Gwinnett County leaders are grappling with how to give new life to the parts of Gwinnett Place Mall that they finalized their purchase of earlier this year, but they are not the first people to have to deal with how to revitalize a dead or dying mall, according to an expert on the subject.

Georgia Tech professor Ellen Durham-Jones said during the Metro Atlanta Redevelopment Summit on Thursday that more than one-third of shopping malls in America died before the COVID-19 pandemic, and that issue was exacerbated by the pandemic. As a result, many private sector developers and communities were already having to come up with ways to reuse their empty malls long before Gwinnett County took ownership of Gwinnett Place.

Durham-Jones said early efforts to retrofit dead or dying malls focused on reducing automobile dependency, communities are beginning to expect more from these revitalization projects.

“Now, communities are asking, ‘OK, while you’re reducing automobile dependency, what are you doing for public health to support an aging population, to support equity, jobs and how are you addressing climate change,” she said.

“The retrofits have become so much more ambitious and better designed.”

One of the issues that Durham-Jones said efforts to revitalize dead suburban shopping malls is that they have to address challenges that many of the suburbs were never designed to take into account in the first place. Some of these issues include climate change, an aging population, an overabundance of underperforming and aging commercial properties, social infrastructure and a need for walkability between residential areas and commercial areas.

Durham-Jones said the pandemic has also highlighted a “loneliness epidemic.”

Durham-Jones even gave examples of retrofitting spaces — not all of which involved malls — Gwinnett could to look in its back yard to come up with ways to repurpose Gwinnett Place Mall. One of those examples that she pointed to is Peachtree Corners’ redevelopment of Atlanta Technology Park, where some of its office buildings were torn down and replaced with housing as well as multi-use trails.

“I think what’s been especially clever about this trail system is it planned to extend beyond the 500-acre office park into the community and (Peachtree Corners Community Development Director Diana Wheeler) is deliberately putting trailheads at sites she’d like to see developed and property owners who donate land to the trail system are automatically allowed a triple density bonus,” Durham-Jones said.

Another example Durham-Jones pointed to of how shopping mall space can be repurposed is how Vanderbilt Healthcare was brought in to occupy the top floor of One Hundred Oaks Mall in Nashville, Tenn.

“The same developer is now doing the same thing at Northlake Mall with Emory Healthcare,” she said.

An additional idea Durham-Jones highlighted is repurposing old shopping malls to include social infrastructure, or capital, that fits demands for better equity. Gwinnett County is in the process of conducting an equity study to determine what needs of the community could be addressed through redevelopment of the Gwinnett Place Mall property.

“Atlanta has had the highest percentage increase in the suburbanization of poverty,” Durham-Jones said. “Now, while today’s suburbs are far more diverse than the 1950’s stereotype, rich and poor suburbanites remain highly segregated while trust and social capital are at an all time low.

“We have tremendous opportunities to take advantage of underperforming retail spaces to rehab them with much needed social infrastructure.”

Some examples Durham-Jones highlighted of how space at former shopping malls can be used to increase equitable access to amenities include moves as simple as converting some of the parking lots into green space for recreation and social gathering. She said the site of a former strip mall that included a Target in Sandy Springs was cleared and redeveloped with a city hall building as well as a performing arts center, housing, shops and a town green.

But, that doesn’t mean the parts of Gwinnett Place that the county has purchased — there are four anchor spaces at the mall that are still privately owned — necessarily have to be bulldozed to meet social infrastructure needs.

An example in Texas that Duham-Jones pointed to was a former Walmart that was converted into a public library. Much of its parking lot was de-paved and turned into a plaza and gathering space.

Another example in Austin, Texas, is the former Highland Mall. That dead mall is being redeveloped as a mixed-use property with a community college campus in the old mall building and office, residential and retail uses as well as parks and trails in the mall’s parking lot areas.

“We can build more social infrastructure by simply simply re-inhabiting the now dead boxes,” she said.

Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District Executive Director Joe Allen said he found the information Durham-Jones presented to be interesting because it illustrated that Gwinnett Place is not an isolated case.

The CID is working with the county to develop a revitalization strategy for redeveloping the mall property that will be used in tandem with the county’s equity study. Allen was pitching a survey for the revitalization strategy during the summit.

“Malls are dying, as she mentioned, across the nation,” Allen said. “More and more are closing, and the good news for us is, because of the county’s acquisition of a good portion of that mall, we’re now going to kind of be ahead of the game.

“So, that’s why we’re all working together to develop that revitalization strategy so that we can keep the momentum building.”

The survey for the Gwinnett Place revitalization strategy can be found at www.gwinnettplacetobe.com.

I'm a Crawford Long baby who grew up in Marietta and eventually wandered to the University of Southern Mississippi for college. Earned a BA in journalism (double minor in political science and history). Previously worked in Florida and Clayton County.

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