Months after Gwinnett County purchased 37-year-old Gwinnett Place Mall, the signs of years of neglect can be easily found.
Sections of the roof, damaged by water leaking from the mall’s roof in recent years, were missing with the roof frame visible to visitors.
The mall was filled with vacant storefronts, but production crews were building sets for a movie that will be filmed in its vacant spaces; TV and film productions have seemingly been a bigger activity at the mall in recent years than shopping itself
Gwinnett Place is a dead mall, but U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, D-Ga., used its deteriorating interior on Wednesday as the backdrop to announce legislation she has filed to help communities revitalize their dying malls.
“This is part of an ongoing effort to ensure that the unique needs or Gwinnett and Forsyth counties, and suburban communities all across America are being met,” Bourdeaux told reporters. “One of the big challenges we face, as we see here, are shopping malls that are dying or abandoned and need to be redeveloped or revitalized.
“This program that we are introducing means that local governments like Gwinnett County will have access to capital to invest in transformative community projects and drive economic growth and job opportunities in suburban areas.”
The Grayfield Redevelopment and Economic Advancement Through Effective Repurposing Revitalization Shopping Centers Act of 2021 — known as the GREATER Revitalization Shopping Centers Act of 2021 for short — was introduced in the U.S. house on Tuesday.
It has been assigned to the House Financial Services Committee.
Bourdeaux said the bill is part of her FutureFit The Suburbs agenda, which is designed to ensure the needs of suburban areas such as Gwinnett County are being by getting federal resources to local communities.
The bill would authorize $50 million a year in fiscal years 2022 and 2023 to support grant subsidies for mall redevelopment efforts.
“This legislation will build on Section 108 of the Community Development Block Grant Program,” Bourdeaux said. “What it does is it offers grants to enhance guaranteed loans and increase the viability of redevelopment projects for places just like this.”
Bourdeaux said dying malls can be repurposed in a variety of ways, such as turning them into corporate spaces, mixed-use spaces or transit hubs.
Gwinnett County has a transit transfer station on the edge of the Gwinnett Place Mall property and county officials have been gradually assembling land parcels in recent years with plans to expand transit operations at that location.
“The possibilities for Gwinnett are significant, but one thing is for sure,” Bourdeaux said. “These sorts of projects require the public and private buy-in and substantial time and financial commitments from multiple stakeholders.
“Gwinnett County has taken an important first step in turning Gwinnett Place, the driver of economic growth and job opportunity for our community, by purchasing a large portion of the mall. It is my hope that the GREATER Revitalization of Shopping Centers Act will provide communities like Gwinnett with the resources they need to successfully jumpstart successful developments on these sites.”
Gwinnett is still a long way from deciding what should be done with the Gwinnett Place Mall property. The county does not own the Macy’s, Beauty Master, Mega Mart or former Sears anchors so whatever plans are developed have to incorporate whatever plans the owners of those spaces have for their properties.
The county has launched a redevelopment equity and inclusion study to make sure the redevelopment plans take the needs of the diverse community groups around the mall area into account. Meanwhile, the Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District is working on a livable centers initiative study for the site.
Both studies are expected to include community input.
“Really, I just want this to be a premiere destination for our region,” Hendrickson said. “I don’t have a specific project. I really want it to be functional and useful for the community ... I don’t want it to be another cookie cutter mixed-use development.
“I really want it to stand out and I want it to really put Gwinnett County on the map, but as Congresswoman Bourdeaux said, this is really about allowing the community to drive what they want this site to be and we really want to take that into account.”
Gwinnett Place CID Executive Director Joe Allen said the county’s purchase of the mall has already caught the interest of developers who are interested in being part of plans to revitalize and repurpose the site.
The CID has been trying to attract investors to help redevelop surrounding shopping centers, such as Mall Corners and Sante Fe Mall, but the struggles at the mall over the years have been a stumbling block that has cooled interest from developers.
Now there is a “halo effect” where revitalization of those surrounding shopping centers is being considered again, according to Allen.
“Let’s just say we’re seeing a lot more renewed interest from those property owners saying ‘Hey, what can we do with this aging 1980’s vintage large shopping center’,” Allen said. “So, it’s really gotten them interested in looking at some different plans.
“We’ve also seen a lot more developers and interested parties, where we tried to reach out to them in the past now they’re coming to use and saying, ‘Hey, with the county making this investment, we believe great things are going to be happening here. We want to be a part of that.’”
But, Allen and Hendrickson agreed that the legislation Bourdeaux will be a major tool for the county to improve not just the mall, but the surrounding area as well if the bill becomes law.
“I think it’s significant and it really will allow us to scale,” Hendrickson said. “Having additional funding from the federal government allows us to free up local dollars for other projects, so it not only allows us to scale but it really allows us to take a deep dive into some of the challenges surrounding the mall as well and take a look at what some of the other infrastructure needs surrounding the mall redevelopment site.”