These are Happy Days for Some Mall Owners
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These are Happy Days for Some Mall Owners

Convenience mall rents and leases are at record high levels.

North DeKalb Mall, on 77 acres, is scheduled to be demolished and replaced with a mixed-use development.
North DeKalb Mall, on 77 acres, is scheduled to be demolished and replaced with a mixed-use development.

The Tara Theatre, which was refurbished and reopened in the shopping center off Cheshire Bridge Road in May, was closer to ending its life as a theater than most people realized at the time. Chris Escobar, who took over the theater after a series of negotiations with the owner, Atlanta- based Halpern Enterprises, said he was up against bids by several other rivals for the location.

Under their plans, the building, which has been a theatrical landmark since it opened 55 years ago, would have been gutted and used for other purposes. But with the help of Jack Halpern, whose firm owns the shopping center, and Kenny Blank, the executive director of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, the Tara was saved. The deciding factor was bringing down the price of the lease.

“Kenny Blank reached out to Jack directly,” Escobar remembers, “and the next person I heard from was the representative from the Halpern firm with whom he had been talking. He said, OK, they’re directing me to come down on the price to be able to make it work for you.”

But that generous agreement is a rarity in today’s world of shopping center real estate, particularly for shopping centers in ones like those in which the Tara is located.

The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival has had several programs in recent months at the Tara Theater.

The industry calls them convenience centers, because they cater to visitors who make quick trips for shopping, with a clear purpose in mind. Usually, the centers don’t have a big box anchor to draw traffic either. Business in these convenience centers has taken off. The Tara shopping center is fully leased.

A recent national survey from RetailStat, which surveyed 2,500 hundred convenience centers, noted that visits to these properties were up 18 percent over a period beginning just before the pandemic. And rents have also spiked. According to CoStar Group, during the third quarter of this year, rents hit a record high of $20.37 per square foot. Space availability is also tight, just over 5 percent, another all-time record.

That’s in sharp contrast to the big, enclosed regional malls where vacancies are increasing. Halpern, one of the heroes of the plan to save the Tara, is a longtime veteran of the shopping center industry. He says there has been a significant, long-term shift in the market.

“Most of the large department stores in the regional malls have either gone out of business or have consolidated. So, there has been a continuing trend to repurpose these large, enclosed malls. There’s just not enough business to support the department stores and, without them, there’s not enough traffic to support the rest of the merchants in the big malls.”

Toco Hill shopping center, a 27-acre convenience center of 300,000 square feet, is thriving.

Last week, on Nov. 9, the board of the DeKalb Development Authority voted to help in the redevelopment of the North DeKalb Mall. The board approved a deal that would grant the Edens Corporation, a developer from Columbia, S.C., $70 million in tax reimbursements to demolish the old mall. The 76-acre site is being renamed Lulah Hills. It’s an $843 million mixed-use development with a scaled down retail space and 1,800 housing units.

It’s not far from the Toco Hill shopping center, a 27-acre convenience center of 300,000 square feet which Edens bought in 2015. It’s thriving. When Edens took over, it spruced up the public areas, reconfigured the parking lot, and rebuilt some of the engineering infrastructure. The old center, which at one time was down to hosting a large Georgia state unemployment center — filled with folding tables and chairs — is almost fully leased. It has new upscale tenants like Westside Market, Club Pilates, Chopt, Creative Salads, Spiller Park Coffee, and an Ulta cosmetics store. The parking lot is frequently packed.

The center, which is near the Orthodox community on LaVista Road, features a Publix and a Kroger under Atlanta Kashruth Commission supervision, a kosher ice cream stand, and the famous Chai Peking kosher Chinese take-out business.

Gone are some of the old-timers like Famous Pub, Petit Auberge restaurant, and the once popular Bagel Palace, which left five years ago when their rent doubled.

The latest casualty of rising rents and operating costs is Chris’ Pizza, which survived a rent increase that was $4,000 a month before Edens took over and raised it to $10,000 three years later. It closed in December of 2022.

But the growing market for convenience center owners makes for heathy profits for investors like Halpern.

“People are much more convenience-minded these days and the idea of spending several hours wandering through a mall is not as appealing as shopping at a place where you can park right out front, walk in and buy what you want and get on your way.”

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