Atlanta Gulch project could include nine high-rises, new streets

A Los Angeles developer wants to fill 27 acres of downtown Atlanta’s Gulch with new streets and high-rises that would fundamentally alter the landscape of the city’s core.

CIM Group filed documents this month with regional planners detailing what would be the largest single development downtown since Portman’s Peachtree Center started in the 1960s.

CIM wants to build more than 9 million square feet of office space, 1,000 residences, 1,500 hotel rooms and 1 million square feet of retail space. It’s a project clearly aiming for the attention of Amazon as the e-commerce giant scours North America for a new second headquarters that could one day employ more than 50,000 workers.

The state hand-delivered its proposal for Amazon’s “HQ2” Oct. 19, and included the Gulch and dozens of other potential development sites around the metro area. Amazon is seeking 8 million square feet of office space by 2027, and CIM’s development timeline anticipates completion that same year.

CIM — founded by Richard Ressler, the brother of Atlanta Hawks lead owner Tony Ressler — has been planning a mixed-use development near the team’s home, Philips Arena, that would in some ways mirror what the Atlanta Braves have done at the new SunTrust Park. But the scope of what’s detailed in the documents dwarfs that Cobb County development.

CIM wants to carve the weedy tangle of downtown parking lots and rail lines known as the Gulch into 18 parcels with at least nine skyscrapers that will be 225 feet or higher, including one rising to 500 feet or about 40 stories, according to documents filed with the Atlanta Regional Commission.

The proposed mini-city would stretch from CNN Center to the north to the Richard B. Russell Federal Courthouse complex to the south, and from the Five Points MARTA station to the east to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the west.

“I think it’s time has come,” Central Atlanta Progress President and CEO A.J. Robinson said. “It’s aspirational. It’s a bet on Atlanta. It’s a bet the urbanization of Atlanta, and the movement back (into the city), leads to a whole new way for people to view the central core. In some ways, it’s back to the future.”

Messages left for CIM executives, including Richard Ressler, were not returned. The Hawks also declined comment.

The documents outline plans for the property. Developers envision a grid of new streets or “driveways,” though it’s unclear if they would be private or public thoroughfares. The transportation plan also foresees 8,000 parking spaces in decks below street grade, though zoning could allow about four times more.

“The intent is to provide minimal parking to promote use of alternative modes of transportation, reducing the need for single occupancy vehicle use,” the report states.

Once completed, the project will create about 47,000 more vehicle trips to the area, but that number is much less than it would have been without public transit and other alternatives, a study by Kimley-Horn states.

The project includes enhancements such as a new entryways to the Five Points MARTA station and the one that serves Philips Arena and CNN Center. But the traffic plans do not list substantial new transportation projects other than ones already in progress, which include future streetcar extensions and bike lanes. The proposed downtown multimodal passenger terminal, which to date is unfunded and does not have a development timeline, is referenced in the documents filed with ARC, but is not depicted in site plans.

Asked if the Gulch project could help make the terminal a reality or trigger new transit investments, Robinson said it could advance the conversation as lawmakers contemplate state funding of transit.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Kasim Reed said the Gulch terminal will be a decision for the next mayor.

Could property values ‘explode?’

The post-recession wave of redevelopment in downtown has been almost dizzying. In addition to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, developers are building new apartments near Centennial Olympic Park, and a German firm is planning to revitalize dozens of historic structures south of Five Points. Underground Atlanta is also preparing its next act.

Robinson said planning for the Gulch project, in the works for about two years, started long before anyone knew of Amazon’s interest in a second headquarters. CIM, he said, has spent its time studying the market.

Carrie Sagel Burns, president of the Castleberry Hill Neighborhood Association, said she’s mostly heard excitement about the potential mega-development.

“I think people are either excited for foot traffic or they’re excited because their property values are going to explode,” she said. But she also said there is some concern about potential of displacement, particularly in nearby neighborhoods such as Vine City and English Avenue.

The city, Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and other groups have invested tens of millions in efforts to revitalize neighborhoods without displacing longtime residents.

Another concern, Burns said, is traffic. Gridlock is common on Falcons game days, and the morning and evening rush hours bring their own headaches.

“In Castleberry Hill, we already have significant traffic issues,” she said. “It’s more an issue of planning. They’re fixable.”

‘Chronically underdeveloped’

The Gulch has vexed past Atlanta mayors and real estate developers for decades.

Once home to the city’s major passenger rail hub, it has been touted by downtown boosters not only as a potential site for the new multimodal passenger terminal, but as a possible casino location.

Soon after Tony Ressler and partners acquired the Hawks in April 2015, the group opened discussions with the city about arena upgrades, including the potential for development around Philips.

The Hawks and city recently started the $192.5 million upgrade to Philips, which includes $142.5 million in public dollars.

CIM, meanwhile, has been an active buyer downtown. This summer, a company affiliate acquired south downtown’s Norfolk Southern complex, an aging stretch of buildings near the federal courthouse. The acquisition sparked speculation of a far broader redevelopment vision as the Norfolk Southern site is about three-fourths of a mile from Philips Arena.

The secretive project got a boost last spring when Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law a new incentive program for blighted areas.

House Bill 342 would allow the sales and use taxes collected by retailers to be used to fund bonds for infrastructure within areas designated as “enterprise zones.”

HB 342 requires projects to have at least $400 million in investment and be within an area certified as “chronically underdeveloped for a period of 20 years or more.”

The Atlanta City Council approved the Gulch area for the enterprise zone designation in recent weeks.

Related coverage 

Hawks in talks on mixed-use complex near Philips Arena

Brother of Atlanta Hawks owner could make big downtown development bet

Owner Ressler has big plans for Hawks’ present and future

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