Georgia Tech’s leap over the Connector paying off

Wayne Clough steered his car past buildings with for-sale signs and across the dreary Fifth Street bridge onto Georgia Tech’s campus.

It was the summer of 1996, and tight security for the Summer Olympic Games had cut off his usual route to work. His new daily drive past the lonely buildings and empty parking lots made the Tech president wonder if there was a way to reconnect a campus separated from Midtown by the Downtown Connector built many years earlier.

“I thought to myself, ‘We should buy this property,’” said Clough, now president emeritus.

Though it would be several years before Clough, the university and its foundation had a plan to create Technology Square, that decision to round up land a few blocks around Fifth and Spring streets would prove transformational for Midtown.

Today, Technology Square is a hub for innovation labs and, of late, the place where high-tech firms want to place their headquarters or regional hubs.

NCR plans a 20-story headquarters tower a block to the north, and the company’s CEO, Bill Nuti, has planned to recruit other major corporations to join the Fortune 500 financial technology giant.

Georgia Tech and noted Atlanta developer Portman Holdings plan to start construction this year on the High Performance Computing Center, the 700,000 square-foot second phase of the square that will be both an expansion of Tech’s campus and potentially a center for health care information technology and other big data companies.

To the immediate south of Tech’s campus, the Institute recently received a nearly $500,000 grant to study expanding its 14-acre Technology Enterprise Park into a health and bioscience complex.

Elsewhere in Midtown, from the area around the Woodruff Arts Center to Atlantic Station to the old industrial areas west of Tech’s campus, Midtown is spawning startup companies and attracting technical operations from major corporations like Kaiser Permanente, Sage Software and Black & Decker.

Tech is in talks with at least a half-dozen firms about locating innovation labs near campus, said current Tech President G.P. “Bud” Peterson.

“They want to be close, we want a relationship,” Peterson said. “They want to work with us, and we want to work with them.”

Meanwhile, to the north and east of Technology Square, apartments for students and young professionals are sprouting from the ground at mind-boggling speed. The once tired, crime-ridden stretch is now a bustling hub of students and entrepreneurs.

Kevin Green, who heads the Midtown Alliance neighborhood planning and business coalition, said there are 16 apartment, office and retail projects currently under examination by the local development review committee, much of it on Spring and West Peachtree street corridors. They total more than $1.8 billion, not including the $350 million-plus second phase of Tech Square.

The attraction, beyond Tech, Green said, is that Midtown has a typical street grid that improves mobility. It has the MARTA spine and the Downtown Connector. Adults of all generations, but particularly young adults, are seeking out walkable communities with activity, he said.

There’s still potential for much more development, Green said. Within a 10-minute walk of Tech Square are 130 parcels with 55 acres of developable property. That could accommodate by zoning some 25 million square feet of development, or something akin to 20 buildings the size of Bank of America Plaza.

“As much as this is a time of great change, there’s a lot more to come and there’s still plenty of room to grow,” Green said.

The ‘convener’

Georgia State University for years has gained a lot of attention as an engine that helped sustain downtown, gobbling up and renovating misbegotten buildings and filling in vacant spaces with new ones to convert a commuter school into a living campus.

Tech’s model – jumping the Downtown Connector and building new facilities, coaxing businesses to surround them – is different, but no less powerful, observers say.

It didn’t happen overnight.

A university foundation bought the land in 1997. Tech eventually created a vision for Technology Square that included a hotel and conference center, street-front retail, a bookstore, and office towers for Tech and private-sector companies.

The plan also called for shifting the business school from a cloistered part of campus to one that connected with the city’s business community; having a continuing education center to bring in businesses and graduates; and driving creation of companies through a larger startup incubator, the Advanced Technology Development Center.

Clough also pushed and got the state Department of Transportation to replace the Fifth Street bridge with one that feels like a park and a true extention of the campus.

Construction survived the economic slump that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the nearly $150 million complex opened in fall 2003.

It took time for another key part of the plan — attracting innovation labs from major companies — to show success. The idea was that the labs would both work with companies on technology generated out of the university and also help recruit research dollars and create jobs, said Stephen Fleming, who heads economic development efforts at Tech and serves as both director of ATDC and executive director of the Enterprise Innovation Institute.

Recruiting the labs started out slower than expected amid the Great Recession, Peterson said.

Then companies such as elevator maker ThyssenKrupp and Panasonic’s automotive division took root. Demand finally took off in 2013, when AT&T started its Foundry wireless communications innovation center.

This year, companies such as Home Depot and Southern Company joined.

Now, the innovation labs of the major companies not only collaborate with startups, Fleming said, but they interact with one another.

“We act as a convener,” Fleming said, describing the university as “neutral ground, and it’s OK for competitors to be cooperative.”

What’s next

Earlier this year, Tech awarded the development contract for the High Performance Computing Center to Portman. The project – half to be occupied by the private sector – will include space for Tech’s Office of Information Technology, research space for analysis of Big Data and health care IT.

Peterson said he hopes logistics and data security firms and other such companies will look to co-locate and do research with Tech engineers.

Already, Tech performs about $730 million in research annually, or about 40 percent more than just five years ago, Peterson said. The slice of that funding from private sources is larger now, too, and Tech will need more private-sector funding to continue to grow, he said.

Tech hopes to engage the region’s Fortune 1000 companies as sources of capital to supplement other private investors. That could help metro Atlanta overcome the knock of having rather paltry amounts of venture capital investments compared to other major technology hubs.

Worldpay US is one of the new entrants to Midtown backing Tech. The company, which is soon to move into its Atlantic Station headquarters, recently donated $1 million to ATDC to fund a three-year incubator for financial technology. The gift is expected to launch new companies to form new technologies in the world of electronic payments, where Georgia is a dominant player.

NCR, which is trying to transform itself into a software company, plans to open a new campus by 2018 just north of Tech Square. Nuti, the NCR CEO, has described a headquarters where Tech students walking by can see technologists working through a storefront of windows. He sees it as a recruiting tool.

A partnership including Atlanta real estate developer Carter recently bought a vacant building near the Fox Theatre it plans to renovate and shop to creative young companies and corporations looking for innovation labs. Even the owner of Bank of America Plaza, the city’s tallest tower, is looking to tap into Tech’s energy, experimenting with open floor plan offices that might appeal to tech-focused and creative companies.

Fleming said demand for space in and around Georgia Tech shows not signs of stopping. The only hurdle, he said, could be the region’s notorious congestion with so many buildings getting underway.

“I’ve seen the phrase Tech Square Phase III kicked around,” Fleming said. “I can’t commit to anything but the demand seems to be unstoppable.”

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