Eisenhower Parkway is the heart of Middle Georgia’s retail industry.
Some $450 million is spent along that stretch each year, according to Hull Property Group, owners of the Macon Mall on Eisenhower.
But you wouldn’t know it from how it looks.
Arriving into Macon via Interstate 75 and traveling west along Eisenhower, drivers see acres of pavement in front of empty or rundown buildings. Over the decades, new development has spread west along the corridor away from the mall, pulling economic activity with it.
“We see a lot of cannibalism, where a chain store moves slightly farther out of the city and slightly more into the suburbs, leaving an empty building standing in a place that used to be the hot new commercial development,” said Sarah Gerwig-Moore, outgoing Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning Commission chairwoman.
As Macon-Bibb officials have tried to fight blight in recent years, much of the emphasis has been on dilapidated houses that attract crime and trash just steps from where families live. But much more visually apparent from the major thoroughfares is commercial blight -- including stretches of vacant or near-vacant shopping centers.
Commercial Realtor Larry Crumbley of Fickling and Co. tracks local real estate figures and said about 20 percent of the square footage of Macon’s suburban retail space -- retail that’s not downtown -- is vacant. Crumbley said that’s about double the national rate for suburban retail space.
The vacant properties in Macon, even those that are well-maintained, project an unprosperous image that Realtors say makes it harder to attract new businesses and results in a vicious cycle of disinvestment.
While downtown has the benefit of such nonprofit and government entities as NewTown Macon, Main Street Macon and the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority working to place new businesses in the city’s historic storefronts, “we don’t necessarily have that on the privately owned shopping centers in other parts of town that aren’t historic,” said King Kemper, a commercial Realtor with the Summit Group.
Community leaders ignore these areas at their peril, Gerwig-Moore said.
“The doughnut is just getting wider,” she said, referring to the depressed zone of suburban development beyond the revitalizing core.
“I used to be most worried about downtown, and now I feel like there’s a critical momentum happening in downtown,” Gerwig-Moore said. “I’m worried about midtown, and I think other people should be worried about midtown, too.”
MANY CITIES APPROACH ZONING AS THEY DID DECADES AGO
The cycle of decline along Eisenhower Parkway, a once-thriving commercial strip, is evident. Stores have relocated or closed, and crime has moved into empty spaces, discouraging shoppers from frequenting the area. That eventually leads to more empty, blighted spaces.
But Macon is not alone. Many retail districts across the country are emptying out as consumers’ and retailers’ tastes and demands change.
Urban planning experts agree that many of the forces that hurt places like the Eisenhower corridor are beyond the control of local government to direct. But they also agree that the overall growth and development that results in these pockets of decline is the product of planning decisions and mindsets from a bygone era.
Many cities still approach planning and zoning with a 1950s and 1960s-era fixation on automobile culture, valuing low-density, car-friendly development over aesthetics, walkability and bikeability, said Sarah Schindler, a professor at the University of Maine’s Law School and an expert on the patterns of development that have led to empty big-box stores and commercial blight.
“We’ve got residential that keeps expanding further and further away into the suburbs because the land is cheaper and people are building new homes, or they want to be further from the city, or they want more land,” Schindler said. “As people, and especially wealthier people, move away and further out, the retail follows them and it goes further out, too.”
What government authorities have some ability to control is policy that encourages “greenfield” development (construction on land that was previously farmland or wilderness) versus policy that encourages reuse of already developed areas.
“Many of our economic development officials are chasing new build instead of adaptive reuse,” said Gerwig-Moore. “We’re working on a really old model.”
Lee Martin, a lifetime Macon resident who also is a planning and transportation policy advocate, has watched the process play out.
“Our zoning codes allow development in the suburbs, and it’s hopscotch,” Martin said. “And it’s not just residential, it’s commercial. Everything moves further and further out.”
Even Mayor Robert Reichert, who has been a key supporter of greenfield developments, concedes that in a community such as Macon where the population has stalled, those new developments likely will result in vacancies elsewhere.
“You need to grow the population in order to support additional or new commercial activity,” Reichert said. “Otherwise you’re just shifting it around in the community.”
HOW THE PROBLEM SPREAD
The opening of Westgate Shopping Center at the corner of Eisenhower Parkway and Pio Nono Avenue in 1961 arguably began the spiral of retail development away from downtown and toward the suburbs.
With the recent announcement that the Burlington department store will move into space in Macon Mall, Westgate will be all but empty. But at one time, Westgate was the premier shopping destination in Middle Georgia and was the first enclosed mall in Georgia.
“It was just like a little mini-mall up here at one time, and it was busy,” neighborhood resident Urickia Tobler said. “This was the place to be.”
That started to change in 1975, when Macon Mall opened, impressing shoppers with its modern lighting fixtures and hip anchor stores.
But by the turn of the century, enclosed malls had started to fall out of favor. In 2001 came Eisenhower Crossing, a cluster of big-box stores -- anchored by a Target -- to the west of the mall that drew many of the mall’s customers away, as did the new Sam’s Club and nearby Wal-Mart Supercenter.
“It was the next desirable location,” Kemper said.
Retail didn’t just march westward. As some of Macon-Bibb’s population moved farther and farther north -- particularly its more affluent residents -- so did businesses.
The Shoppes at River Crossing opened off north Riverside Drive in 2008, offering an outdoor “lifestyle center” that featured a village-like shopping experience -- walkable like downtown or the mall, but also drivable like Eisenhower Crossing.
By then, Macon Mall was struggling, and River Crossing dealt it yet another blow. Two of the mall’s anchoring department stores, Dillard’s and Belk, closed over the next few years after the department stores opened new locations at Shoppes.
Elbert Williams, a Macon resident of 30 years and program manager at Robins Air Force Base, has watched the decline of Eisenhower first-hand.
“They had a lot of businesses up here that were booming,” he said. “I don’t know why they moved or what happened, but I know they just left.”
THE GAME CHANGED, BUT THE RULES DIDN’T
Williams may not understand the forces shaping his community, but Zan Thompson does.
Thompson, an urban planner who worked for decades all across the Southeast, was instrumental in some of Macon’s more notable suburban developments at Arkwright and Zebulon roads. He knows that businesses’ tastes change and that cities need to evolve with them.
But he’s increasingly frustrated by what he sees in Macon: a pattern of development that encourages growth at the edges.
“What this does to a community,” he said, “is turns an aging area with older neighborhoods and old-style shopping centers into blighted areas with empty stores that no longer pay taxes but still require taxes be spent maintaining the roads and municipal services of the area.”
Thompson has no issue with businesses making decisions in the face of hard economics. But he said Macon could be doing a better job of incentivizing them to develop in already developed zones and discouraging them from building on the urban fringes of town, where they need new connections to water, sewage and electricity.
The problem, Thompson said, comes down to Macon-Bibb’s outmoded, underfunded and understaffed planning and zoning office.
“The codes themselves, they’re outdated,” he said.
Zan Thompson talks about zoning issues in Macon
Macon has not thoroughly revised its planning and zoning guidelines in decades.
“They’ve been updated a lot over the years, but they’ve never gone through a total rewrite,” said Jim Thomas, executive director of the Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning Commission.
“The first ones were adopted in ‘55, and they went through a total rewrite in ‘86. Then since ‘86 it’s just been amendments over the years,” he said.
Gerwig-Moore said the codes almost uniformly provide for segregated uses -- a model of development that became nearly ubiquitous in the second half of the 20th century in which commercial, residential and industrial areas are kept separate. In response to proposals from Mercer University and the College Hill Alliance, P&Z has worked to relax those strict separations in areas of the College Hill Corridor, allowing for the type of mixed-use developments that have regained popularity in urban areas in recent years.
But the commission simply has not had the time nor resources to pursue similar reforms citywide, Gerwig-Moore said.
“I’ve been on the commission for seven years. We’ve lost about half of our staff through retirement, attrition, and have just not been able to replace those staff members because our budget has been cut consistently,” she said.
Today P&Z has just one person who handles full-time city planning, while the other staff planners focus on transportation, primarily on state- and federally funded projects.
“If you want to have a well-planned community, you have to hire planners,” Gerwig-Moore said, “people who have fresh ideas, people who have the energy to think about things other than what’s on the next agenda for the commission hearings.”
Schindler, the University of Maine professor, said this is a major issue nationwide. “Local governments across the country are severely underfunded and so its not unique to Macon. It’s a big problem,” she said.
As a result, there’s little framework to encourage what an expanding number of cities across the country consider “smart growth,” Thompson said.
Smart growth principles encourage development closer to the urban core, mixed-use properties with retail and residential space, pedestrian-friendly areas and fewer parking spaces to make cities less a sprawling sea of asphalt and more of a compact urban setting with an inviting quality of life.
“Our town, if you go to north Atlanta and other communities, we just look so a-- backwards because we’re still doing things the ways we were doing in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s just not appropriate,” Thompson said.
Gerwig-Moore advocates using tax breaks to encourage redevelopment in the city, which she argues could actually save local government money.
“Even though, theoretically, a greenfield development will generate tax revenue in the long run, it’s expensive to run a road, water, sewer, power out to those places,” she said. “People don’t think about that. They just think about the tax revenue.”
‘ALL A BALANCING ACT’
Thomas, the P&Z director who has been involved in planning and zoning in Macon for more than 30 years, admits his agency is understaffed. But he said Macon is making progress and as far as he’s concerned, is in good shape.
There’s also only so much P&Z can do, he said.
“There’s a tension there between what the retailers and developers want and what we would like to see,” Thomas said. “There’s this document called the U.S. Constitution and (business owners have) property rights, and you can’t just say, ‘Sorry, no more development for you guys. We’re going to keep it right here, we’re going to keep it close in,’” Thomas said.
“The best you can do is plan for any anticipated growth so you don’t overload roads, you don’t overload the water and sewer, that you don’t hurt the quality of life,” he said. “And (making) those decisions, it’s all a balancing act. It’s always a balancing act between the rights of the individual property owner versus what benefits a larger public good.”
Thomas said that while there’s always room for improvement, things are getting better bit by bit in Macon, and he doesn’t advocate for sweeping changes to how things are done.
“I like our community. I think it looks great. We obviously have some problems with some blight, there is no question about that,” Thomas said. “But we are no different from anybody else in that regard.”
But Gerwig-Moore, who has occasionally found herself in disagreements with her colleagues while serving on the P&Z commission, argues that planners should take a harder line against new development that the community might not be able to sustain without neglecting its existing development.
“We have to balance individual property rights with the good of the community. And that could be economic good, aesthetic good,” she said.
“We don’t have unfettered property rights. I can’t put a pig farm in my backyard, and with good reason.”
P&Z commissioners are appointed by the mayor. While Gerwig-Moore was originally appointed by then-Mayor C. Jack Ellis, Mayor Reichert’s more recent appointees have cast some controversial pro-development votes, including one last year in favor of a major new shopping center on Zebulon Road.
Reichert personally supported rezoning to allow the project, “much to the chagrin of a lot of residents who felt like this was an intrusion,” he said. “Was it an encroachment into the neighborhood? Yes, but eventually it’s one that’s going to happen, simply because of the volume of traffic on Zebulon Road.”
While the shopping center proposal is now in doubt after a judge reversed P&Z’s vote, Reichert stands by his reasoning that government generally should not stand in the way of new development.
“I don’t think you can regulate new growth as a way to force it into a different area of town. You do that, it’s liable to go to a different community altogether,” he said.
New development that has left vacant shopping centers in its wake has significantly altered the appearance of Macon, and a run-down look can drive away new business, said commercial Realtor Tim Thornton of Thornton Realty Co.
“Typically (businesses) are looking at a number of locations, and I think a lot of times it does come down to first impressions and quality of life,” he said.
In some cases of businesses looking to move to Macon, he said, the decision can hinge on how the CEO’s family feels when they visit.
“I think all of those things can have a huge impact on the final decisions that are made,” Thornton said. “But they rarely actually tell us that.”
What rankles planner Zan Thompson about Macon is that leaders and policy value ease of development over quality of life, making the city less desirable to live in, and ultimately less attractive to business, he contends.
“Macon’s got better architecture than Savannah, more places on the historic register than Savannah,” Thompson said. “So to me, we’re just squandering the potential we have by not grabbing the bull by the horns and saying, ‘Hey, let’s go take care of these issues. Let’s find ways to make this happen.’”
Mercer University journalism students Jane Hammond, Joel Patterson, Lia Sewell and Conner Wood contributed to this report.