Highlights from the 2023 Metro Atlanta Redevelopment Summit

2023 Metro Atlanta Redevelopment Summit

Thursday, November 2nd, 2023

Co-hosted by Partnership Gwinnett and The Council for Quality Growth

On Thursday, November 2nd, 2023, the Metro Atlanta Redevelopment Summit (MARS) gathered in Gwinnett County. The event featured an inside look at upcoming redevelopment projects from around the region, insight into trends affecting the industry, best practices from successful redevelopment projects, networking, and the presentation of the annual MARS awards.

Keynote Address: David Dixon

In the realm of urban planning and development, the terms “urban” and “suburban” are often seen as opposites, each catering to a different lifestyle and demographic. David Dixon, a legend in the Urban Design industry, believes a new era is emerging where these two seemingly distinct worlds become synonymous and redefine the way we think about suburban living.

Dublin, Ohio’s Town Center was his early-mover example of this paradigm shift. Traditionally considered a suburban community, Dublin has embraced a mixed-use, walkable development model to accommodate the needs of a more educated and diverse population that is increasingly rejecting long commutes and automobile-dependent living. More specifically, Dixon pointed to a new wave of homeowners who are either single or married without children.

We are entering an era where urban housing markets are more in demand than ever before, Dixon said, especially in the form of mixed-use developments. The supply of such properties is lagging behind the growing demand, creating an opportunity for suburban areas to reinvent themselves by offering residents the best of both worlds – urban amenities in a suburban setting. This new suburban paradigm envisions cities as a series of interconnected nodes accessible on foot, where people can live, work, and socialize without the need for lengthy commutes. Hybrid work is here to stay, he added, and this new generation of workers wants meaning, connection, and activity by simply stepping outside the front door.

From an economic perspective, Dixon believes that suburban transformation is critical to talent attraction and retention. Regions are competing for a highly educated workforce that prefers vibrant walkable communities, and suburban developers must follow suit if they plan to pull innovative firms away from cities. Luckily, Dixon argues, suburbs have the land use flexibility that cities do not. He mentioned how innovative suburbs are re-purposing malls and traditional big-box parking (“gifts from the past”)  into arts and innovation districts. Artists breathe life and character into communities. Dixon urged developers to be thoughtful and flexible, stressing that community-building is as much personal and creative as it is physical.

Panels

The event’s first panel, “Green Space as a Catalyst for Redevelopment,” highlighted cities and districts that have prioritized a ‘green heart’ at their community’s center. Development on the BeltLine’s Eastside was the completed and proven example. By repurposing a Sears factory into Ponce City Market and establishing Old Fourth Ward park across the street, a flourishing community of residential, retail, and recreation has emerged. Suburban cities have taken note. The City of Suwanee’s “Town Center on Main,” for example, is nearing completion of an elevated walkway and huge green space for events and family recreation. Similarly, the City of Stockbridge’s brand new amphitheater, “The Bridge,” aims to unite residents and visitors in the city’s downtown area. Presentations from Trilith, Johns Creek, Snellville, and Gainesville pointed to the same efforts. Bottom line: ‘green hearts’ are the new, proven strategy to stimulate a community’s culture and economy.

The “Green Space” panelists were Denise Brinson, Assistant City Manager, City of Suwanee; Kevin Burke, Director of Design, Atlanta BeltLine Inc.; and Mayor Anthony Ford, City of Stockbridge. Alyssa Davis, Executive Director of Sugarloaf CID, was the moderator.

The next panel, “The Future of the Office,” addressed the post-COVID world of commercial real estate. Panelists began by acknowledging today’s slow return to the office, as well as concerns for new deal debt costs. Their focus throughout the discussion, however, was on opportunity through adaptability. They echoed a belief that location and amenities are king if you’re seeking a flight to quality. Tenants are looking for fun and collaborative spaces where employees can decompress, socialize, and experience community, and where cheap transportation and community mobility are easily available. Office owners need to be innovative, the panel agreed, dubbing competition for tenants an “amenity war.” They also discussed how employers must strike a balance between remote and in-office workers, as relationships are critical to one’s career. Commercial developers and designers therefore have an opportunity, the panelists concluded, to create work ecosystems rather than work places.

The “Future of the Office” panelists were Audra Cunningham, EVP and Chief Administrative Officer, T. Dallas Smith & Co.; Scott Meadows, President, Brand Real Estate Services; and Kirk Rich, Principal, Agency Leasing, Avison Young. Joe Allen, Executive Director of Gwinnett Place CID, was the moderator.

Project Spotlights

Trilith — Rob Parker, President, Trilith Development — discussion of the new movie studio community in Fayetteville, Georgia that combines residential, retail, and professional in a creative combination of design types.

Johns Creek Town Center — Randall Toussaint, Economic Development Director, City of Johns Creek; and Sandra Calvo, Interim Director of Operations, Boston Scientific — discussion of the in-progress development that includes large amounts of green space, nature trails, and a pond through the town’s center and adjacent to City Hall.

The Grove at Towne Center (Snellville) — Kirk Demetrops, President and Founder, MidCity Real Estate Partners — discussion of the in-progress mixed-use development that includes a green community center among residential, retail, and a farmers’ market.

Downtown Gainesville Revitalization — Brian Daniel, President and CEO, Carroll Daniel Construction — discussion of the many new commercial, residential, and retail buildings in Gainesville and the city’s main economic drivers: Brenau University and the Northside Medical Center.

Awards

Small Redevelopment Award: StillFire Brewing & Station Park, City of Suwanee

Medium Redevelopment Award: Village Green Park, City of Smyrna

Large Redevelopment Award: Pullman Yards, DeKalb County

Redevelopment Champion of the Year: Shirley Franklin, former Mayor of Atlanta