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Officials extinguish massive fire on I-85 that led to bridge collapse

Avalon's debut marks another milestone since Recession

Developer Mark Toro is the first to admit his Avalon project in Alpharetta has been “hyped to the max.”

The $600 million blend of shops, restaurants, homes and offices at Old Milton Parkway and Ga. 400 — slated to debut Thursday — is arguably the metro’s largest mixed-use project to open outside the Perimeter since the Great Recession.

Avalon builds on ‘Main Street’ shopping trend

And like the Buckhead Atlanta project that opened last month, it’s also the realization of a project stalled by the recession that became one of the emblems of the region’s real estate collapse and hoped-for resurgence.

Avalon has risen on a site once destined for Prospect Park, prominent developer Stan Thomas’ vision of a luxury hotel, high-end boutiques, offices and seven-figure condos. But the downturn dashed that dream and many others.

Roger Tutterow, a Kennesaw State University economist, said job growth is returning and the metro area has replaced nearly all the jobs lost after the financial collapse. Consumer spending hasn’t yet rebounded, but a project such as Avalon, he said, is a hopeful sign.

“We are finally seeing the projects sidelined during the Great Recession come to fruition again,” Tutterow said.

Toro and his company, North American Properties, stepped up in 2011 and bought the property out of foreclosure, taking over more than 100 acres of prime property that had become a treeless swath of red clay and weeds, and pitched a vision of a walkable urban center in Georgia’s silicon suburb. The firm sold off part of the site for a future tech college campus and Avalon now makes up more than 80 acres.

Toro, 56, tall with dark hair flecked with silver, has become one of metro Atlanta real estate’s prominent social media voices. He sought out ideas for retailers and restaurants from followers on Twitter, and used social media to preach the gospel of “experiential” retail.

North American touts Avalon as a development immune to e-commerce and the retail malaise that has sent enclosed malls into foreclosure and threatened traditional retailers such as J.C. Penney.

The property also has taken a page from five-star hotels with concierge services offered to residents and guests. There will be regular events — from concerts to yoga in its courtyard park — throughout the year.

Residents, office workers, shoppers and guests at a luxury hotel planned as part of Phase Two will have access to ultra-fast Internet services available in only a smattering of places around the nation.

Avalon’s roster of blue chip retailers includes Whole Foods — which opened this month — Orvis and Banana Republic, and restaurants driven by noted local chefs including Ford Fry.

Avalon offers its residents, office workers and guests an experience they cannot get anywhere, Toro said, and is designed to make people linger.

“I don’t know if people will get it, until they get it,” Toro said in a recent interview.

But there’s been no shortage of hype.

The development isn’t yet open, but it has more than 2,200 Twitter followers on its official handle — about five times the followers of nearby North Point Mall — and about 10,000 likes from users on Facebook. The waiting list is 10 people deep for each of Avalon’s first phase of 250 apartments.

Toro and his team have traveled the nation not only to promote Avalon, but the firm’s faith in retail and service that creates experience. That has led the site to command a premium from not only retailers on rents, but residents, too.

So far, Avalon is signing leases on apartments on a square-foot basis nearly double the rate of existing Alpharetta complexes, Toro said.

The Prospect Park site was highly coveted by developers after the project tumbled into foreclosure. North American acquired the site from Wells Fargo after Thomas lost control of the site.

Toro and his team spent almost all of 2011 touring projects nationwide, and borrowed heavily from well-known developments such as Santana Row and The Grove in California to more organic downtown retail meccas like historic King Street in Charleston, S.C.

The property has its greatest density at the center with several floors of high-rent apartments — one unit is renting for more than $5,000 a month — and offices above boutiques. Townhomes for purchase are being built as buyers come forward, with 101 planned in the first phase.

A second phase will include more residences, retail, restaurants, a luxury hotel and possibly a conference center in a venture with the city. Houston developer Hines Interests has joined North American to build a planned 14-story office tower.

The first phase of retail is 98 percent leased, and the offices are about two-thirds full. Developers said they have held talks with tenants for the future office tower, including a potential headquarters for a technology company.

Toro said Avalon’s mix of amenities will give companies looking for office space that appeals to urban-loving millennials an alternative to moving in-town. Athenahealth, a health care IT firm, recently moved from Alpharetta to the new Ponce City Market in Atlanta to help attract and retain talent. Toro said Avalon will help Alpharetta bolster its technology hub status.

The Alpharetta area does not yet have MARTA rail — a factor becoming more important to companies and car-eschewing younger folks — though the transit system is studying a northern expansion. North American has been among those in favor of new transit services.

Bob Voyles, a longtime Atlanta real estate figure and CEO of development firm Seven Oaks Co., said North American is creating a new class of mixed-use development in the suburbs with Avalon.

Leaders of the metro area’s suburban communities see a future where they need to cultivate city centers and to get people out of their cars, Voyles said. (The city of Alpharetta is also underway with a town center project to include a new city hall.)

“These projects aren’t without risk. There’s a huge amount of risk in pulling these things off,” Voyles said.

But Voyles said he thinks Avalon will be successful and become a model for other developers. One of them is his own firm, which is part of a joint venture in Deerfield Township, a smaller mixed-use development in south Forsyth County that will include a walkable mix of residences and commercial development.

“It’s nice to see somebody raise the bar,” Voyles said. “That encourages everybody to do better.”

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