Kempner: Body unnoticed in Atlanta area mall for weeks? A mall fades

The body of a deceased 19-year-old Lawrenceville woman may have been decomposing unnoticed for two weeks in a back room beside the food court of a Gwinnett mall during the height of what should have been the Christmas shopping rush.

The news is a personal tragedy.

It’s also might seem shocking, just feet from public space in what’s supposed to be a major shopping center. But Gwinnett Place mall is hardly that any more.

The horrific discovery puts another spotlight not only on the agonizing decline of Gwinnett Place, but also the limits of what government leaders and surrounding property owners are able to do about its downfall.

On Dec. 21, a mall maintenance worker doing a routine check discovered the decomposing body in a back room of a vacant Subway shop in the Duluth mall, according to Gwinnett County Police. Authorities believe the body may have been there for two weeks, according to Sgt. Jake Smith.

The cause of death is undetermined, Smith said, but “we are investigating it as a suspicious death.”

“Not a great reflection”

I talked about the news and the future of the mall with the Gwinnett County commissioner who represents the area.

“It’s probably not a great reflection of the current private owners of the mall,” Jace Brooks told me.

“I would think if I were actively managing a large retail facility I would hope that I would notice a body of a woman that had passed away in that facility fairly quickly.”

Brooks told me the county and a local community improvement district have worked to boost the area. He cited road improvements, land purchased by the county for a potential transit hub and special tax incentives.

“The greater Gwinnett Place area has been a top priority for years,” he said. But he sees limits in how to solve problems at the mall specifically.

“There is only so much that a government can — or should — do with privately held property,” he said.

I recently called executives with Moonbeam Capital Investments, the New York- and Las Vegas-based firm that controls Gwinnett Place and several malls in other states. I didn’t hear back from them.

Chilly mall

Gwinnett Place was once the pinnacle of commercial prowess when Gwinnett was the fastest growing large county in the United States.

But the mall, like some others in the nation, had slipped by the time Moonbeam bought it in 2013. Since then, the problems have worsened.

Long stretches of store fronts are vacant. No business appears to be in operation in the food court. An entire wing has been walled off.

Moonbeam seems to be focused on belt tightening. Hot water taps in a restroom weren’t on during a recent visit. An escalator that was cordoned off this time last year is no long cordoned off; it’s just not operating.

Parts of the mall are allowed to get so cold in the winter that workers in Beauty Master, one of the anchor stores, sometimes nearly close sliding security gates to prevent the chill from seeping in from the mall’s promenades.

Macy’s and Sears are still open. But few people stroll much of the mall.

Reported crime down

“I don’t know why it’s still open,” said a shopper, who told me his name was Junior E. He stopped in for a quick clothing purchase at Aéropostale and didn’t expect to be back again for months, if ever.

He said he had heard about the body of the woman found deteriorating near the food court. “How is that even possible? It’s shocking, really, in a mall.”

Reported crime in the general mall area has been falling. Incidents not including traffic accidents were down 22 percent in 2017 compared to 2013, according to figures I received from police.

Maybe that’s not surprising if there are fewer people hanging out there

I’m sure it’s also aided by community patrols organized by the Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District, an entity backed by local property owners working to make things better.

Past promises

Moonbeam executives have long promised that redevelopment was coming to their property. But they’ve consistently missed the timetables they’ve given.

Last spring, Moonbeam chief Steven Maksin told me he envisioned reducing retail space, adding apartments and converting space for entertainment and office uses. But he said he wouldn’t spend on such work “unless we have a clear understanding we can make money for ourselves and our partners and that, long term, the project will be sustainable.”

Leo Wiener, the chairman of the local CID and president of Ackerman Retail, doesn’t expect much from Moonbeam going forward.

“If they have a redevelopment plan in action, we would support it. I just find the chances less and less as time goes on…. It doesn’t appear to us that that is their plan at this point.”

So, the CID has focused on marketing the overall area and other specific properties to developers regionally and nationally. Boosters stress the strong flow of people that travel through the area.

But the first questions interested parties ask about is: what’s happening with the mall? Wiener said.

Doing something

Last year, media outlet Bisnow reported that a Pennsylvania-based company called Global Sports Ventures was considering Gwinnett Place for a cricket stadium that would be part of an eight-team U.S. professional league.

David Demarest of real estate firm JLL emailed me that his client, GSV, is still pursuing the league’s creation and “a few different sites are under consideration” in metro Atlanta. But he didn’t comment on whether Gwinnett Place is among them.

It would be nice if there’s rejuvenation ahead soon for such a core piece of Gwinnett.

“The rally cry has been there for some time,” Joe Allen, the CID’s executive director, told me recently. “Something different needs to be done with that mall.”

Something uplifting would be nice.

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