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Supporters hope plan will revive area

NORCROSS - Jin Ho Chung has a special interest in what happens to the massive OFS fiber-optic plant that sprawls across 170 acres beside Interstate 85 at Jimmy Carter

Boulevard.

His family bought the Brookhollow Village shopping center across the street one year ago.

With that in mind, he's happy a national company wants to turn most of the industrial campus into a mixed-use village with mid-rise buildings holding nearly 2,000 condos and a host of offices and shops.

Chung thinks it will create a rising tide for property values along the Jimmy Carter corridor, some of which has struggled with crime, traffic and urban blight.

"We weren't sure if we would hold it or sell it," Chung said of his family's 50,000-square-foot retail center, which includes a Pier One Imports home decor store. "Now we are excited about what is happening in the area."

Some shopping center owners fear they will lose tenants because of increased competition from the new shops that would open as part of the development proposed by Preferred Real Estate Investments, but Chung thinks the positives will outweigh any negatives.

"I did a little research on the company," Chung said. "When they come to the community, they help improve the community, not just their own project.

"Hopefully, other people will follow their example and improve and remodel their properties and make it like a new Perimeter Mall area."

Preferred Real Estate Investments, based in a Philadelphia suburb, has a contract to buy 70 acres from OFS BrightWave.

Plans filed late Thursday with the Gwinnett County Planning Division show Preferred could eventually acquire up to 140 acres, which it would reshape into a dense village with seven-story buildings where condos and lofts are located above shops, while adjacent parking decks accommodate residents.

The preliminary plans show the development's first phase, consisting of 76 acres, would include the dwellings and three retail buildings, while a hotel and conference center with 405 rooms on five stories would go at the corner of Jimmy Carter Boulevard and I-85.

The hotel would be one of the largest in Gwinnett County, right behind the Atlanta Marriott Gwinnett Place, which is the tallest structure in the county and has 410 rooms on 17 floors.

The second phase would cover 66 acres, and would include more condos situated around a mini-park, as well as retail and restaurant space.

All told, the development could have 1,705 lofts and condos, 658,000 square feet of retail space and 150,000 square feet of offices, according to the concept plans.

That amount of retail space would be about half the size of Discover Mills mall at Sugarloaf Parkway, or equal to about three Wal-Mart Supercenters.

Later this month Gwinnett County commissioners will consider whether the industrial site deserves mixed-use redevelopment status as requested by Preferred.

If the designation is granted, the company will return later this summer with more concrete plans that commissioners must sign off on. Although the action is technically not a rezoning, it goes through the same process with commissioners holding a public hearing before voting.

Commissioners created the mixed-use redevelopment category a few years ago to encourage the revitalization of troubled properties. Those that comply can mesh together different types of development, like shops and residences, instead of leaving a land buffer between them. It also allows higher density development.

A message left with a local attorney handling the case for Preferred was not returned Friday, but the company has said it will consult with area businesses and residents before making a final decision on how to develop the tract that is seen each day by thousands of motorists on I-85.

While part of its campus will be demolished, OFS will keep its corporate offices on the site, and it is making adjustments to its plant so it can continue making fiber-optic cable there.

The mixed-use redevelopment application says the company will continue producing fiber-optic line on the property "for the foreseeable future."

Chuck Warbington, who heads a group of business owners working to improve the commercial district between Norcross and Lilburn, said the OFS redevelopment would jump-start the process and help lure other redevelopment projects.

"I think this will even help get things going on Indian Trail (Road) and Beaver Ruin (Road)," said Warbington, executive director of the Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District.

Warbington wears another hat, though. He is also a county planning commissioner.

From that perspective, he said questions remain about how vehicles would access the development.

"Obviously it has a lot of merit, but I think the transportation aspect will be a huge piece," Warbington said. "OK. We're going to have a nice development, but how are we going to get the cars in and out, and what about the trailer trucks coming in and out of the industrial area?"

Some compare the plans to Atlantic Station, but on a smaller scale.

That project transformed a barren industrial site in Atlanta into a mini-city with restaurants, condos, offices and shops.

And just like Atlantic Station, which is located beside the Downtown Connector, the OFS property occupies a prominent spot beside a regional artery: I-85.

The development proposed for OFS is similar to what would be seen in the Buckhead or Midtown sections of Atlanta, according to planners.