Nipsey Hussle, new developers Ryan Gravel, Donray Von and transforming The Mall West EndThe back entrance of West End Mall. (Photo by Kelly Jordan)
By King Williams
“When we speak of place-making, we assume that the place being made was devoid of life, culture and context. Place-making indicates that nothing exists. It is inherently colonialist. Place-keeping uplifts an area’s culture, provides resources and enriches.” – Miranda Kyle, Atlanta Beltline Arts and Culture Program Manager
On the afternoon of Sunday, March 31, Ermias Joseph Asghedom, better known as Nipsey Hussle – an entrepreneur, motivational speaker and rapper, was gunned down by an associate of his in front of his clothing store in the historically Black, Crenshaw District of Los Angeles. This senseless killing was marked by the loss of a true pioneer, entrepreneur, community leader and place-keeper.
The untimely passing left so many people distraught and in deep thoughts of reflection from literally hundreds of entertainers, inspiring tributes by athletes, to our very own Mayor and even former President Barack Obama, who penned his first public letter to anyone since he’s stepped away from office. Additionally, Nipsey Hussle is the only other person to have his funeral at the 21,000 seat Staples Center arena in Los Angeles outside of Michael Jackson in 2009.
Nipsey Hussle was the place-keeper every developer in Atlanta claims to be
When we speak of urban renewal, economic development or community investment projects, it’s rarely done by people from the community in question. In Atlanta, this is done with condescending efficiency each time a new real estate project is announced.
Our, economic development projects are charity do-gooder missions for with there is very little consultation of the people who actually, currently live there. These projects are never led by the people actually living in the areas in question, especially if they looked or talked like Nipsey Hussle.
What made the death of Nipsey Hussle so heart wrenching is that he was an actual place-keeper, not a place-maker, of his Crenshaw neighborhood. He delivered tangible results on the goals every place-making real estate project purports to do – job growth, community uplift, empowering lower income residents, developing new businesses and local hiring.
But the face of economic development is never Nipsey and the painful irony is that he was gunned down on the grounds of the plaza he had just purchased a few weeks before, the crown jewel of his multi-city block redevelopment of the Crenshaw neighborhood, for current Crenshaw residents.
The plaza purchase was the recent move for a man actively making place-keeping in the area where he grew up in. Upon the time of his death, he was in the bidding process for a 162-bed hotel after re-opening a historic skating rink, providing coding courses, opening a co-working space, offering a STEM center for disadvantaged youth and employing convicted felons jobs upon re-entry.
Nipsey Hussle’s rebranding (not-renaming, I’m staring directly at you ‘West Midtown’) of Crenshaw came from actual equity work.
Nipsey Hussle was the leader everyone says they want. The unconventional leader; accessible, educated, non-conforming and not pandering empty anecdotes of ‘advancement’ to the Black community.
Hiring within the community, growing local entrepreneurs and planning for people already living in his community, not like Atlanta’s insistence on finding ‘newer, better’ residents.
All of Nipsey Hussle’s moves brought business to Crenshaw from within the community first and translated into true economic growth, nationally.
The West End Mall is being sold, here’s what’s next
Days after Nipsey Hussle’s unfortunate passing, I spoke to Ryan Gravel, the visionary creator of the Atlanta BeltLine, and his business partner Donray Von, an Atlanta-raised Morehouse graduate and entrepreneur. One week before the shooting, Gravel and Von were attending a conference at Stanford University with Nipsey Hussle’s business partner Dave Gross.
They are heading up an investment group that recently announced the purchase of The Mall West End in the heart of the historic West End neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood that has been rapidly gentrifying, and the community is in the crosshairs of the “Old Atlanta” versus “New Atlanta” cultural and economic clashes.
Saporta Report: How did you end up buying the West End Mall?
Ryan Gravel: “I’ve been approached by a lot of developers and investors to be a part of their projects, and I never imagined that I would be involved with real estate development.”
“But it got me interested in asking myself the question: If I were involved, what would that look like?”
“I can be involved in a way to expand the ecosystem of partners who participate in that real estate development. So it’s not the same as people who’ve been making money in real estate the last 30 years who are now swooping into Southside and Westside neighborhoods.”
“If you can create ladders of opportunity and support small businesses, I’d be interested in doing that.”
“Around that time I met Donray Von, who asked what it would look like to put a capital stack behind my vision.”
Donray Von: “People in Atlanta may be new to me but I am not new to Atlanta. I am born and raised here. I am from English Avenue.”
Saporta Report: [The Bluff]
Donray Von: “ I Went to English Avenue Elementary, I went to Douglass High School with the mayor, went to Morehouse College and left my Junior year to pursue the entertainment business.”
“At that time, Atlanta was not the booming media mecca it is today. Some of my earliest clients were Outkast. And my cousin is a talented artist named Cody Chestnutt…that song “The Seed 2.0” by the Roots – we own the publishing to that.”
“As a result, I met a musician whose father wanted to open a music studio, and I thought he was a dentist. Turns out at the time that guy’s father was a multi-billionaire managing a company called PIMCO, which at the time was managing $1.7 trillion in assets.”
“So how often does a guy from English Avenue get to soak that knowledge up?” “So for four years, I soaked all that up, making alternative investments, helping the son build a flourishing business, and built a venture company.”
Saporta Report: So how did the Mall West End deal happen?
Ryan Gravel: “For the next couple of years, we started to figure out what that would look like a –real estate company that does some good in the world.” “We started looking at sites.” “I happened to know one of the owners of the Mall West End and that he planned to put it on the market. We’ve been scrambling since October to stay ahead of the deal. I say we’re still in the early stages of that, so bear with us.”
Saporta Report: The West End means a lot to people in Atlanta, so did that go through your mind at all?
Ryan Gravel: “I know the mall has a cultural weight to it. I know (because I lived) in Southwest Atlanta for 12 years and in helping to develop the Beltline.” “We know this as the origin point of the African-American middle-class, which is so much embedded into Atlanta’s identity.”
Saporta Report: It’s 2019, and a lot of people are worried about gentrification, historical and cultural erasure. Are there any plans to include history or avoid it being white-washed?
Ryan Gravel: “I think a lot of history of West End is actually not well told. A lot of it was bulldozed to make the freeway, which is how we got the Mall being built in the first place.”
“While the mall itself will be gone, the site itself will be used to tell that story.” “Whether that be the naming of the streets, programming of events, public space, public art – the idea is to draw down on this.”
Saporta Report: So will the mall still be here?
Donray Von: “We will tear down the mall in about two years.” “We will be explaining to the community that the mall will be here for about two more Christmases. But eventually the mall will be replaced for something new.”
Saporta Report: I know it’s early, but give us an idea of what the new development will look like. What does that new entail?
Ryan Gravel: “There are some businesses that will transition out of the mall, and transition into the new development.” “The mall properties and its surrounding parking lots minus the Taco Bell and the gas station will be redeveloped.”
“That site was cleared in the latest urban renewal style, and the idea here is to rebuild new streets and build about four city blocks. Each of the blocks (will have) street facing retail at the bottom of every building and be built for 21st century use.”
“Above that would be six to 16 stories of residential, and we believe there is some significant office component here (as well as) hotels, entertainment, cultural venue, public space.” “A big part of the development is businesses that want to be near to the Atlanta University Center.”
Donray Von: “We intend to have inclusive development. We want to have affordable housing, and we think the West End as a property has the opportunity to be the business catalyst for the district.”
“If Wakanda was in real life, why couldn’t it happen in the West End?”
Saporta Report: Will there affordable housing?
Ryan Gravel: “YES, were determining what it is. There will be a few hundred units with 20 to 30 percent affordable units. We’ve been listening to the community.”
“Some (people) have said we don’t need any affordable housing. Some have said (they want) all affordable housing.”
“But there will be affordable housing at this development.”
Donray Von: “There is hopefully an opportunity for public service housing – teachers, fire, police. Those people make great neighbors. Yes affordable housing will be there.”
Saporta Report: You two are some of the few people actually from Atlanta, who are in this major real estate space. Is something like that kind of an afterthought?
Ryan Gravel/Donray Von: [in unison] “We think about it.”
Saporta Report: Unlike a lot of other developments in the city, you have a venture fund attached. Can you give any details right now on what that looks like?
Donray Von: “The West End is going to go with a $350 million redevelopment with a $15 million to $20 million economic development fund attached to it.”
“It’s not just for businesses within the district but those in a two mile radius as well.”
Saporta Report: So, what is something that people are getting misconstrued about the West End?
Donray Von: “That I’m from Los Angeles and not Atlanta.”
“Or that I’m a colonizer. I’m not a colonizer. A colonizer doesn’t focus on your outcome but their outcome.”
“My phone is blowing up now with people of color saying they want to know how to get involved with this project.”
Ryan Gravel: “There are a lot of misconceptions around what our intentions are. Some people aren’t going to believe it until they see it.”
Atlanta has dozen of our own Nipsey Hussle’s, Ryan Gravel’s and Donray Von’s who need our support. Let’s do our best to support them now. The Marathon Continues…
For one last great interview on Nipsey Hussle check out the link below or a YouTube playlist here.