because it is “stable and protected.”

“There is an emotional attachment, especially for those who grew up in this area,” Scott said.

Residents and city officials have long talked about adding new ingredients to the 90-acre property, like housing, office space or other kinds of retail.

Those are the same things Hendon is considering. In fact, the closed Magic Johnson’s movie theater is becoming a cluster of single-family homes. Maybe they’ll knock down the old anchor spaces, he said.

“Some malls will make it, some malls won’t,” Hendon said.

I didn’t want to be gloomy, so I ventured that people like to get out and see other people. And shopping by Amazon just doesn’t do that.

“Well, I hope you’re right,” he said.

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