Kempner: Wait, the next hot intown Atlanta place is where?


All of a sudden there’s a land rush on in south downtown Atlanta, where developers have proposed big juicy projects and are rooting around for more.

Wait, where?

The most decrepit, scraggliest, most forgotten parts of downtown. In fact, all of a sudden it’s looking like competition could get ferocious to fix it. Or at least attempt to.

Richard Miller, who for more than 50 years has worked at the Miller’s Rexall store on Broad Street just south of the Five Points MARTA station, has been waiting.

It wasn’t so long ago, he told me, that cops shut down a nearby store where illicit drugs were sold over the counter. His wife questioned him when he bought two more buildings near his store in the last five years.

“I knew it was turning around,” Miller told me. 

Good call by him: Miller said he just sold his three little buildings to Newport Holding for more than $3 million.

The German outfit already has bought more than 25 buildings nearby and is gobbling up more, with hopes of converting them into shops, restaurants, offices, apartments and galleries. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Hawks and the Los Angeles-based brother of the team’s lead owner are apparently hunting for properties outside Philips Arena and near a pit of railroad tracks known as The Gulch. And the city just sold Underground Atlanta to a South Carolina developer planning to add apartments and a grocery store. Maybe the third time (in 50 years) is the charm for that subterranean outpost.

Notice that all three of those big potential projects I mentioned are backed by investors from outside Georgia.

Do they know something we don’t?

Of course, the market downtown for even a portion of these kinds of projects isn’t proven. And doing them all at once is particularly edgy. They may compete for some of the same tenants.

But cash has a way of substantiating daydreams, as Miller concludes. (He added though, “I still am not betting on The Gulch.”)

Oases of promise

Over the decades lots of grand plans have been trotted out for the area south of Marietta Street downtown, where you hop between narrow oases of promise surrounded by bleakness and neglect.

Delightful old buildings are scattered among endless parking lots, railroad tracks, government buildings like the jail, a Greyhound Bus station and abandoned structures, some missing their insides. Just a thin veneer of condo homesteaders, committed small business owners and a sprinkling of artists join homeless people to populate the original commercial heart of the city, which packed up and hopped northward decades ago. Government offices are like bunkers, with their own commissaries and parking decks that keep workers inside.

Miller showed me a railroad conductor’s hat he got years back. That’s when officials and developers were tossing around the name “Railroad District.” There also were mysterious plans in the 1980s for some kind of “international town” pitched by Hong Kong and Singapore investors. And, for a time, politicians promised to expand public buildings and gathering spaces for the partially built “Government Walk,” which I’m told was supposed to include an automated moving sidewalk.

A.J. Robinson, who leads private community development group Central Atlanta Progress, sounds hopeful. And cautious.

“Maybe we are going to see a whole new downtown built,” he told me. “We shall see I guess.”

“We are maturing as a city in a way that perhaps we didn’t think we ever would,” Robinson said. “The pace has been unbelievable, but I’m not surprised that people are rediscovering the urban Atlanta landscape.”

I talked to a number of business owners and others during a walk through downtown.

Erica Blevins of Oh! My Nappy Hair salon (greatest name ever) has also been waiting for the neighborhood to shift.

“It just needs a little TLC down here,” she told me. “We’ve been toughing it out.”

“It would be nice to have this area developed without being a casualty.”

Other parts of downtown Atlanta have enjoyed more development love. The 1996 Olympics added some spark. So did creation of the Georgia Aquarium. (Thank you, again, Bernie Marcus.) But much of the biggest development has been aimed at quick visitors, not residents and lots of new office workers. Without those folks, downtown is more transient stop, than a place to sink roots.

So advocates have been anxious to get lots more people living downtown and have way more retail businesses to serve them.

Kyle Kessler and his wife moved into a $180,000 two-bedroom downtown condo along Peachtree Street in 2006. They couldn’t afford Midtown prices.

“We’re still fighting the perception that nobody lives here,” he told me.

Yes, his wife has sometimes been harassed on the streets. But the couple has never been robbed or assaulted, though they know crime happens.

Extra camaraderie

Kessler, an architect at the Center for Civic Innovation, told me they’ve got great transportation access as well as this unexpected gem: “There’s a lot of extra camaraderie. It’s a little bit of Sesame Street and Mister Roger’s neighborhood where you get to know your neighbors.”

Nice. Still, it would be good to avoid downtown living if you get squeamish around a bit of grit.

And by a “bit of grit” I mean extra opportunities to see really gross stuff on sidewalks in the middle of the day. (I’m exhibiting a rare moment of restraint.) I remember what a former colleague told me during the years when we worked together downtown: a jolting part of life in almost any big U.S. downtown is the inevitable random assault by nasty smells.

Dear Next Atlanta Mayor, jot this down: Outside air fresheners.

Concerns about safety also have to be dealt with. Bruce Teilhaber at big feet specialist Friedman’s Shoes told me his customers often get unnerved by aggressive panhandlers. Walk around just down the way and you’re likely to see drug dealers.

But he said for the first time he believes developers like Newport might be pitching a solution that becomes reality.

“God, this area needs it,” he said.

MYAJC.COM: REAL JOURNALISM. REAL LOCAL IMPACT.

AJC Unofficial Business columnist Matt Kempner offers you a unique look at the business scene in metro Atlanta and beyond. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these columns:

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