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Cumberland district wants to include Chattahoochee park

The Cobb County business district that lured the Braves out of the city of Atlanta is working on another way to distinguish itself to residents, workers and economic development prospects — as a champion of green space.

The Cumberland Community Improvement District wants to add to its territory nearly 600 acres of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, which runs along the district’s eastern edge.

The move wouldn’t allow development in the recreation area, which would remain protected federal property. But the district could help fund and coordinate improvements and market the riverside park as an amenity.

National Park Service officials say they’re fine with the idea; the Cobb Commission still must sign off but no objections are expected.

As metro area jobs centers jockey for tenants and residents, the move adds another arrow to Cumberland’s quiver, backers say.

Suburban city centers like Cumberland — which encompasses the Cumberland Mall and Galleria area around the I-285/75 junction — lured corporate heavies for years with lush campuses, free or cheap parking and other amenities.

By expanding its borders Cumberland can market itself not only as the future home of a $1 billion Major League Baseball stadium and entertainment district, but also as the home to as much combined green space as New York City’s Central Park.

The move also has practical purposes. The CID can invest in upgrades to trails and other projects within the park, said Tad Leithead, the chairman of the Cumberland CID. The organization has built or plans miles of trails that connect the district’s cloistered office parks to the park and the Silver Comet Trail to the southwest.

Leithead said no other metro Atlanta business district can boast as many contiguous acres of park lands within a few minutes’ walk of skyscrapers, major league sports, residences and performing arts centers. It’s a marketing angle boosters can play up when big companies come knocking.

“That’s a very rare environment,” Leithead said.

A Community Improvement District is collection of businesses that tax themselves to fund transportation and other infrastructure enhancements in the district. The businesses pay the tax, though the cost is generally borne by consumers who spend money in the district and from commercial tenants. Companies elect directors.

The Northwest Atlanta office market, which includes Cumberland, had office vacancy of 15.6 percent at the end of 2013, compared to 15.0 percent for the metro Atlanta area, according to real estate services firm CoStar Group. Though the district is one of the region’s biggest jobs centers, it hasn’t seen a new Class A or top-tier office tower in about 15 years.

According to data from real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield, the Cumberland area and Central Perimeter led first quarter filled up the most net vacant space among suburban office markets.

Bob Voyles, CEO of Seven Oaks Company, a developer of mixed-use properties and a member of the Cumberland CID board, said the area hasn’t kept up with the growth of the Perimeter Mall area and other competitors such as Buckhead and Midtown. Voyles’ firm also developed the Perimeter Summit office complex near Perimeter Mall.

“(Cumberland) developed earlier than Perimeter, but it hasn’t had the sustained growth the Perimeter has had,” Voyles said.

The connection with the parks service, he said, “gives us a unique story.”

The CID wouldn’t tax the National Park Service as part of the expansion, but the new boundaries would allow the CID to partner with the agency on park projects.

The business district has already helped build trails from surrounding developments to the border of the recreation Area, said Bill Cox, the park’s superintendent. The recreation area stretches nearly 50 miles from the Buford Dam at Lake Lanier to Peachtree Creek near Atlanta Road and I-285.

The Park Service has several nonprofit partners, and the CID would join them, Cox said. The CID and the agency have discussed potential upgrades to trail connections and improvements to the Paces Mill segment of the recreation area, which is near the Cobb Parkway bridge over the river.

“The expansion of their boundary benefits the park quite a bit,” Cox said.

The Chattahoochee park lands had more than 3.1 million visitors, making it one of the United States’ 20 busiest national park areas. The segment near Cumberland Mall is among the most heavily used, Cox said.

“We are open space for urban dwellers and it’s a chance to reconnect and unplug,” he said.

The expansion would double the Cumberland district’s green space, Leithead said. It might also help the district attract outside grants for trails and other projects, he said.

Voyles, the Seven Oaks chief executive, said he thinks the move will pair well with the planned stadium as a marketing boost.

“Cumberland is trying to reboot its mojo,” he said. “It’s a great area but I think it’s been under-marketed.”

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