OPINION: North DeKalb Mall, metro Atlanta’s “deadest mall,” may get new life

North DeKalb Mall has gained additional revenue as a site for film productions, turning vacant storefronts into fictional sets. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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North DeKalb Mall has gained additional revenue as a site for film productions, turning vacant storefronts into fictional sets. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

North DeKalb Mall is largely where you go to see a cheap movie or burn rubber in the parking lot. Or perhaps shoot a zombie flick. It’s that forlorn.

Opened in 1965 as North DeKalb Center, the region’s first enclosed and air-conditioned mall, it has long had one foot in the grave, the other on a banana peel. Locals call it the “sad mall.”

Since 2004, there have been efforts to breathe life into the 77-acre* property by building a Costco. The past owner even shooed away many tenants to clear the deck for demolition. Many were enthusiastic about the proposition, at least those of us who relish the prospect of purchasing Charmin’s 128-roll “Big Wipe” or two-gallon tubs of “Bush’s Best Baked Beans.” But the Costco plan folded in 2018 largely because neighbors behind the proposed massive retailer would have heard trucks continually unloading at ungodly hours.

After that, all that remained was “a gutted shell of 20th Century capitalism,” wrote the fellow at the Decaturish news website.

Now, there might be a heartbeat again.

Recently, South Carolina-based developer Edens, which bought the property last year, trotted out an ambitious live/work/play proposal, a plan heavy on all three.

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Greenspace is another element that Edens plans to incorporate into the North DeKalb Mall redevelopment plan.

Credit: Edens

Greenspace is another element that Edens plans to incorporate into the North DeKalb Mall redevelopment plan.

Credit: Edens

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Greenspace is another element that Edens plans to incorporate into the North DeKalb Mall redevelopment plan.

Credit: Edens

Credit: Edens

The project calls for 1,800 units of residential, including 200 townhomes; 320,000 square feet of retail, including the low-budget theater; 180,000 square feet of office space; and a 150-room hotel. The first phases would include the retail, to give it a “sense of place,” and the rest would come over perhaps eight years, depending on demand, recessions, wars and other unforeseen calamities.

Edens purchased the nearby Toco Hill shopping center several years ago and went about fancying it up and bringing in new eateries to meet the demand of a new generation of prosperous residents. However, with that progress came skyrocketing rents and consternation among existing tenants.

Tony Cade, owner of Challenges Games and Comics and an eight-year North Dekalb Mall tenant, has those same fears. His business carries an eclectic mix of merch and has been a hit in the mall with events like family-oriented Halloween costume fiestas and gamer competitions. Those heading to movies often flock to his joint.

“I offer community,” he said. “The community here would love me. But would the landlords love what I could afford to pay in rent?”

Edens likes to say it seeks out local and even unusual tenants — businesses like Cade’s — to give their projects a vibe. The company website carries photos of folks frolicking, eating and drinking. It also prominently features a mass yoga exercise breaking out on one of the company’s properties.

“We’re in the business of humanity,” Herbert Ames, an Edens exec, told nearby residents late last month via a Zoom meeting. “We design our places to achieve 3.5 trips a week with five hours of dwell time.”

I was impressed by their aggressive optimism. I rarely got five hours of quality dwell time a week in my own home until the kids finally left.

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Tony Cade, owner of Challenges Games & Comics in North DeKalb Mall, has a solid following but wonders if he can afford a drastically higher rent in the proposed new development. Associate Khayman Bliss in background. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Tony Cade, owner of Challenges Games & Comics in North DeKalb Mall, has a solid following but wonders if he can afford a drastically higher rent in the proposed new development. Associate Khayman Bliss in background. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

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Tony Cade, owner of Challenges Games & Comics in North DeKalb Mall, has a solid following but wonders if he can afford a drastically higher rent in the proposed new development. Associate Khayman Bliss in background. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

I get it, developers are selling dreams and a sense of being. Especially, they must mollify the locals. During the meeting, Ames and his company’s lawyer smiled and agreed with just about everything residents tossed their way. Pedestrian friendly? Yes. Ecological? You betcha! Work force housing? Sure. What kind of office space? Class A, naturally. Trader Joe’s? Ummm, we’ll see.

The presentation had a photo of Einstein because everyone likes Einstein. There are plans to work with the PATH Foundation to connect with a maze of nearby trails. And the Edens VP happily noted that 25% of the site is being set aside as greenspace. That sounds generous until one realizes about 20 acres of the parcel’s west side is swampy forest and unbuildable. (Hence, the asterisk connected to the acreage earlier in the story.)

Still, Ames told the neighbors that Edens could have requested an even higher density with the sought-after mixed-use zoning, like 3,200 units. In fact, he said, it’s actually a “reduction,” adding, “We certainly aren’t maxing out here.”

In 2018, after the Costco got shot down, DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader, who represents the area, called this “clearly a generational redevelopment,” and said the county and developer must get it right.

The proposal should have more “urban” features, he said, meaning internal streets, pedestrian-friendly walkways and a mix of shops, parks and places to live. As opposed to big box retailers surrounded by an ocean of asphalt.

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The massive and forlorn parking lot of the nearly deserted North DeKalb Mall has been the site of street racers laying tracks. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

The massive and forlorn parking lot of the nearly deserted North DeKalb Mall has been the site of street racers laying tracks. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

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The massive and forlorn parking lot of the nearly deserted North DeKalb Mall has been the site of street racers laying tracks. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Rader noted other large developments have been built nearby in recent years and “it takes a while for this much development to get absorbed by the market.” But, he added, “Edens appears to be a company that builds and operates projects with long-term financing.” So, they’ll stick around.

The neighbors who stymied the last proposal are more amenable to this one.

“Everyone wants something there; that’s the driving sentiment,” said Jim Smith, a resident with the DeKalb Cross-Neighborhoods Council, a consortium of nearby neighborhood groups. “This (proposal) can’t help but be better.”

Carol Hayes, who lives in the neighborhood across from the mall, worries about a stream that is piped under the property and, like many others, the increased traffic in an area that is clogged daily.

“The number of cars is going to be insane — the retailers, the residents, the offices, the hotel,” she said.

Developers say they will perform a traffic study.

But there are a lot of forces driving this effort to get something built.

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