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Decatur, Ga., Mall Being Demolished for New, Mixed-Use Development

Mon July 01, 2024 - Southeast Edition
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

EDENS will choose retailers over the next 18 to 24 months and hopes to keep a balance of local, regional and national shops
Rendering courtesy of EDENS
EDENS will choose retailers over the next 18 to 24 months and hopes to keep a balance of local, regional and national shops

A crowd of more than 100 metro Atlanta leaders and citizens gathered June 26 to cheer on the demolition of Decatur, Ga.'s old North DeKalb Mall and learn about the new mixed-use development, Lulah Hills, which will be opened in its place.

"We are here today because Lulah Hills represents and provides clear and compelling evidence to all who may disagree that across DeKalb, this county has been reborn, revitalized, [and] re-energized," said DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond.

The new $850 million development will create 1,700 multifamily units, 100 townhomes and a 150-room hotel.

Thurmond said that green spaces will be created around Lulah Hills as well as the extension of multiuse trails to connect the development with Peachtree Creek Trail and Medlock Park.

In doing so, the developers will take advantage of Lulah Hills' proximity to Emory University, the adjacent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) headquarters and the upcoming Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Egleston hospital, due to open Sept. 29.

EDENS, a national real estate company, with an office in Atlanta, is driving the transformation.

Ahead of the wall-shattering spectacle, several community leaders donned "Lulah Hills" baseball caps and took sledgehammers to the mall's foundation. Their swings were largely symbolic as demolition work began two days earlier and will continue over the next six months, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

One of those leaders was Dorian DeBarr, president of Decide Dekalb, who led efforts to grant EDENS up to $70 million in tax savings for infrastructure improvements at the site over the next 15 years.

A Dekalb native, DeBarr said he grew up shopping at North DeKalb Mall, and later took his three daughters to the shopping center's AMC movie theater. He emphasized the prominent level of community engagement that went into the project and noted that most people seem excited to see the mall finally being redeveloped.

"You're talking about such a large site in the middle of vibrant communities," DeBarr told the Atlanta news publication. "It's just this void … a huge void. From the standpoint of the community, I think, ultimately, we'd like to see the entirety of our community at its highest and best use."

The entire Lulah Hills project is expected to be complete in 2033.

North DeKalb Mall Was Once Atlanta's Finest

Long past the excitement of its 1965 opening, North DeKalb Mall faced dwindling popularity over the last decade to the point that by 2019, 30 of its 74 stores were vacant.

Decades after its heyday as the first enclosed mall in metro Atlanta, the 73-acre mall has been largely unused since its closure during the pandemic. It joined an increasing number of shopping centers that have similarly struggled over the last two decades, creating a "dead mall" phenomenon across the country.

EDENS purchased the property in 2021 and received the green light for a new mixed-use development to revitalize the site. Up until its recent demolition work, the mostly empty space provided parking for trucks and Emory employees.

The developers previously modernized DeKalb's Toco Hills shopping center, where they improved drainage, re-roofed buildings, redesigned the parking lot and created a welcoming outdoor environment.

Herbert Ames, EDENS' managing director, told reporters June 26 that the company learned from the Toco Hills project and was interested in further DeKalb developments due to the area's affluent neighborhoods and healthcare boom.

"When you think about linking our site with one of the major job centers in our region, that's an incredibly powerful thing, and I think it's going to be a great, great benefit to our community neighborhoods at the end of the day," he said.

Development May Help Reduce Area's Traffic

The first phase of the transformation of the mall site into a large multi-use development will prioritize upgrades like stormwater improvements, utility relocation and the mall's demolition, with a completion set for 2025, the same year the first retailers will open, the Journal-Constitution reported. The first mixed-use spaces will become available in 2026.

Ten percent of the residential units at Lulah Hills will be reserved as designated workforce housing at below-market prices.

Although excited by what Lulah Hills could offer, some people living in the area have expressed mixed feelings over the potential for increased traffic, according to the Atlanta newspaper.

"But traffic is already horrible, and maybe this will contain it somewhat," said Shelley Rose, who lives in nearby North Druid Valley.

Rose added that she looks forward to finally accessing trails that can take her across Peachtree Creek to reach Medlock Park's nature preserve.

Michelle Long Spears, a DeKalb District 2 commissioner, believes the project's mixed-use nature will help reduce peak traffic demand. In addition to the trail system, the project includes required roadway and transit stop expansion.

EDENS Currently Choosing Retailers for Lulah Hills

The Journal Constitution noted that the Dekalb County Board of Commissioners rezoned the property in 2022 and created a tax allocation district (TAD) directing increased property tax revenue back into the site rather than the entire county. The money can be put toward public infrastructure and amenities within the district's borders.

Lulah Hills marks Decide Dekalb's first venture at utilizing a TAD for infrastructure improvements, DeBarr said. He called the program an exciting tool for development.

Thurmond praised Decide DeKalb's decision to reimburse EDENS for up to $70 million in infrastructure costs. He added that these early investments help prevent breakdowns later on, as happened to the city of Atlanta in May when multiple water main breaks cost businesses millions of dollars.

"What goes underground determines what goes above ground," Thurmond said.

Both EDENS and DeKalb leaders held town halls and community meetings to gather input. Theresa Same, DeKalb Cross-Neighborhoods Council chair, led neighbors in conversations over the development's local impact.

Ames said EDENS will choose retailers over the next 18 to 24 months and hopes to keep a balance of local, regional and national shops. Project outlines show a large central building at nearly 50,000 sq. ft., an ideal size for a grocery store. Currently, a Publix supermarket is located across the street from the mall property.

North DeKalb Mall's adjacent Marshalls and AMC movie theater will stay open throughout the renovations with parking still available, although the theater will downsize from 16 to 11 screens.

"It will be a transformational project in the middle of a community that has been waiting for more amenities and more access," DeBarr told the Journal-Constitution. "All of that ties to mirror quality of life improvements, taking a void and turning it into an asset for the community."

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