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“I feel optimistic. But do I have questions? Yes.” The West End Mall

 

A third developer takes a stab at reinventing the historic community centerpiece — with promises made, residents wait and watch expectantly

Story and Photos by Ada Wood

 

 

July 22, 2022

  The West End Issue

How we reported this story: This story is a followup to our previous reporting on the West End Mall and its development. Canopy Atlanta trains and pays community members, our Fellows, to learn reporting skills to better serve their community. Support our community-powered work today.

“SO YOU’RE PROBABLY AWARE WE’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE,” Davida Huntley, lifelong West End resident and former School Board District 2 candidate, said as she stepped up to the microphone. “What is it that we need to do as a community to guarantee that this goes full throttle?” 

 

On June 23, the woman was one of more than 150 residents at the Lee + White development, with questions for the third set of developers in as many years to express interest in redeveloping the West End Mall. West End Neighborhood Development requested and hosted a meet-and-greet with S. Andrew Katz, co-founder of The Prusik Group, and Meredith Marshall, co-founder and managing partner of BRP Companies. The Prusik Group signed a contract with the West End Mall owners last summer and hope to close on the sale later this year.

 

Residents in attendance were curious to hear how the Prusik Group’s vision for the site would be different from what they’ve heard before. At 12.5 acres, roughly half the size of Lee + White, the mall itself is the perfect place for opportunity — so long as it’s not overdeveloped in a way that prices out existing business owners and residents. 

 

“There are tenants that are well respected, that are welcomed within the community, and that we’d like to see continue to be part of this community,” Katz said. “However, when you have a site that’s this large, that’s sitting at the base of the AUC [Atlanta University Center], on top of mass transit…  there’s no question that it’s underutilized.”

 

However, with so much uncertainty, some tenants have left, leaving parts of the mall vacant, according to Katz. Meanwhile, the residents meeting the Prusik Group seemed cautiously optimistic, waiting and watching expectantly. 

S. Andrew Katz, co-founder of The Prusik Group.

Meredith Marshall, co-founder and managing partner of BRP Companies.

The Mall and The Developers

THREE YEARS AGO, Elevator City Partners, a development group including Ryan Gravel, the urban planner behind the BeltLine, and Donray Von, venture capitalist and West End native, had their own plans for the West End Mall

 

Elevator City’s approach was intentional about being different to most real estate development, with community centered plan-making rather than traditional proposals.

 

Elevator City sought out routine meetings with the community and a community benefits agreement (CBA) with terms set by West End Neighborhood Development. Suggested CBA terms included hiring within a 10-mile radius for the mall’s reconstruction. That’s according to Terry Ross, who holds leadership roles in all three organizations representing the neighborhood’s interests: West End Merchants Coalition, West End Neighborhood Development and Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU) T. “The previous guys, Elevator City Partners, they had the platinum package for community engagement,” Ross says. “They set the bar very high.”

 

But when it came time to fund the project in fall 2020 — whether with private sources or Opportunity Zone investments, according to Invest Atlanta — Elevator City couldn’t obtain enough financing in time to close the proposed deal. 

 

As a result, several West End Mall tenants closed their businesses as the mall’s owner was holding off on renewing leases, according to Katz. Then in spring 2021, New York-based Tishman Speyer, who previously wanted to partner with Elevator City, attempted to strike  their own deal, before that developer walked out of their contract just five months later.

 

Katz and Marshall have a touch point to the West End, being Marshall’s daughter who attends Spelman College. However, all of the Prusik Group’s past work has been out of state, in New York, though it concerns low-income and historically majority-minority areas like South Bronx, Harlem and Lower East Side, and includes affordable housing and other initiatives to develop responsibly.

 

“We are bringing the education we have from developing in New York and how what we know from up there could work here, and may not work here,” Katz said during the meet-and-greet.

 

Katz stressed that the Prusik Group’s vision for the West End Mall is different from Elevator City’s.

 

When Ross asked how a CBA plays into their plans, Katz said, “We have the original CBA that was agreed to [with Elevator City]. We’ve reviewed it, and we’re going to make sure that that is taken fully into account. And we’d like to do better than what the original agreement was.” 

 

Exactly how this CBA could be better wasn’t specified. But to that end, a resident of seven years and a graduate of Clark Atlanta University briefly debated with the Prusik Group during the Q&A portion, over how the developer could invest in the community beyond the West End Mall. They landed on a potential internship with the developer for AUC students.

 

And while Elevator City proposed two 16-story high rises that would tower over nearby churches and condos, Katz envisions something that’s more in line with the existing landscape and structures of the West End. Smaller, local tenants provide connection to the community with goods and services that residents need on the ground level, while larger “anchor” tenants fund the project and drive traffic on the second floor.  Katz believes this not only benefits the West End community but also makes the project more financially feasible.

 

“I want to highlight that we’re not coming to you with a plan that you’ve seen in the past — where you have these crazy high rises that don’t seem to fit within the community,” Katz said. “They also can’t financially work. And that’s something that we want to make sure doesn’t happen to us.”

A presentation of the proposed development, provided by WEND and made by The Prusik Group.

BY THE NUMBERS: 12.5 acres, up to 250,000 square feet of retail, and 650-900residential units (20-25 percent of them affordable housing) 

 

THE LAYOUT:

  • Floor one: Smaller local businesses, like nail salons and boutiques
  • Floor two: Larger “anchor tenants,” like a Target or Walmart — although the exact tenants have not been decided
  • Upper floors: Housing units, rental only, 1-3 bedroom —  ideal for AUC students and young families
  • Parking: Moved to the back of the layout, so that storefronts face Ralph David Abernathy and Lee streets

 

The Community Response

ROSS, THE MEMBER OF West End Merchants Coalition, West End Neighborhood Development and NPU-T, says at this point it’s all about “getting everyone to manage their expectations” and waiting for “something concrete.”

 

“If the majority of the people are happy, then I think we will have done a good job,” Ross said. “What we want to do is collaborate with them so that we hit the mark as close as possible.”

 

When residents were given the microphone, they requested bike access and paths, a dog park, greenspaces, pet services, and a grocery store. 

 

The Prusik Group says a grocery store is already in their plan — the single idea that everyone in the room wanted to see come to fruition, based on how they clapped and cheered. But as residents proposed specific tenants like a Starbucks, Katz said, “I think we will do everything in our power to deliver you the best possible development. I cannot promise you, we’re gonna make every single person happy.”

 

“I feel optimistic,” says Celestine Beverly, a Mall West End tenant of 40 years with Dendera Cosmetics. “But do I have questions? Yes.” 

 

It can be tiresome to give community input to one developer, only to build a relationship with another developer shortly thereafter. Beverly wishes that she and others can be better kept in the loop. “This has been up for sale several times, many times,” she says. “The tenants were not notified properly in the past, and that’s not really fair to the tenants. They hold our lease, and we hold their rent.”

 

Beverly would like to be able to continue working from the mall  once the revitalization is  complete. But she wants to be assured that neither small business owners like her nor frequent customers will become priced out, to the point where renting space for a business or shopping at the stores is no longer accessible to residents.

 

“There are people that come to that mall that have the best hearts. They may not have high incomes, but you can rely on them,” Beverly said. 

 

Katz would like to see many of the current businesses transfer to the new mall. “We have tenants in the mall and we need to address their concerns. We want to keep them open as long as they can stay open,” he said during the meeting. “And when they do have to close, we can relocate them. Some of those businesses, I’m sure will come and stay and be part of this new project.”

 

But as the Prusik Group continued to stress how nothing is set in stone, residents like Beverly didn’t need to be told twice.


“Well, if we get priced out of the [mall], then naturally I’ve got to go,” she said.

 

(Disclosure: Terry Ross was a member of our West End Community Advisory Board.)

The June 23 “Meet the Developers” event hosted by WEND at Lee + White.

One resident, who lives near by and was concerned about the new structure blocking her view, reviews the renderings with the developers.

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