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Atlanta’s Phipps Plaza makeover plan shifts into overdrive

The reinvention of Phipps Plaza into a mixed-use entertainment and shopping complex has been in the works for more than a decade. But the announcement Tuesday of a $200 million-plus expansion, including a flagship Nobu hotel and restaurant, will take that the makeover to a new level, officials with mall owner Simon hope.

In Nobu, Phipps will add a world-renowned luxury lodging and food brand that Simon officials think will attract not only well-heeled locals but also international clientele.

Simon President of Malls and Chief Administrative Officer John Rulli said the project, which also includes a 12-story office tower and a multi-level Life Time Athletic fitness complex, will open in phases in 2020. Construction, he said, will not affect operations of the rest of the mall. To accomodate the expansion, the Belk department store will close this summer and be demolished.

Rulli said the latest additions to Phipps build upon a plan in the works for more than 10 years for the mall to evolve into a mixed-use development and entertainment center. That plan came in response to other planned luxury shopping rivals such as the pre-recession Streets of Buckhead project, which after the recession became the Shoppes at Buckhead Atlanta at East Paces Ferry and Peachtree roads.

In recent years, Phipps added luxury apartments, an AC Hotel, the Legoland Discovery Center, as well as new restaurants and retailers as traditional brick and mortar retail has come under assault by the rise of e-commerce.

A survey released this month by Coldwell Banker Commercial Affiliates and Harris Poll found about half of U.S. adults still prefer the in-store shopping experience.

“The market has densified and we saw the opportunity to create a mixed-use project with elements to it that all support a luxury experience, a broader entertainment experience,” Rulli said. “An experience, if curated right, that will create an entrainment complex that would support the luxury shopping.”

The plan to build a boutique Nobu hotel and restaurant at Buckhead’s tony Phipps Plaza mall might never have happened if not for a conversation about putting a high-end Japanese restaurant by the celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa in Houston.

Nobu signed on for a restaurant at Houston’s glizty Galleria mall, a fortress shopping destination in a Houston district for high-end retail and trophy office towers not unlike Buckhead. But Nobu Hotels CEO Trevor Horwell said the Houston market wasn’t yet ready for a Nobu-branded hotel.

At Phipps, Horwell said the Nobu partners — actor and director Robert De Niro, film producer Meir Teper, Matsuhisa and well-known New York restauranteur Drew Nieporent — saw the chance to do both.

Nobu had eyed Atlanta for a number of years, he said, though past projects with other partners never got much beyond the concept phase. But at Phipps, Horwell said Simon and Nobu saw the chance to draw a new stream of international guests, celebrities and foodies to what Simon calls the luxury hub of the South.

It helped that De Niro spent a good bit of his time in Atlanta, filming projects including the upcoming The War with Grandpa, Dirty Grandpa and Last Vegas.

“We have friends that are from Atlanta who are customers,” Horwell said. “They’re great customers and they’re saying ‘Atlanta is dying for a Nobu. You have to bring Nobu here.’

“We’ve been hearing this for the last 10 years but there hasn’t been the right opportunity,” he said.

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