Then there's the "other" Atlanta. Not the swank condos at Atlantic Station or the multimillion-dollar manses and lavish towers of Buckhead. Not the trendy neighborhoods of Midtown, or the gentrified streets of Inman Park. No, not even the yuppie havens of Candler Park or Cabbagetown.
We're talking about the other side of the downtown connector. It's a region that, like the "other side of the tracks" in past generations, is known to exist but hardly explored by Atlanta's glitterati -- unless they're scooting in and out of the Georgia Dome or the Georgia Aquarium.
And that's too bad. Vine City, Westside, West End -- these and many other west Atlanta neighborhoods are the new frontiers for urban explorers, although the intown pioneers may not know it yet.
Summoning the young, the cool and the affluent is a job that needs a development pied piper, someone who will transform the neighborhoods from beat-to-hell coffins of neglect into vibrant meccas of new urbanism. That's the mission of Jerome Russell. "I've never had so much fun in my life," he beams.
Russell isn't the highest-profile executive in the city, but he represents a family-owned outfit, H.J. Russell & Co., that is among Atlanta's most storied and influential.
The company was founded by Russell's father, Herman J. Russell, in 1953. "H.J.," as he's known, owned a plastering company and purchased his first real estate at 16, a rundown house that cost $125. "What I learned from my father is that what he made, he saved," Russell says. "And he kept the land," which now totals about 200 acres in the city.
The company grew into a national construction giant. It branched into other areas, such as beer distribution and television stations, but has pulled back to three key enterprises: construction, community development and running concessions at a number of airports, including Hartsfield-Jackson. With revenues topping $350 million a year, it is among the top 10 minority-owned businesses in the nation.
The Russell company got in the fast lane after Maynard Jackson was elected mayor in 1973 and rewrote city policies to ensure minority participation. Russell was a firm that had credentials, expertise and high standards. It quickly became Jackson's closest ally in the business community. The company helped build the main terminal at the airport, the Georgia Dome, the Coca-Cola headquarters, Phillips Arena and the 191 Peachtree double-spired office tower.
Plus a whole lot else, including the new incarnation of the famed Paschal's, where H.J. Russell is a partner in the restaurant.
Jerome Russell reveres his company's roots in the Civil Rights Movement -- his father counseled Martin Luther King Jr. and often provided the money to bail activists out of jail. But Russell says the new generation of black leaders is less political and more entrepreneurial. "Our company is a shining beacon to others, an example," he says. "The goal is economic empowerment. Labels are overrated, black or white, Democrat or Republican. We're relationship players."
Those relationships are taking the company around the nation, from New York to Phoenix to Miami. The construction side of the business comes under Jerome's brother, Michael. Jerome heads a subsidiary dubbed Russell New Urban Development.
Driving down MLK Drive, Russell brakes, points and declares, "Over there, the old Paschal's (restaurant and hotel), it's going to be restored." That was an insider's tip on the then not-yet-announced purchase of the historic meeting place of the Civil Rights Movement's leaders.
Russell swings through nicely gentrifying West End streets with Victorian and Craftsman homes. "Just a few years ago, this was..." He shakes his head, then adds, "Look at it now."
His real enthusiasm, however, is for his own projects. Across MLK from the old Paschal's is Historic Westside Village. Under the Bill Campbell administration -- and before Russell's involvement -- the project foundered and was chastised for misusing federal funds. Now, anchored by a Publix, a 150-unit condo community is being built by Russell.
"We chased that deal 10 years ago, and it's probably just as well we didn't get it then," Russell says. Because he waited, Russell was able to use tax incentives to help make the project financially feasible.
Russell is also completing the Villages at Carver, which replaced one of Atlanta's festering public housing projects. A similar renovation of the rundown Gartrell Court, where Russell will build 200 condo units, is scheduled to be completed in 2009.
The pride of the portfolio is Sky Lofts, about 200 condo units just south of Interstate 20 at Ralph David Abernathy and Joseph Lowery boulevards. "These compete with Midtown, with Atlantic Station," Russell boasts. And, noteworthy, at about $200,000 for a two-bedroom unit, the price is very attractive.
Sky Lofts replaced an old Sears building. The commercial part of the development is doing well -- with a CVS and other shops already leasing space.
But Russell isn't entirely happy. He sees Sky Lofts as "a new Little Five Points." While there's plenty of buyers -- it's No. 3 among intown condo projects in sales -- there are only a handful of white prospects. "This is a great location for all people," Russell says.
Any big developer is bound to have critics. Some retail neighbors of Sky Lofts didn't like the modern design of the CVS building. One critic is Heidi Chandonia, a housing professional herself, who lives near Historic Westside. She says, "It's a bit of a joke to call it historic. They tore down all of the old stores that made it historic. I definitely see Russell's point. Those old buildings had been boarded up for years, but it's just too bad some couldn't be preserved."
Russell counters that where possible, he is preserving older buildings. He owns a line of retail shops across from Sky Lofts. Many of those are slated for renovation.
"We're able to make a difference, changing entire areas," Russell says. "Sure, it's a risk. But you know what, it's a risk worth taking. It's a rewarding risk."
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