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May 26, 2015

On May 14, the Georgia Chapter of CCIM hosted a panel of the city’s experts to discuss the “Evolution of Mixed-Use Development.” The panelists included Lyn Menne, City of Decatur, Jarel Portman, JPX Works, LLC, and Thomas Dalia, Smith Dalia Architects.

Right out of the gate, the panelists tackled the issue of how to overcome possible objections to a mixed-use development. Often, the number one complaint comes from residents wanting to understand the project’s density – how many more people and cars will be added to their neighborhood. The solution?  More planning, input and transparency. It’s important to let residents know the limits, give them an opportunity to provide feedback and work with architects and brokers to accommodate their needs.  

The next topic covered the shrinking number of land options available and the increased control by municipalities over the design and schedule of mixed-use projects. Jarel Portman discussed the more free-wheeling days of development when his father, John Portman, began. “If he wanted to build, they pretty much said, great, go ahead. Today, development is much more complex, and it’s imperative to have an experienced team,” said Portman. The panelists agreed that developing a schedule for the entire development, including financial milestones, was critical and yet needed to have flexibility built-in. The flexibility is needed, in part, due to the fact that zoning has become more of a campaign than a process. It’s important to conduct grassroots efforts to build local neighborhood champions who will help throughout the process. Additionally, a strong architectural design will go a long way in bringing along an entrenched neighborhood. Ultimately, if you have a bad design, your project may never get off the ground.   

The panel discussed if mixed-use is always the best choice, and the answer was “not always.” The site should dictate its use.  For example, Inman Park around Elizabeth St., Highland Ave. and Lake Ave. needed more retail to support the popular and growing neighborhood. As a result, JPX Works’ project, Inman Quarter, has a large percentage of retail – most of which was leased before the project even fully opens. But the panelists agreed that it’s important not to force retail into a project that may not need it or benefit the community.  

Thomas Dalia noted the importance of creating memory points or “specific impressions people take away from good architecture.” He felt that it is important to have these memory points to engage people and make them return.   

Lyn Menne discussed how the City of Decatur has curated retail spaces that fit the area. “We’ve had to tell big chains that they won’t work here, and we’ve spent a great deal of time creating a unique experience in downtown Decatur that we are proud of. And while it’s important to support local businesses, developers must remember to find a way to create projects with rents that small businesses can afford.”     

In closing, Dalia noted the flexibility and potential longevity that mixed-use developments can bring to a neighborhood. “Well-designed mixed-use projects in good locations will tend to succeed even in recessions.”