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Can former Olympic tennis site revive Gwinnett’s ‘southern gateway’?


The Stone Mountain Tennis Center is being destroyed.

Most of the bleachers are already gone, and the concrete walls that enclosed the on-court action of Atlanta’s 1996 Summer Olympics possible are coming down. In the coming months, the whole site — 24 or so acres tucked along U.S. 78 just inside Gwinnett County’s border with DeKalb — will be flattened out, covered with grass and left to await a new future.

Officials hope that future — which will come in some form of redevelopment — will be the catalyst for a new “southern gateway” to Gwinnett, the big, game-changing project that sets off a flurry of other exciting endeavors. Whether it be some type of urban-style mixed-use project, or office space, or something else altogether, the county believes the rebirth of the tennis center site could spur projects on the other 500 or so development-ripe acres in the U.S. 78 corridor.

The corridor is one of Gwinnett County’s most misunderstood areas, but one that could nevertheless use a breath of fresh life.

Or at least an ego boost.

“We’re gonna do something great on this site,” Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said at an Aug. 1 ceremony at the tennis center. “I’m not talking about something little.”

Fighting perceptions

Gwinnett’s U.S. 78 corridor — which runs along the southern part of the county from the Stone Mountain area through Snellville — often gets a bad rap.

There is the long-abdandoned tennis center, sure, and the former Cub Foods that’s seen better days (or decades). Further down, there are empty shells that used to hold Joe’s Crab Shack and Sports Authority. Further still, grocery giant Kroger recently decided to up and leave its home in an aging shopping center.

Often, though, the area’s poor reputation is undeserved.

Jim Brooks is the executive director of the Evermore Community Improvement District, which includes properties along much of the seven or so miles of U.S. 78 between Stone Mountain and Snellville (but not all of the empty buildings listed above).

“We fight perceptions all the time,”Brooks said.

The CID is a group of nearly 500 business owners that tax themselves to pay for, well, community improvements. Likely because many of its buildings are older, the CID area oftentimes has a reputation for being rundown, lifeless or, to put it bluntly, poor.

Statistics suggest that’s not the case.

The median household income within a three-mile radius of the Stone Mountain Tennis Center (which includes part of DeKalb County) is nearly $95,000, according to analysis by the CID. That’s far greater than the median income for Gwinnett County as a whole, which was just over $60,000 between 2011 and 2015, according to United States Census data.

The CID has about 159,000 residents and expects to add roughly 430 new homes between 2016 and 2018. A sprawling new senior living development just expanded, and the SpaceMax storage facility that took over a former Super Target next to the tennis center is thriving.

Netherworld, a world-renowned haunted house, plans to leave the Norcross area and move just down the street from the Olympic facility next year. That’s in addition to the 500 or so acres officials say are available in the area for development or redevelopment.

“A lof of good things are happening over there,” said Chris Poholek, a partner at developer Childress Klein, which owns the SpaceMax facility.

And now, folks are starting to notice.

So…what’s coming?

At a “ceremonial demolition” earlier this month at the Stone Mountain Tennis Center, Brooks, the CID director, made a big show of unveiling a posterboard that Nash, the county commission chairman, had brought along with her.

As the crowd of dignitaries mingled around, Brooks whipped a black sheet off of the posterboard, revealing…nothing. A blank slate.

Thanks to a complicated land swap with the Stone Mountain Memorial Association that was completed last October, Gwinnett County is the owner of the tennis center property and can control its destiny. Demolition of the tennis center is expected to be completed sometime in early 2018, but the county will likely issue a request for proposals for the site’s redevelopment before that.

Nash wants whatever’s built to serve as a “southern gateway” to Gwinnett, but has repeatedly said the county is open to any and all proposals — thus the blank posterboard. The closest the chairman has gotten to revealing a specific preference was telling The Atlanta Journal-Constitution she’d like to see some kind of “robust mixed-use” development at the site.

Others have offered more detailed suggestions.

Poholek, the developer and SpaceMax owner, called it a “very unique opportunity” and said it would make sense to include “build-to-suit” office space — perhaps with some kind of connectivity to nearby Stone Mountain Park.

Brooks got even more precise.

“I would like to see Class A office space there, transit-oriented development there, a parking deck there with housing that surrounds the perimeter of the property,” the CID director said, quick to point out that he doesn’t speak for anyone but himself.

There’s a dearth of Class A office space in the area, which is a relatively short drive to both Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and downtown Atlanta, Brooks said. Gwinnett County, like much of metro Atlanta, is currently exploring possiblities for future transit expansion.

“Taking down the tennis center,” Brooks added, “has really created a tremendous amount of interest in this area.”

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