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Residents Reminisce Over Magic Johnson Theatre, Ponder Development’s Future

Locals share their thoughts on plans to turn an area near the storied multiplex into a mixed-use development.

A rendering shows Briar Park, part of a more than $130 million housing and development project slated for Greenbriar Parkway at the site of the former Magic Johnson Theatre. (Courtesy of Invest Atlanta)

Renette L. Scott is a lifelong resident of southwest Atlanta. Now in her mid-70s, Scott remembers taking her two sons to see movies at Magic Johnson Theatre when it first opened at Greenbriar Mall 26 years ago.  The Atlanta location of Johnson’s celebrated chain of cinema houses screened its final movie after the NBA legend and businessman sold the company to Loews Cineplex Entertainment in 2004. It closed in October 2009 after an attempted rebrand as Greenbriar 12.   

For more than a decade, the building stood alone in a rear corner of the storied mall, empty but in decent enough shape to appear ready for a potential reopening in a week’s time had some new owner come around to give the area’s predominately Black movie fans an option.

When the theater closed, Scott was caught off guard. 

“It was a shock,” Scott said. “There was no acknowledgement and no pre-warning. To me, it seems like the attendance and participation were good, with the number of cars in that parking lot. I just could not envision how they could be losing money.”

At a groundbreaking in June, a single rectangular structure of cinder blocks stood in an expanse of flattened red clay behind the mall. At one point in time this lonely gray column had been part of a wide, tan and maroon building, whose tall, arching glass entrance once displayed the nickname of its proprietor. But with recent changes to Greenbriar Mall and its surrounding property, the time had come to say goodbye to the beloved multiplex.

The reason for the demolition of the theater is the construction of affordable housing, led by Minnesota-based development company Dominium. Two developments promise to bring just under 500 living units to the site behind Greenbriar Mall. One is The Paramount, a multifamily building, and the other is an independent senior living facility for residents ages 55 and up called Briar Park. 

The Paramount will be more than 309,000 square feet, on 12.9 acres, with 244 apartments, a children’s outdoor play area, swimming pool, dog park, and business center. The expected cost for the complex is $70 million; Briar Park is estimated at $64.5 million.

When completed, the 11.2-acre Briar Park will also have 244 apartments, along with a modern fitness center, a beauty salon, fire pits, grilling stations, and a theater room for residents. Construction of The Paramount and Briar Park will be managed by famed real estate development firm H.J. Russell & Company, along with Invest Atlanta, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, and other partners. Both projects are scheduled to be completed by fall 2023.   

The developments at Greenbiar are a part of a growing trend of fading malls across the country. In metro Atlanta, several malls are facing major construction facelifts, and questions around community engagement. In predominantly Black neighborhoods, that list includes The Mall West End and the Gallery at South DeKalb.

Michael Russell, H.J. Russell CEO and son of Black Atlanta icon Herman J. Russell, spoke at the groundbreaking event hosted by council member Marci Overstreet. Russell spoke about his vivid memory of the theater arriving, and his lifelong affinity for the area. 

“This is my neighborhood,” Russell told the crowd. “When Magic Johnson Theatre opened, that was a big deal in this community. But I think this investment that Dominium is making here is actually a more impactful and long-lasting development.”

Until recently, Scott served as zoning and land use chair for Atlanta’s Neighborhood Planning Unit-R, and was able to set up early meetings with Dominium and a community liaison team that helped to craft a plan for the development. 

“It will be much better if it would come in a combination of residential and economic [development] with retail shops, as you see in other areas, that are useful in the neighborhood,” she said. “It could be similar to what was in the 1950s, where you had a lot of Black entrepreneurs within the area meeting the needs of the community, as well as parks, because we’re also in a park desert, so to speak.”

Scott said a new recreational destination to replace the theater would also be a good thing, “whether it be another theater, skating [rink], a place where kids go to skateboard, or a multifaceted entertainment center, like my kids used to go to.”

Younger residents of the area, including Rita Harper, a 32-year-old photographer from East Point, have fond memories of the theater, including her days working as an usher.

“That was my first job,” Harper said, adding that it’s hard to explain the feeling of losing the theater to anyone not from the area. “For some reason that was such a gut punch, because I think it does represent a certain part of adolescence. But not just that; you see your first movies that you carry with you into your adulthood — when people ask what your favorite movies are, we go back to those times.”

There were discussions in 2017 for an Atlanta location of Florida-based family entertainment company GameTime bringing an arcade, restaurant and bar to the building, but the plans never materialized. 

Today, residents of the area have a nearby option to watch big-screen films at AMC Camp Creek 14, a five-minute drive further southwest. Scott says that she hopes Briar Park and The Paramount help bring a healthy mix of amenities within walking distance of residents. And Russell sounded confident before posing for photos with a shovel as the groundbreaking ceremony came to a close.

“When you say affordable housing to some people, that has a negative connotation,” Russell said to the crowd. “Part of our mission is to do impactful development. Projects like this certainly fit.”