nyone who has visited the vibrant downtowns and bustling mixed-use communities in north Atlanta can thank Cheri Morris.
Morris, the president of Morris & Fellows, develops and owns many of the upscale areas with a focus on downtown revitalizations.
She was on the teams behind Main Street Woodstock, Vickery Village in Forsyth County, Town Brookhaven and downtown Atlanta’s Luckie Marietta District.
“I had consulted on downtown and mixed-use retail districts for decades and decided that if I really wanted to set the vision and control the quality of execution, I needed to just jump in and do it,” Morris said. “I find that creativity attracts creativity. So I get to spend my days with really talented chefs, artistic retailers and great designers. These people are at the top of their game, are passionate about their specialty, and I can’t tell you how much fun it is to be part of that energy.”
Now, she’s working on something a little closer to home with the City Center project in Alpharetta.
The 25-acre complex includes City Hall, which opened in 2015, a new library, town green and parking deck. Morris’ company was chosen as a developer team to expand the development, which will comprise 105,000-square-feet of retail including free-standing restaurants along Main Street, retail below offices and residential homes. In total, the center will cover six blocks of shopping and dining, five parks, 12 restaurants, 25 shops, an office building and 200 homes.
Morris’ job is to lead the “place making” from site planning and building design to parks and open spaces.
“Even though retail is not the largest amount of footage in a mixed-use project, it sets the brand, it is the visual face and it draws the people,” she said. “It is also the easiest to get wrong functionally, and if the retail doesn’t work, nothing works. Because the retail interacts so closely with the city’s public realm, I have been the liaison between the private partnership and city leadership as we move through the myriad issues around developing and operating this complex property.”
In order to do your job well, Morris said it’s important to grow and learn every day. She is the most proud of this recent project, because, she said, it has the benefits of the lessons she’s learned along the way.
However, downtown Woodstock holds a special place in her heart.
“When we went out there in 2004, everybody thought we were crazy and that we would fail,” she said. “But we pulled it off. And it has been a great boon to that city, as it drove an economic development boom that saw every property in downtown brought up to its highest purpose. Downtown Woodstock is a now a hotbed of prosperity, with a really enviable lifestyle.”
The marketplace was always the social heart of any city, she said, from the stone plazas of ancient Europe to the town squares of the small town South. But in the late 20th century, Morris said America began to put retail in isolated buildings behind vast parking lots, killing the natural social interaction that comes with the shopping experience.
That has been a rewarding financial model for the industry, but has not created community in towns and cities, she said.
“There is a better way to do it,” Morris said. “The world of real estate development is all about the numbers, but I want to also make positive social impacts with my projects. I consider myself a developer of social environments. If I can create community through the built environment, I will be rewarded with financial success.”
Even with that mindset, she still realizes how important her work is.
“Some days, it’s just making sure I don’t drop a ball and embarrass myself,” she said. “These are very public projects. Failure is not an option.”