The phrase “mixed-use” has become such a cliché that an apartment complex with a coffee shop and a convenience store on site is now often referred to as a mixed-use development.
“It’s one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot and is now associated with almost everything, but to me that’s not what mixed-use really is, ” says Stacey Berthon, senior vice president with Birmingham-based Hoar Construction. “True mixed-use is the entire live-work-and-play concept. People want someplace where it’s all there together, and they can do a little bit of everything without getting in their car.”
Hoar Construction recently helped create such a place, says Berthon — an 86-acre development called Avalon in the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta. The $600 million project combines high-end, single-family residences and luxury apartments with a total of approximately 370, 000 square feet of retail and restaurant space and 83, 000 square feet of office space. The complex includes such features as a movie theater, a dog park, concierge services, bocce courts, fire pits, a children’s play area and an open plaza for community activities.
“Our client, North American Properties, and the architect, Wakefield Beasley & Associates, were truly visionary in wanting to create a mixed-use project that is exceptional and unique in the Southeast, ” Berthon said. “Half the site is dedicated to family residences. But the development’s major attractions are the amenities and attention to detail with public spaces. The hardscapes and landscaping quality draws you into a comfortable and welcoming environment.”
The residential units closest to the retail and commercial aspects of Avalon are a series of three-story townhouses that can be used basically as a home office. Residents can work on the bottom level and live on the top two floors.
“So it really is live-work-play, ” Berthon says. “You live there, and the first level is like an office where you meet your clients. But it’s not like somebody driving into a residential area to see you. It’s more of a quasi-commercial area.”
There were several significant challenges facing Hoar in the construction of Avalon. First, elements remained of a failed commercial development that had been started on the site before it was abandoned following the economic collapse of 2008. The entire area of land had been clear-cut, with large piles of unusable soil scattered across the site along with a half-built concrete parking deck.
“It was a terrible looking, huge parcel of land at the front door of Alpharetta, ” Berthon says. “It’s just off the interstate (Georgia Highway 400), so every time people drove by, all they saw was a failed development. It was a time-consuming and expensive process just to get the site ready to start construction.”
Working largely with a group of subcontractors from the Atlanta area – including Plateau Excavation, Hemma Concrete, Precision Concrete, Bryan Electric, United Electric and DG Fowler Electric – Hoar had the development close to completion in less than 18 months. That is when the biggest challenge occurred.
The retail community had responded enthusiastically to Avalon, with approximately 90 percent of the storefronts leased before opening. And in order to make Avalon feel more like a diverse community rather than a homogenous shopping complex, the developers wanted each retailer to create his own storefronts and interiors.
“Being 90 percent leased at opening is almost unheard of, ” Berthon says. “It was great for our client that the project was very well received by the retail community, but it’s unusual to have that many tenants who all want to open at the same time. Then they wanted the tenants to have a lot more personality and have each store look a little different, which added more customization to each tenant.
“Early in the process we were trying to look at what each tenant was trying to build and how that would interact with our work. We had to make sure they got their work done in time for us to come back and finish the last-minute touches. We were having to do that on a tenant-by-tenant basis instead of building by building. And we had to do a lot of that work late in the game.
“This created a tremendous rush of construction for each retailer to build their storefronts and interiors while we were trying to finalize our work, especially the hardscape work in front of each tenant. We like to refer to working with the several dozen tenant contractors as ‘herding cats, ’ which is not an easy task. It required a lot of coordination and manpower.”
In addition, in an effort to offset the clear-cutting that had taken place earlier, several large mature trees were planted on the main boulevard leading into the development. Since such trees can be harvested and replanted only during certain seasons, these trees were placed nearly a year before Avalon’s opening — so Hoar had to protect the trees throughout construction.
But in the end it all came together, and now Hoar is working on Phase 2 of the Avalon project. This phase will include a 325-room hotel and conference center, a 300, 000-square-foot office building, 90, 000 square feet of retail shops and restaurants and 276 luxury rental homes.
Berthon says Hoar has a long history of building large retail developments, and that the next generation for retail is in elaborate mixed-use projects such as Avalon. The company currently is working on similar complexes in Cincinnati (the nearly completed Liberty Center), Nashville and Florida.
“These projects fit into Hoar’s bullseye for the type of work we want to build, ” Berthon says. “The more complicated the better, because it allows our expertise to really help our clients make the best decisions for their projects.”
Cary Estes is a freelancer writer for Business Alabama. He is based in Birmingham.
Text by Cary Estes