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Black Residents Want Their Voices Heard on West End Mall’s Future

The conversation surrounding the proposed redevelopment is on the table again, and the community has thoughts.

Discussions on the proposed redevelopment of The Mall West End have been ongoing for years. (Sydney Sims/Capital B)

Sandra Goodwin has been going to Dendera Cosmetic Studio for decades. 

Goodwin came from Savannah to attend Spelman College in 1988. Like many women who stumbled into The Mall West End as young students of the Atlanta University Center Consortium, she discovered the small storefront that’s known for its eyebrow services. The beauty salon has been Black owned and operated since its opening in 1979.

“Everyone on campus knew they did the baddest makeup and eyebrow fill-ins,” Goodwin said. “Whenever you needed your makeup done for graduation photos, a party, or a day on the yard, Dendera was the place to go.”

Goodwin says she wishes that the culture of West End remains intact as the future of the larger commercial mall space — first opened in 1972 — lies in the balance.

Discussions for the proposed redevelopment of West End Mall have been ongoing for years. The most recent attempt to revitalize the shopping center came in late 2019 by Atlanta-based organization Elevator City Partners. The group was led by West End native and investor Donray Von and Atlanta BeltLine visionary Ryan Gravel

Gravel wanted the project to connect communities, similar to his original goal for the BeltLine. Gravel and Don hosted community listening events to ensure residents and local business owners would have a say in the mall’s future.

However, by the end of 2020, a lack of funding and failed attempts to find a formidable developer willing to take on the massive 12.5-acre mall site off Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard in southwest Atlanta left Elevator City Partners without a team to tackle the project. In March 2021, New York-based developer Tishman Speyer agreed to buy and overhaul the site to make way for new boutiques and mixed-use projects that would attract a diverse workforce from the AUC. Tishman Speyer pulled out of the deal a few months later.

The mall falls into District 4, represented by Atlanta City Council member Jason Dozier. Dozier said the redevelopment tide turned in October when New York-based The Prusik Group agreed to turn the property into a mixed-use development that would include retail, residential, and office space for current and future vendors.

“They had an initial conversation with community leaders back in October about their ideas,” Dozier said. “West End Neighborhood Development specifically shared a community benefits agreement document with them that details the framework largely developed with the previous teams to come to a common ground on if the new group would be willing to take on the project.”

Prusik’s developments focus on reinventing spaces in low-income neighborhoods. The group is currently under contract with the mall’s owners, H.T. West End LLC, and is looking for ways to boost community engagement. According to Andrew Katz, co-owner of Prusik, their team is focused on maintaining the legacy Black businesses at the mall. 

“We respect the history and importance of the Mall at West End,” Katz said. 

Representatives for Pruski also said the firm will conduct thorough environmental and engineering studies on the existing building to preserve as much of the original design as possible. 

Keisha Clark, a longtime resident of Atlanta’s West End, says that the mall has been due for much-needed renovation, but so does the area surrounding the building.  

As someone without a vehicle, she has to cross Oak Street into oncoming traffic to reach the mall and neighboring businesses. 

“I hope that they consider that in trying to make this area a better place to live and work,” Clark said. “It’s dangerous, and a lot of people aren’t even checking for pedestrians when they come flying down the road at 70 to 80 miles per hour.”

Clark says she is in support of developers trying to salvage the property that has been a major source of entertainment and commerce for her community since she was a child. 

“Atlanta’s West End used to be the premier Black community inside city limits,” she said. “Saving and bringing this mall back to life will help get this area back on track to the prosperity I remember from childhood.” 

Though the project is still in the early planning stages, some community leaders have not been sold on the engagement efforts. 

Angela Clyde, chair of Atlanta’s Neighborhood Planning Unit T, which represents West End, the AUC, and The Villages at Castleberry Hill, says that residents mainly want an area that is still affordable and accessible.

“Many of our residents come from low-income backgrounds and rely on the mall for entertainment for their children, job security, and access to affordable shopping,” Clyde said. “With the MARTA station across the street, people in this community — many of which don’t have cars — depend on the Mall at West End.”

That’s why Clyde says it’s important for Prusik to be transparent with community-based organizations about their intentions, so residents and business owners aren’t left feeling blindsided by any future plans. 

“What we don’t want to see happen here is a developer comes in without talking to the people who live here and develop a space that is unaffordable, does not cater to our target market or supports businesses that hinder our ability to reach economic prosperity,” Clyde said. “We don’t need more luxury apartments. We need jobs with living wages, grocery stores with access to fresh and healthy food options and affordable housing.”

Dozier says his team is also working to ensure they’re creating affordable housing, streetscaping and aggressive community engagement, and exploring ways the city can create subsidized commercial properties for business owners in legacy Black neighborhoods.

“We’re currently planning to have broader community meetings so residents can come out and learn how to get involved in the process as much as possible,” Dozier said. “My office is available for people to come and talk, and City Hall is open with work sessions that detail some of this more detailed information.”

Dozier also says it will be important to include the voices of residents who are transit dependent and who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds in any future discussions about the development. “It’s discouraging to go with decisions made that lack sentiments of the people who are the most affected by this,” Dozier said. “My goal is to answer how we can fix that and ensure that those voices are there.”

Prusik, along with members of Dozier’s team and the West End Neighborhood Development group, held a meet-and-greet in June for residents. Dozier says that there will be more events for residents and business owners to get project updates. He says the next public forum will likely take place in mid-August.

In the meantime, Goodwin says she will continue heading to West End first for any of her shopping needs. While development sparked by projects such as neighboring Lee and White have sparked an influx of new neighbors and consumers in an area once booming with legacy Black business, Goodwin takes solace in knowing she can return to the mall and find her sense of community. 

“It’s more than just the service that made me come back here, even after graduating from Spelman,” Goodwin said. “Everytime I come in here, it’s always been amazing conversations, amazing people and a culture that made me never want to leave Atlanta.”