Empty houses used for police training
Cops practice while details worked out on development

LAWRENCEVILLE - A developer who plans to turn a now-empty subdivision into a shopping center has applied for permission to begin work on the land.

The former residents of Essex Square, a 21-home subdivision next to The Avenue Webb Gin, sold their homes to Strategic Realty Group for more than $11 million and left their houses in December.

Ajay Singadia, a Group member, said he is still working out details with the anchors that will eventually fill the shopping center, but said he is in talks with J.C. Penney and other retailers and restaurants to locate in the Webb Gin Crossing development on Ga. Highway 124.

"I think this is going to be something that will be a really positive impact for the area," he said. "There actually is a lot that is not there yet. Some pretty well-known chains."

On Jan. 22, Singadia requested development permits from the Gwinnett County planning department.

Planning Director Kathy Holland said members of her department will review the plans, which show five buildings ranging from 10,000 to 104,000 square feet and 952 parking spaces, before allowing the developer to go forward with the project.

The original plans lacked a few details that are usually required, Holland said, meaning they will likely have to make updates before receiving permission to do things like remove trees.

In the meantime, the houses have not sat empty.

Det. Dean Boone, with the Snellville Police Department, said his 11-member Special Response Team has used the homes to practice entry on for delivering high-risk search warrants. He also said Gwinnett police have considered using the structures for practice, and Singadia said he has gotten requests from the Gwinnett County Fire Department, as well.

"It's a rare opportunity," Boone said of the chance to work in real houses with varied floor plans so close to home. "A lot of jurisdictions are trying to get in there."

Boone said his department is trying to plan another drill in the subdivision before the houses are demolished.

About 75 percent of the homes there will be destroyed, Singadia said, while the rest could be moved to mobile home parks. That will take place in the next two months, he said.

Singadia said the entire project should be finished in the spring of 2009.

The 34-acre project is the first time an entire subdivision has been sold to make way for commercial growth in the county. Residents who used to live in the development said in the past that they were bittersweet about the project, but felt squeezed by The Avenue Webb Gin when it was built.

Webb Gin Crossing will not connect to The Avenue, and will be built like a more typical shopping center, but will adhere to the 124 overlay standards that dictate architectural materials and building designs.

"The Avenue is much more of a community center. This is more of a power center," Singadia said. "It will have a lot more common type stores for really the masses."