In retail evolution, aging malls become target for redevelopment

Atlanta Business Chronicle – Shortly before the opening of Arbor Place Mall in 1999, Douglasville officials celebrated the retail center for its potential to spur economic development while giving local residents a place to shop.

“We think the mall will make it easier to attract upscale subdivisions, then high-tech businesses and other commercial development in the west metro area,” former City Manager Bill Osborne told Atlanta Business Chronicle at the time. “We think it can lead to first-class office space.”

Since then, the small town has nearly doubled its population, to 35,000. Warehouses and manufacturing plants have sprouted along the western half of Interstate 20. Tech giants such as Google and Microsoft are bringing massive data centers to the immediate area.

It’s unclear how much of a role Arbor Place Mall played in Douglas County’s growth, but it filled a local retail void in the early 2000s — a time when walking through hundreds of stores and eating at a food court was a standard weekend outing.

Like most metro Atlanta shopping malls, Arbor Place Mall’s golden years may be coming to an end. It has experienced a decline in sales, an issue exacerbated by the pandemic. Its year-end revenue came out to about $15.7 million in 2021, a drop of nearly 18% from its 10-year high in 2016, according to Bloomberg data.

As of July, the mall was 90% occupied, a rate lower than in previous years but higher than other malls in the metro area. It has retained several anchor stores, such as Macy’s, Dillards, JCPenney and Belk. Property owner CBL Properties has stayed on top of its loan payments for Arbor Place Mall, unlike previous mall owners in metro Atlanta, according to Bloomberg data. A few years ago, the firm filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which it has since exited.

The steady rise of online shopping and shifting consumer attitudes led to predictions of a retail apocalypse. That hasn’t happened. But the ongoing transformation of the sector is putting enclosed malls and older retail centers in a crunch. CBL Properties, which has owned and managed Arbor Place Mall since its creation, did not respond to a request for comment on the future of the mall and how it plans to adapt in an ever-changing retail environment.

Some U.S. malls once seen as entertainment hubs by their local communities are becoming something else entirely, as they’re often located on large tracts of land in prime locations. Redevelopment firms now eye them as opportunities, but the task comes with complications.

“Regional malls across America have been the subject of redevelopment efforts for almost a decade, but the vast majority have been abandoned due to developers’ inability to control the entire property,” said Mark Toro, an Atlanta-based developer known for bringing Avalon to Alpharetta. “Existing tenancy, albeit extremely challenged, is hanging on by a thread, often holding up the plan to extract payment to vacate.”

It’s still too early to say if the wave of retail revitalization efforts playing out in metro Atlanta and across the U.S. will be fruitful, Toro says. But here are a few ways property owners and developers are trying to do it: