Nzinga Williams has called the Gallery at South DeKalb home for over 20 years.
Williams’ business, Light Up Your Life, was one of several that the Trinidad and Tobago native’s family owned in the mall. Today, only Light Up Your Life remains. The assortment of incense, sage, crystals and natural body care products, alongside playing music and interacting with customers, gives her the positive energy she has needed to run a small business.
As “Miss Z” — the nickname she says everyone endearingly calls her — built relationships with many of her neighboring tenants and returning customers, she noticed a decline in the mall and surrounding area.
“Businesses were leaving and there were never any improvements or renovations to update the mall to attract new customers,” said Williams. “During the summer, it’s incredibly hot here because we don’t even have a functioning air conditioning system.”
Formerly known as South DeKalb Mall, the center was recently sold to Namdar Realty Group for $19.3 million in a December auction. The previous owner, Thor Equities, defaulted on a commercial mortgage-backed securities loan, leading to the recent auction sale. Newmark, an Atlanta-based realty group, sold the property on behalf of CWCapital, the commercial real estate company that inherited the mall when the loan went into default.
“We have customers who only come to this mall because we’re here,” Williams said. “I’ve been here through several changes of management and my expectations are still low for the new owners.”
The sense of uncertainty at the mall is one felt throughout the city as major retailers are closing shops and shuttering doors. In the aftermath, tenants and residents are left without answers for the future. The same goes for shopping malls nationwide as new ways for people to shop continue to lead to their demise. With the rise of online shopping amidst a global pandemic, staffing shortages and closings are becoming the new normal.
Williams’ business is one of 69 remaining in the space that sits on 71 acres located in the Panthersville area of South DeKalb. The mall first opened in 1968 and has since lost two of its largest anchor stores, starting with JCPenney in 2005. Macy’s, the last standing anchor, shuttered in 2020 after closing 125 stores nationwide. Anchors like Foot Locker, D&K Suit City and Rainbow remain open.
At Greenbriar Mall in southwest Atlanta, Macy’s closed its doors in 2021 after 56 years. Prior to Macy’s departure, JCPenney exited in 1985 and the space was later repurposed as a Burlington Coat Factory, which left the mall in 2019.
So, what does it mean for the remaining Black small-business owners when a mall, with no major anchors to bring in more foot traffic, falls into the hands of new management?
For Williams, there’s a growing sense of insecurity caused by a lack of transparency.
“Right now, we don’t have a yearly or multiyear lease so we rent on a monthly basis,” she said. “That’s not by choice, either. We haven’t been asked to renew our leases and we didn’t even receive any information about a sale or if our rent will be increased. We found out from the news like everyone else.”
Williams finds herself left with more questions. “What happens to us,” she said. “I’ve watched this mall decline over the years and I’m especially worried about seeing my neighbors leaving.”
Byran Edwards, owner of Home Team Apparel LLC, a custom vinyl and embroidery design apparel store, says that no matter the outcome, he is confident that his business will continue to succeed at the metro Atlanta mall. “I’ve been here 20 years and watched this mall change, mainly because people — entrepreneurs, investors — don’t see the gem in front of their eyes,” he said. “Think about the location of this mall, its proximity — it’s the main reason I chose this location and why my clientele will continue to shop with me here.”
The center sits roughly 10 miles east of downtown Atlanta. Before the introduction of The Mall at Stonecrest in 2001, the mall was the only major retail center directly off of Interstate 20 east heading toward Augusta, effectively servicing a predominantly Black community. Black residents represent over 70% of the population living within a five-mile radius of the mall. All of these elements made the space ideal for Black businesses and consumers, according to Edwards.
As for the conversations about his business being a part of the new ownership’s plans, Edwards said it’s out of his control. “It’s just business at the end of the day,” he said. “If they have an image of what they want, then they have the right to make that happen by all means.”
Since the initial purchase, Namdar Realty Group partnered with Mason Asset Management to handle oversight in the leasing vacancies within the mall. In a statement sent to Capital B, Igal Nassim, director of leasing for the New York-based group, said the search for new tenants is underway.
“We’re working closely with a number of national big-box retailers to fill the current anchor spaces, and we look forward to further bolstering the available offering at the mall through an aggressive leasing strategy,” Nassim said.
According to site plans, Namdar has 40 readily-available storefronts for lease, including three big-box anchor fronts with a projected daily traffic count of 136,000 vehicles per day. The group also said that news about store openings, signage and other activities will be shared in the future.
And as she sits at her booth, burning her favorite incense and helping passing customers as they curiously stop to talk shop, Williams says she hopes to see and be a part of the mall’s revitalization. “We just want to be sure that we get a fair shake moving forward,” she said. “I’ve been here 21 years and, hopefully, I’ll be able to be here 20 more.”