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Staff file photo by Tim Barber The site of the former Firestone auto center in Hixson, which closed in 2017, will be redeveloped to hold new buildings with restaurant and retail space.

This story was updated Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, at 11 p.m.

Fast casual restaurants these days … most of them feel they have to have a pickup window.

A Chattanooga developer has bought the old Firestone auto center outside Northgate Mall with plans to build a new Panera restaurant and two other eateries in a multimillion-dollar project.

Developer Bassam Issa said he purchased the high-profile, three-acre tract from Simon Group. The parcel had long held Firestone until 2017 when the tire and repair shop moved to a new location a couple of miles away off Highway 153.

Issa said plans are to tear down the existing building and relocate the nearby Panera Bread restaurant, which will be 4,000 square feet in size and offer a drive-through.

"Fast casual restaurants these days ... most of them feel they have to have a pickup window," he said.

Another eatery slated for the Firestone property is expected to be a fast-casual concept, while a third is set to be a full-service eatery, Issa said. He said he wasn't ready to name the other restaurants. The site also will offer retail space, the developer said.

The existing Panera restaurant building nearby is owned by Sherman Oaks, California- based 1130 South Rexford LLC, according to the Hamilton County Assessor of Property.

Work on the new construction is to start later this year with plans to open in fall of 2020, Issa said, putting the development's price tag at several million dollars.

"It's a good market," said Issa about Hixson. "Most restaurants and retailers want to be on Gunbarrel Road or Highway 153. They're two good solid areas for Chattanooga."

Taylor Bostwick, Northgate Mall's marketing director, said Issa's project means more options to attract people to the shopping center.

"That's a great draw to the area," she said about the new development. "We'd much rather see that area in front of the mall thriving and drawing people than an old empty building."

The former Firestone property was controlled by the same real estate entity that owns the closed J.C. Penney store at the mall.

Before Firestone, J.C. Penney operated an auto center at that site, opening about the time the mall debuted in 1972. It's believed that Firestone was in the building for more than 30 years. Hair-cutting business Great Clips also had occupied part of the building.

J.C. Penney shut its Northgate Mall department store in 2014, ending a more than 40-year presence in the Hixson market amid a number of closings nationwide.

Last year, Issa made over the former Kmart store nearby on Highway 153 and leased space to Gabe's and Ollie's Bargain Outlet. Texas Roadhouse also opened on an outparcel of the former Kmart parking lot.

The 170,000-square- foot J.C. Penney store site still remains dark. Chattanooga-based CBL Properties, which owns the mall, has said it would like to redevelop the store, though the financials need to work to make it feasible.

Around the first of this year, Sears closed its longtime store at the mall.

The mall and much of the area around it has undergone an array of work and redevelopment since it was purchased by CBL for $11.5 million in cash in 2011.

CBL rebuilt an adjacent shopping center next to the Firestone site and added a Ross Dress for Less and Michael's Arts & Crafts. The center, which already held T.J. Maxx, formerly included a movie theater.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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