Old malls find new life as developers rework them into attractive, usable spaces.
Babysitter. First employer. Fashion consultant. Social director. If you were a suburban kid in the ’70s and ’80s, the local mall likely filled at least one of those roles – maybe all, depending on the day you went there. That era was dubbed the Malling of America and it lasted until 1990, the peak year for mall building when 16 million square feet of retail and food court spaces opened. By 2007, not a single large new mall opened in the U.S. Only one opened in the next seven years. And now, huge chunks of mall space and seemingly endless parking lots sit empty, either dead or mostly dead.
Though there are exceptions – Perimeter Mall and Lenox Square in Atlanta come to mind, among others – there are many more zombie malls across the country and the state. The communities around them often suffer, too.
A couple of factors killed malls. For one, “we overbuilt them,” says Ellen Dunham-Jones, director of the Master of Science in Urban Design degree program at Georgia Tech and an expert on sustainable suburban redevelopment, who tracks the redevelopment of malls. That meant malls were competing for shoppers in the same markets, cannibalizing sales. “Fundamental demographics” also played a role in some areas, she says, as the middle-class jobs that supported mall shoppers declined – and the number of teenagers dwindled, as well. And yes, online shopping played a role, as consumers went with clicks over bricks.
Today, the “super high-end, super luxury malls” are still doing great, says Dunham-Jones. Same for those near the top end, or Class A malls, which bring in the second-highest sales per square foot. “But the B [rated malls] are in trouble, and the Cs are opportunities for something totally new,” she says.
That could be anything from adaptive reuse (usually becoming office space, or in some cases educational or healthcare facilities) to complete redevelopment into mixed-use districts with trails, greenspace and areas for community events. From Macon to Athens to Metro Atlanta, malls are being reborn – and so, too, are hopes for their surrounding communities.
New Anchors for Old Malls
Retrofitting a dying mall into offices or for healthcare or educational use can help a community “that needs a bit of a boost” in terms of more jobs or training, Dunham-Jones says. That’s the plan in Macon, where the Macon Mall is being transformed through a public-private partnership into a different type of center for the community.
Macon-Bibb County acquired part of the mall in 2021 when Mayor Lester Miller and the mall’s owner, Hull Property Group, announced a deal where Hull donated a portion of the property to the city in return for a tax write-off. The mall will retain (and hopefully gain) some retail while also being home to government offices and a vast pickleball facility. A 12,000-seat amphitheater also is being built on site.
The project is pegged at about $100 million; about half of that is the value of the donation and the remaining money includes bond funds and an arrangement with Georgia Power to provide infrastructure improvements that the city will pay for over time. “We’re not having to use public dollars to capitalize those [improvements],” says Alex Morrison, director of planning and public spaces for Macon-Bibb County as well as the executive director of the Urban Development Authority. “We’re just going to pay that when we pay our electrical bill over the next 10 years.”
The amphitheater is designed to “create a catalyst for people to come back to that area, create excitement and have a spark coming out of the pandemic for our creative community,” says Morrison. Maybe, he adds, it will even help attract more artists to the area who can take
advantage of the music city’s recording studios.
The amphitheater is scheduled to open next spring, but the pickleball courts are on track to host games this fall. The city is calling it the world’s largest indoor pickleball facility with 16 courts upstairs and 16 downstairs in one of the former anchor stores. Not only can it host pro-style tournaments, but the facility’s courts also can be “moved” to accommodate everything from pingpong tournaments to receptions to robotics competitions. The economic development and tourism possibilities coming from these two new facilities will create jobs and new opportunities, according to Morrison.
In addition, moving some municipal government offices – like permitting, business licenses, zoning and the county election office – to the mall not only will save money but also will make these offices more accessible. The mall sits at the geographic center of Macon, Morrison says, so it’s both practical and fitting to have the offices there. Macon leaders believe the increased traffic from a revitalized mall will spark redevelopment along the Eisenhower Parkway corridor.
Adaptive reuse of dead or dying malls leverages the infrastructure that’s already in place, although as Morrison notes, there will be updates needed. But roads and buildings already exist, as does parking. That’s a big help in Metro Atlanta. After Northlake Mall, built in 1971 just inside the Perimeter in northern DeKalb County, lost two of its four anchor stores, mall owner ATR Corinth Partners struck a deal with Emory Healthcare to retrofit those spaces into offices. In essence, Emory became the new anchor in 2021.
“In strong markets, [it’s] redevelopment where you’re demolishing much of that box and putting it a more urban, denser, walkable mix of uses.” Ellen Dunham-Jones, director of the Master of Science in Urban Design degree program, Georgia Tech
Emory hired Impact Development Management to manage the renovation of 224,000 square feet into a campus that now houses more than 1,500 employees. “It was attractive for Emory because they had multiple leases in different buildings across Metro Atlanta and it gave them the opportunity to consolidate those into one spot with ample parking,” says Jason Stolz, senior director at Impact. “They didn’t have to build a parking deck or rely on transit.”
Inside was a different story. A lot more people would be in the offices than were ever shopping or working in the store at one time, so retrofitting an aging mall into offices comes with challenges including bringing construction and various building systems up to current codes, adding capacity to heating and air conditioning, and figuring out additional needs for plumbing and sewer (i.e., more restrooms).
The $30 million project turned a former garden center into a spacious break room with an outdoor patio, and it created private offices, open workstations, conference rooms and training areas. And although the surrounding neighborhood was economically healthy, bringing in that many people on a daily basis helps the businesses still in the mall (two anchors remain open, as well as the food court) and those nearby. “It benefits Emory, it benefits the developer, and it benefits the overall community,” Stolz says.
From Malls to Mini-Cities
The other main option for zombie malls? Start over.
Well, not exactly – again, there may be some infrastructure (like roads) that can be leveraged into a new development. Sometimes parts of the mall building may stay, too. But basically it involves scraping the site clean and building a mixed-use development.
“In strong markets, [it’s] redevelopment where you’re demolishing much of that box and putting in a more urban, denser, walkable mix of uses,” says Dunham-Jones. That includes residential, office and hotel, along with restaurant and retail – and often greenspace and trails. Across the country, she says, there are about 100 such projects that are mostly complete and another 150 proposals in various stages. Two of them are in Georgia: North DeKalb Mall (now rebranded as Lulah Hills) in Atlanta and Georgia Square Mall in Athens.
Both projects are so large – at 70 acres, the redevelopment of Georgia Square Mall will be the biggest in Athens’ history, while Lulah Hills clocks in at about 76 acres and is one of the largest in Atlanta in the last few years – that civic leaders as well as the surrounding communities know they will have a generational impact. They’re determined to get them right.
Retail developer Edens’ plans for the Lulah Hills site include 1,700 apartments (including workforce and affordable housing) and about 100 townhouses, along with around 300,000 square feet of retail, 200,000 square feet of office space and a hotel. Greenspaces and small parks will provide places for the neighborhoods around the site to gather, and multiuse trails will extend into the neighborhoods as well as connect to existing paths that run to Emory University.
It’s an attractive market, says Herbert Ames, managing director at Edens. Emory University is close by, as is the university’s proposed $1 billion healthcare campus just across North Druid Hills Road from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s new $1.5 billion hospital. And 825,000 people live within a 17-minute drive, according to Ames. “You have a massive void for a retail place in this area,” he says.
The numbers make business sense. But there’s also that sense of place that Morrison mentioned. DeKalb County Commissioner Ted Terry, whose super district encompasses the mall, says during the extensive planning process he “met so many individuals who grew up going to the mall, going to the arcade, to Rich’s.” Now, though, neighbors want to be able to walk and bike to a pedestrian-oriented place as opposed to “a giant parking lot,” he says.
Terry, along with now-retired Commissioner Jeff Rader, worked closely with Edens and community groups upfront to develop plans for the site that included those elements, rather than reacting to a plan presented by the developer. He and Ames both note that because the mall has been considered for redevelopment for years, neighborhood groups and associations were organized, knowledgeable about the process and clear about what they wanted. Terry describes the process as “having the meeting before the meeting about the meeting.”
“Edens said, ‘We’re not going to submit any application until we’ve had months of time with the surrounding neighborhoods and stakeholders,’” he says. “[Edens] really started off with a blank slate – ‘Tell us the key things that absolutely need to be in a development like this.’ Then they [started] the design process.”
“It’s always better to listen,’” says Ames. It helped that neighbors already shopped and dined at Toco Hills, an Edens redevelopment a few miles away. The old North DeKalb Mall site was begging to be redeveloped, Ames says. “It’s just a matter of how do you do it thoughtfully? How do you do it in a way that creates the place the community really wants and will respond to?”
To help pay for some of the improvements at and adjacent to the site, the county commission approved a tax allocation district (TAD). TADs allow future tax revenues generated by a redevelopment project to be used to pay for some of the project’s cost. The Market Square TAD covers an area beyond just the new development and will be used to pay for the multi-use trail that extends into the surrounding neighborhoods as well as stormwater management, among other things.
“The tax revenues that are coming in, some of that will be captured to invest right back into the infrastructure to see that the whole community benefits from this project,” says Terry, who notes that environmental sustainability was high on neighbors’ lists. “[The TAD] is one of the most clear ways we can make a promise to constituents that [the money] is not going anywhere else. It’s going to this area to address the impacts of the development.”
The creation of a TAD was also crucial to plans for the 42-year-old Georgia Square Mall, says Mark Jennings, an Athens homebuilder and developer who is one of the partners in the Leaven Group, which is redeveloping the site into a mixed-use campus. Among the improvements funded by the TAD will be multi-use trails, greenspace, improved storm-water management and a new bus station nearby.
The TAD helped spur the redevelopment because, as Jennings’ Leaven Group partner Brian Lu points out, Athens is a much smaller market than Atlanta or DeKalb. “Because of this TAD, we’re able to deliver a better product for everybody at a lower cost.”
The new development will have 816 apartments, 170 units for seniors, about 200 townhomes and 72,000 square feet of retail and greenspace. The residential component includes affordable housing. About a third of the existing mall will remain; current tenant Belk will remain open, and the remainder of the space will house retail and offices.
As with Lulah Hills, the process around Georgia Square Mall’s development included a lot of pre-work with city and county leaders. “We spent over a year working with the planners within the city, the commissioners, the mayor, the city manager, trying to see what they wanted,” says Lu, who is an Atlanta-based commercial developer. “We listened to them and worked with them and… this is a true public-private partnership.”
“We have an opportunity to make this site a destination for Northeast Georgia,” Jennings says. Part of that approach includes devoting time and space to recruiting local tenants. Jennings says the Leaven Group partners have made a pact to “split it down the middle” between local and national businesses and restaurants. “We’re local, we’re small-business people,” he says.
Ultimately, these projects aim to reincarnate dying malls while acknowledging their past lives as the equivalent of suburban downtowns. “These regional mall sites provide this rich history of community,” says Ames. “You have this attachment to these places that dot the American landscape… So we’re going to do our part at North DeKalb to reinvent this thing into a completely different setting.”
Macon’s Morrison says it is as much about restoring meaning as commerce. “It’s easy to think of this as an economic development project. The nuts and bolts are there – it’s tourism, entertainment, municipal offices, jobs – but this is about restoring something that was so essential to a generation,” he says, comparing the success Macon has had in reviving its downtown. “So this is really about restoring a sense of optimism, a little bit of nostalgia, but really restoring a promise of community-wide development that is mutually beneficial to all parts of the community.”