West End Mall’s uncertain future

 

As COVID-19 threatens plans for the neighborhood’s Black commercial center, businesses hang in the balance

 

By Brent Brewer, Ayana Clarke, and Adrian Coleman
Additional reporting by Naya Clark and DeMarco Williams

  The West End Issue

Illustration by George Galbreath

This story was produced by Canopy Atlanta’s West End Fellows, neighborhood residents who gained reporting skills through a six-week training program to tell stories about their community. Learn more about how we produced this issue.

IN A WAREHOUSE OFF LEE STREET, Aiyetoro Kamau labels tubs of shea butter and places them into empty cardboard boxes. His eyes dart back and forth as he carefully checks the contents against each invoice, and then seals the boxes with packaging tape. Next, he fills a postal envelope with different varieties of black soap before he tucks in the invoice, seals the package shut, and smooths out the shipping label.

Every shipped package validates Kamau’s decision to keep his business, Afrikan Djeli, in West End, home to his most loyal customer base.

Because of the pandemic, his all-natural black soaps have become a hot seller, as have his shea and cocoa butter products, which moisturize hands chapped from frequent washing. So much so that he’s pivoted away from in-person retail to online wholesale and developed a supply chain that places his soap brand, Erzuli (Great Earth Mother), in both small co-ops like Little Five Points’ Sevananda to larger grocery chains like Whole Foods.

Checkered amid the neat stacks of his warehouse’s packaged products are large boxes that will, for now, remain empty. They aren’t for shipping. They’re in case he has to move again. 

Kamau’s move to the Lee Street warehouse marked his third location in the neighborhood after being displaced by other property owners near West End Mall, a shopping center that, during its inception in the 1970s, spurred thriving economic opportunity for Black business owners during the era of white flight. Past moves forced Kamau to pare down the offerings of Afrikan Djeli, which started out in the 1990s as a vibrant arts and culture center and import shop in a two-story converted theater on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard.

Whether Kamau can put those moving boxes away likely will be determined not by his own products’ success, but by the eventual redevelopment of the mall site one mile away. An ambitious plan to transform West End Mall into offices, hotels, retail, and housing—with inclusion, affordability and preservation of current businesses as key pillars of the vision—recently stalled, as COVID-19 threatened their funding. As part of the plan, the developers sought to build affordable housing units in a neighborhood with rising costs of living and would pour in new tax dollars that eventually would fund initiatives led by the area’s community improvement district.  

For Kamau, the mall’s unstable future will determine whether he can remain a part of a neighborhood defined by the economic opportunities offered to Black business owners. 

IN JULY 2019, CITY OFFICIALS, developers, West End landlords, and neighborhood leaders crowded into a Shrine of the Black Madonna meeting room to learn about a more than $400 million plan to redevelop the 12.5 acre West End Mall site into a retail, residential, and cultural destination.

After the presentation, Elevator City Partners—a development group cofounded by Ryan Gravel, the urban planner behind the BeltLine, and Donray Von, a Los Angeles–based venture capitalist with West End roots—offered attendees the chance to ask questions about its idea to rezone the property for two 16-story high rises that would tower over adjacent church spires and condominiums.

Sitting near city officials and the developers, some residents who belonged to West End Neighborhood Development (WEND) were agreeable, having heard the pitch before in a prior series of meetings. Following large developments like downtown’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the redevelopment of Turner Field in Summerhill that ignored residents’ concerns, city planners developed a new set of neighborhood engagement tools known as the Atlanta Community Engagement Playbook, which acknowledged how officials had not closely listened to Atlanta’s residents in the past and sought to learn from the lessons of those breakdowns.

Gravel would formulate Elevator City Partner’s vision of commercial real estate and economic development from those community conversations. The mall redevelopment was supposed to be a beacon for a fundamentally different approach in real estate development: Community centered plan-making rather than cookie cutter proposals.

Having had multiple opportunities to voice their opinions directly to Gravel and Von, the WEND members were quiet on this night about the standard fare for development meetings in Atlanta—except for Susan Lasby.

The 12-year resident, who bought a quaint bungalow for cheap right after the Great Recession, disrupted the evening’s gentility with a question about potential problems of gentrification, the lack of a transportation plan for the inevitable increase in traffic, the height and scale of the construction. 

Renderings of the Mall redevelopment released in January, courtesy of Elevator City Partners.

“I’m completely in favor of redoing the West End Mall, but it needs to meet the community’s historic standards,” she later explained. “My biggest concern is that West End Mall is a functional mall. It’s alive and rented out. It’s not a dead or dying mall … So basically, they want to replace a bunch of viable stores that poorer people may need for other stores that new residents, and people outside our neighborhood want.”

Some residents have previously expressed concern that recent development projects in the West End area—such as the BeltLine’s Westside Trail, the Met in nearby Adair Park, and Lee + White—have contributed to home prices in West End more than doubling, according to Zillow data and have threatened to displace legacy residents, small businesses, churches, and arts and cultural institutions.

That included Kamau and Afrikan Djeli.

After missing a small window in 2005 to raise enough capital to purchase his spot across from the West End Mall, he was displaced by a new owner with approved financing who had aspirations of building a hotel in that space. Afrikan Djeli was forced out of the heart of the Ralph David Abernathy Blvd. commercial corridor. “My success is dependent on the stability of the leased space,” says Kamau. “I can be in one space but, if the ownership changes, my rent may go up, and I will have to move.”  

With an even larger development proposed, Kamau worries about being displaced once again. He wasn’t at the Shrine that night to advocate for himself or his business. Even if he wanted to, he likely wouldn’t have been able to attend: Residents were turned away at the door due to overcrowding, leaving some to mill about outside the building, sharing their mall redevelopment concerns with each other.

If Kamau were inside, he likely wouldn’t have had the chance to ask critical questions. When Lasby asked hers, the event’s moderator, WEND’s zoning committee chair Walter Slaton, responded, “The developers are only fielding questions about zoning issues.” Her concerns went unaddressed. 

WHEN THE WEST END MALL first opened in 1972, Black Atlantans no longer had to head north to Buckhead for their shopping. West End’s mall had a tenant mix that succeeded by catering to its demographic, including a number of services like hair and nail salons and a focus on apparel. A community room hosted events where residents could get assistance with healthcare or taxes. Not only was the mall a rare center of commerce south of I-20, it created retail job opportunities previously unavailable to Black residents and students from the Atlanta University Center.

Richard Dent, the longtime president of HT Group, the company that for many years owned the mall, was often the person responsible for answering questions and addressing concerns from residents. An unofficial ambassador of West End’s broader commercial real estate interests, he was often asked to weigh in on community issues such as the latest large-scale developments in the neighborhood.

Residents of West End—often through WEND—played an outsized role in shaping some of the developments. Joanne Rhone, who has lived in West End since 1970, worked hard to get her neighbors to support developments that served the community, and fight ones that were not in its best interests. After Mayor Andrew Young pushed for West End Plaza in the 1980s—a proposed $100 million mixed-use project near the MARTA station that included 840 condominiums, a Chinese restaurant, and a department store stocked with imported products—residents pushed back because it didn’t provide adequate employment opportunities or housing plans that served the community’s needs. Eventually, WEND members successfully lobbied for a zoning ordinance that required a neighborhood vote for any new buildings that varied from design rules, like being too tall—a tool that can help slow down development deals and force greater community input.

Left: Aerial image of West End, circa 1940. Right: Aerial image of the West End Mall, 1972. Credit: The Sprawling of Atlanta: Visualizing Metropolitan Area Change, 1940s to Present, Georgia State University Library.

“Don’t just give us something that’s going to make $1 for you or padding somebody else’s pocket,” Rhone said. “Find out what we need in the community that everybody can benefit from.”

As the years passed, right up to 2011—the year that Dent retired from his role managing the West End Mall—the center became an anchor for a larger ecosystem of local businesses from street vendors to vegan restaurants. Kamau’s Afrikan Djeli, the cultural center, benefitted from that energy.

The mall property became “probably the most desirable piece of land in the city” given its proximity to I-20, MARTA, and the Atlanta airport, Dent said. He suspected the renewed interest would come with proposals for mixed-use developments that may not be right fit for West End.

“The economics of building what they’re talking about building can easily eliminate small and minority businesses. That’s my concern . . . There are minority businesses out there that should be approached to come in and be around here. [New owners] got to be willing to reach out and do that.”

But what Dent wanted didn’t necessarily happen. After years of running a vibrant cultural center at the Afrikan Djeli across the street from the mall, Kamau was forced to pack up his products and move elsewhere in West End.

THE 933 LEE STREET ADDRESS still etched on Kamau’s Afrikan Djeli business cards was supposed to be his business’s “forever home.” He rented a house for his family one block over near Rose Circle Park to be closer to the 13,000-square-foot warehouse at the corner of Lee and White streets. 

But the property’s owner had other plans for the space along the Beltline’s Westside Trail. It would become Lee + White, a large development of breweries and businesses that would serve as a precursor to issues over the mall’s proposed redevelopment.

Lee + White, purchased for close to $10 million in 2015, sold for four times as much to Ackerman & Co. and MDH Partners three years later. In June 2020, Ackerman & Co. and MDH Partners released a new master plan and renderings for the $85 million second phase of its Lee + White development. The expansion is set to include loft offices, a food hall, and multifamily housing units. 

The expansion of Lee + White happened in part thanks to economic incentives, even though they didn’t always benefit West End residents. Located in a State Opportunity Zone Tax Credit district, where businesses get credits against state income tax liability and payroll withholding taxes for every full-time job created (up to $3,500 per job), the Lee + White development, owned by Stream Realty, created around 42 full-time jobs, according to its report to Georgia’s Department of Community Affairs. A handful went to West End residents.

“Find out what we need in the community that everybody can benefit from.” — Joanne Rhone

For the mall development project, Gravel and Von considered a federal tool known as Opportunity Zones, designed to spur growth in lower-income communities.

Dan Immergluck, a professor of urban studies at Georgia State University, says the lack of a community benefit agreement requirement—a contract signed by community groups and developers that requires the developer to provide specific amenities and deference to the local neighborhood—is the most glaring flaw of the federal Opportunity Zones program as a policy for urban transformation. He says that evidence is lacking to show that opportunity zones improve low-income communities, and in some cases may “accelerate the profit of folks investing in low-income neighborhoods anyway.” 

A paper published this year by the Center for American Progress found that pouring investment dollars into struggling communities “does not address the systemic inequities.”

Gravel and Von, who pursued the federal Opportunity Zone incentive, planned to break up the mall’s single, massive block into smaller sections with street-facing retail. They hoped the project would preserve existing businesses in the West End commercial district through a $15 million economic development fund.

Von likened the West End Mall redevelopment to a smaller version of former Mayor Maynard Jackson’s airport vision, which created opportunities for minority communities. “If you’re mindful of it [as a real-estate development], and you’re mindful of the people who benefit from it, then you will take note that the city’s requirement that Black and brown women-owned businesses participate in those economics not by happenstance but by mandate,” he said.

Gravel, for his part, believed their proposal had “intentionality” baked into it, creating opportunities for people with deep ties to West End. 

“If growth is coming whether we like it or not, the question is, how does growth come, and who does it come for?” Gravel said. “I think that any development should include whatever community it’s in and help shape what it’s about and what it’s for, not only because it’s the right thing to do but because it’ll be more successful.”

The West End Mall's parking lot
Credit: Canopy Atlanta

Immergluck says that neighborhoods like West End should lobby Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm, to negotiate community benefits for development projects. (Invest Atlanta also provided Elevator City Partners with a $2 million predevelopment loan, which comes with future affordable housing requirements.) City officials could also pass legislation requiring a community benefits agreement when any public subsidy exceeds a certain amount, he said. 

In 2018, Councilman Michael Bond introduced legislation to require a community benefits agreement for all development projects that received city public financing greater than $1 million. But the measure stalled.

“[Developers] seem to have chosen a lot of neighborhoods in the city that were already seeing a lot of investment pressure, places like West End where they’re going to claim, five years from now, that they caused all this property appreciation,” Immergluck said. “It’s helping investors. And the property appreciation probably isn’t helping a lot of folks who already live there.”

AS KAMAU NEARS THE END of his workday, he takes a break from packaging soap to take business calls. His work is one of the only certainties in an era of uncertainty. Not only has COVID-19 changed his business model, but it’s also upended the prospects of the mall’s grand redevelopment.

News broke in early October that the Elevator City Partners had hit a snag with the mall redevelopment. Gravel and Von had not come up with adequate financing by an agreed upon deadline to complete the sale, according to Saporta Report. The mall owners, Charles Taylor and Martin Halpern, were taking it off the market and resuming leases on the space. Gravel told Saporta Report: “From our perspective, we are still working on the deal.”

Kamau knows all too well that, sooner or later, another new development will be proposed there. More developers and investors will follow. Property values will rise. More homes will flip. More displacement will happen. So, Kamau focuses on what he can control. He’s teaching his 12-year-old son the family trade, steadily filling postage boxes with tubs of shea butter and dollying the boxes from one side of the room to the other to be stacked in neat columns and rows for shipping.

But the warehouse has the trappings of what was lost in his prior displacement. A circle of drums sits in the middle of the warehouse floor. Those empty moving boxes serve as a reminder of what may come next.

“I am looking at a place on Dill and Sylvan [in Sylvan Hills],” Kamau says, before returning to his call, a distributor who is attempting to negotiate prices. 

“I can only do it for 50 [units],” he says to the caller, his eyes fixed on his son. “Call me back.”

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