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Kelley finds his passion in creating places that build community

Thursday, June 16, 2016
Avalon in Alpharetta, Georgia, brings a high-end hospitality mindset to mixed-use developments, including a concierge desk in the heart of the project. John Kelley, BSCE 1992, has played a key role in bringing the development to life for North American Properties as partner and vice president of development. (Photo: Joshua Stewart)
Avalon in Alpharetta, Georgia, brings a high-end hospitality mindset to mixed-use developments, including a concierge desk in the heart of the project. John Kelley, BSCE 1992, has played a key role in bringing the development to life for North American Properties as partner and vice president of development. (Photo: Joshua Stewart)
 

John Kelley finished his civil engineering degree in 1992 and went right to work helping real estate developers with the engineering piece of their plans.

It wasn’t long, however, before Kelley realized he wanted to be more deeply involved in these projects, to “touch all the pieces,” as he says.

That led him in a new direction, one that would put him at the heart of some of Atlanta’s highest-profile mixed-use projects, including the widely praised Avalon development that’s bringing an urban feel to suburban Alpharetta, Georgia.

All of that work is driven by a desire to build community, literally and figuratively. At Kelley’s company, North American Properties, they call it “heart share.”

“It’s about making an emotional connection with the community you’re in,” said Kelley, a partner and vice president of development for North American.

Crowds pack the roads and sidewalks of Avalon during its Christmas tree lighting event. The mixed-use development opened in October 2014 and quickly attracted national attention for its mix of retail, resturants, high-end apartments, and single-family homes. A second phase of the development will open in 2017. (Photo: North American Properties)
Crowds pack the roads and sidewalks of Avalon during its Christmas tree lighting event. The mixed-use development opened in October 2014 and quickly attracted national attention for its mix of retail, resturants, high-end apartments, and single-family homes. A second phase of the development will open in 2017. (Photo: North American Properties)

Kelley said events during the holiday season are a perfect illustration of what he and his colleagues are trying to do at Avalon.

“We have the tree-lighting ceremony and the skating rink and the Santa house. The experience we have created here has become an instant tradition. The community has adopted Avalon as their place to go during the holidays.”

So while Kelley uses his engineering background all the time, he’s also doing much more.

“I still deal with civil engineers every day, but also the architects, the contractors, lots of attorneys,” he said recently on a blustery spring day at Avalon. “I also spend a lot of my time on things like marketing and operations, because it all goes hand-in-hand. That’s the thing I like most about my role: I get to touch every piece of a deal.”

Avalon opened in October 2014 and quickly attracted nationwide attention, winning awards for its mix of retail, restaurants, high-end apartments, and single-family homes. Phase two of the project, due to open in 2017, will add an office tower, a hotel and conference center, and more residential and retail space.

Kelley said it’s the first project of its kind in the South, mixing all of those uses and adding a hospitality mindset (think: tons of events and a concierge desk in the heart of the property to help visitors).

Colony Square in Midtown Atlanta already sports new signage ahead of a significant reinvention at the hands of North American Properties and School of Civil and Environmental Engineering alumnus John Kelley. (Photo: Joshua Stewart)
Colony Square in Midtown Atlanta already sports new signage ahead of a significant reinvention at the hands of North American Properties and School of Civil and Environmental Engineering alumnus John Kelley. (Photo: Joshua Stewart)

The Avalon project was a blank slate when Kelley joined North American Properties five years ago. His next challenge will be very different, but perhaps no less monumental.

North American recently purchased Colony Square in the heart of Midtown Atlanta. Built in the 1970s, it was the city’s original mixed-use development.

Kelley said the company hopes to make it an icon again in a burgeoning part of the city where development has taken off in the last decade.

“With Colony Square, we’re at 14th and Peachtree. It’s arguably the best intersection in Atlanta, and right now it’s just an inwardly oriented food court under these two office buildings, residential towers, and hotel,” Kelley said.

The idea now is to rip the roof off the enclosed retail area and open the space to the city’s famed Peachtree Street and a bustling corridor along 14th Street. Kelley, an Atlanta native, said the current Colony Square hasn’t been a destination, but it should be.

“You think about a mall that has its anchors at the end. We’re kind of in the northern end of the Midtown Mile, and we consider Colony Square to be the anchor,” he said. “We can actually have some density, instead of just a line of storefronts, and some public spaces too.”

Kelley is also in the early stages of a new mixed-use venture in Charleston, north of the historic downtown area, that will build atop an old landfill. That presents its own kinds of problems, but Kelley said he thrives on juggling all of these different kinds of projects in various stages of progress.

“That’s one of the things I love about what I do. I don’t have a typical day.”

All of his work requires a willingness to forego instant gratification for a much deeper sense of accomplishment years down the road. But Kelley said he doesn’t mind playing the long game.

“I enjoy the challenge,” he said. “If it was easy, everybody would be doing it, but it’s leaving something lasting.”