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Developer buys vacant retail center

DULUTH - Two nearly empty shopping centers in the heart of the Gwinnett Place commercial district could be replaced with high-rise condos and upscale stores.

A prominent developer who bought the 42 acres on Pleasant Hill Road for $24.7 million said the buildings will be knocked down and replaced with a "mini Atlantic Station."

That successful and oft-cited mixed-use development turned a polluted industrial site beside Atlanta's Downtown Connector into a beehive of offices, shops condos and houses.

"We want something unique and upscale," Wayne Mason said Thursday as he stood in front of an empty Kroger store.

A county official said the redevelopment would lift the business district that straddles Interstate 85.

"It will most definitely help," said County Commissioner Lorraine Green, whose district includes Duluth.

A former Gwinnett County chairman who has made a fortune in real estate since the 1960s, Mason bought the land in conjunction with several Asian investors.

It sits in a triangle formed by Pleasant Hill Road, Satellite Boulevard and Old Norcross Road.

The two retail centers contained within - Gwinnett Prado and Gwinnett Station - have seen their fortunes sag since their major tenants left.

Most recently, Kroger departed Gwinnett Station, which fronts Pleasant Hill Road, after the grocery chain built a new store a few blocks away on Steve Reynolds Boulevard.

Gwinnett Prado, which is not easily visible from Pleasant Hill Road because it sits in a dip, was hamstrung in the '90s when Target and The Sports Authority moved to new locations about a quarter-mile away.

Numerous smaller tenants remain, although two are sizable: Bally Total Fitness and OfficeMax.

After The Sports Authority and Target left, they kept leasing their former space so no competitors could occupy it. Doing so robbed Gwinnett Prado of anchor stores that generate foot traffic for smaller tenants, helping turn the retail center into a ghost town and its parking lot into an asphalt desert.

Anger over such tactics and their ill effects previously caused some revitalization proponents to push for county regulations that would ban retailers from locking up store space for the sole purpose of keeping it shuttered.

The leases held by Target and Sports Authority were terminated shortly before Mason bought the land in April, said the former owner.

Developer Emory Morsberger, who chaired the county's Revitalization Task Force, said the land's purchase by Mason bodes well for the Gwinnett Place district.

Morsberger, who is a friend of Mason, thinks whatever the Snellville resident does with the property will help revitalization efforts.

"When Wayne gets involved in something, things start happening. He's a mover and some of those dead places over there need some movement."

Filling empty buildings or getting rid of them is important to the well-being of a commercial district, Morsberger said.

"Empty space in the middle of a business district is kind of like having a dead fish in the middle of a fish bowl," he said. "It changes your perception of how a fish bowl looks and feels and messes up the other fish."

Almost 75 percent of the retail centers' combined 422,000 square feet of floor space is vacant, according to a property deed filed when Mason bought all but 6 acres of the property in April.

Green said the redevelopment Mason promises would deliver a big boost for Gwinnett Place, which the county targeted for revitalization.

"I think that a project of this size can single-handedly renew the Gwinnett Place area," Green said. "It has a potential of creating a whole new community there."

Green recalled when the two retail centers were "brand-spanking new."

"It's been very sad to see their decline over the last 10 years or so," she said.

The shopping centers are surrounded by several smaller, road-front parcels that Mason did not buy. One holds an empty Blockbuster video store that is supposed to become an Asian-American bank, said Mason, who did not rule out pursuing some of the tracts.

The land will not be redeveloped overnight, he said.

Ground should be broken on the first phase in late 2007, with actual construction starting in 2008. How fast the site builds out will depend on demand for the high-rise condos and offices Mason envisions.

Standing in front of the empty Kroger on Thursday, Mason said the parking lot and the earth beneath it will be scooped out and a below-ground parking deck installed.

A Home Depot located in the Gwinnett Place area has already asked about relocating to the new development, but Mason said it does not fit his plans.

"We'll tear all this down," Mason said. "This is a total redevelopment, what we have in mind, but it is going to take a little time to put a deal of this magnitude together.

"It doesn't happen overnight. It took them 10 years to do Atlantic Station."

The exact mix of retail, office and residences will be decided in coming months, said Mason who also owns prime land in Braselton, Atlanta and Savannah.

Mason said he has already spoken to Gwinnett officials about creating a tax allocation district that would blanket the $600 million project.

A tax allocation district would let county commissioners issue bonds to finance infrastructure improvements within the district, like roads, sidewalks or parks, and then use additional taxes generated by the new development to pay off the loans.

Voters will decide on giving county leaders the power to create tax allocation districts in November. Proponents say the districts would aid revitalization efforts by funding infrastructure needed to support redevelopment in struggling areas, like the Jimmy Carter Boulevard corridor.

Mason said he met Wednesday with 14 businessmen from Seoul, Korea, who are investing in the project. Other investors are Chinese, he said.

Because of a favorable currency exchange rate, they can get a greater return when investing their money in American projects.

Mason is getting the ball rolling on the development, but he said the Asian and Asian-American backers have the option to buy him out at any time and take over.

Although the project will not be geared toward one ethnicity or race, Mason said he and the investors think it will tap into the growing Asian-American population in the Duluth area and its buying power.

As for the condos, young professionals and older adults looking to downsize their homes would favor them, he said. Their close proximity to shopping, dining and entertainment venues would be a selling point.

The same land was pursued by another developer whose deal fell through. His preliminary concept plan showed 11 high-rise towers on the property.

"This is the real deal," Mason said.