It's being replaced by high-rises, condos and a vision of Peachtree Road that could transform Buckhead into a place where people will live, work and walk.
Chances are the first inkling most Atlantans will have of the transformation of Buckhead won't come from the cranes overhead. Or the sight of a 27-story office tower rising out of the ground at one of the city's most prominent intersections. Or the signs on West Paces Ferry Road trumpeting the future site of Atlanta's newest ultra-luxury hotel. Or even tantalizing rumors of towers designed to lure the super-rich with high-rise condos priced $3 million and up.
No, the realization that something big is happening will likely sink in at a more basic level, down where the rubber hits the road -- Peachtree Road, to be exact. It'll come when the chorus of jackhammers starts to pound away at the asphalt of Atlanta's most famous street early next year, when orange cones begin to sprout like mushrooms and hard hats become an everyday sight.
Looking down from his office on the 16th floor of Tower Place, Scotty Greene talks about the impending roadwork below him in the kind of upbeat terms that suggests he's rehearsed for three years' worth of tense encounters with impatient commuters. "We need to make Peachtree Road live up to its name," says Greene, executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District. "The traffic will be bad for a while, but traffic is emblematic to an area's success."
That's the kind of Chamber of Commerce spin that has justified a lot of dumb decisions when it came to growth and development in Atlanta. This time, Greene insists, they are trying to get it right, with an ambitious mission to transform Buckhead Village from the party central hotspot it used to be to something akin to Rodeo Drive plumped down on Park Avenue.
The cornerstone of the plan is a Peachtree Road you soon won't recognize.
The CID has been quietly working for more than a decade toward the goal of turning Buckhead's main traffic artery into a grand boulevard, complete with trees, benches and that rarest of commodities, at least in Atlanta: a landscaped median strip where its yellow line now lies.
The CID's original concept behind the $20 million Peachtree Boulevard project -- beyond easing traffic congestion -- was to prepare Buckhead for future growth, to keep it ahead of the curve.
The curve, however, seems to have caught up with Buckhead. As if you hadn't noticed, Buckhead is booming with new construction. By the most recent reckoning, at least two dozen major projects -- representing millions of square feet of new office space, condos, apartments, hotel rooms and retail space -- have been announced for Buckhead. The most eye-catching entries include:
• The new St. Regis, a luxury hotel that has a reputation as a refuge for celebrities and millionaires and is certain to keep Buckhead on the radar of the international jet-set.
• The Mansion, a 50-story skyscraper that will house a luxury hotel, two restaurants and 28 floors of condos starting at $3 million.
• The Sovereign, a 50-story office-and-condo tower near the northwest corner of Peachtree Road and Ga. 400 that, at 635 feet, will be Buckhead's tallest building.
• Cityplace -- easily the most over-the-top proposal yet -- a series of nine 40-story towers containing 3,800 luxury condo units that is proposed on vacant land sandwiched between Lenox Square and Roxboro Road.
For the first time in living memory, there is agreement among business leaders, politicians, planning experts and even homeowners that the growth spurt will make Buckhead not just bigger, but better.
The combined impact of the Peachtree Boulevard project and the new buildings going up -- as well as the increasingly likely prospect of a streetcar system running up the spine of the city -- promises to transform Buckhead into a true urban center where the car is no longer king and workers, residents and shoppers alike will mingle on wide, tree-lined sidewalks.
"What's happening now in Buckhead is something that's taking place all over the country as people are moving back to urban centers," says Jim Durrett, executive director of the Livable Communities Coalition, a quality-growth think-tank based in Atlanta. "In 10 years, Buckhead is likely to feel very different than it does now."
Perhaps so, but this rosy vision seems a world away from the Buckhead of only a few years back, a place where late-night shoot-outs and stabbings had, in the popular imagination, turned Atlanta's ritziest zip code into an upscale version of Dodge City.
In a very real way, the notorious party scene that had come to define the area had to die so Buckhead could be reborn.
There was a time when diagonal parking spaces lined both sides of Peachtree Road and Bolling Way was just a back alley. In the decades following Buckhead's annexation in Atlanta in 1952, the strip of storefronts that formed the western edge of the Buckhead Village housed a beauty parlor, a uniform shop, a hardware store, a newsstand, a laundromat and the familiar Buckhead Men's Shop -- businesses designed to serve a neighborhood clientele.
By the early '80s, however, the Buckhead Village was in visible decline, a rundown collection of sleepy shops anchored by the city's last remaining porn theater, the Buckhead Cinema. After years of pressure from local corporate bigwigs who believed the village wasn't keeping up with the times by attracting new businesses, the City Council approved a new ordinance that exempted Buckhead restaurants and bars from citywide minimum parking requirements.
Neil Kaplowitz, whose family owned the men's shop and several other storefronts between East Paces Ferry and Buckhead Avenue, saw the move as the beginning of the end for traditional businesses like his. As bars and nightclubs began to rush in, rents shot up and competition increased for existing parking spaces. "I fought the bars for 10 years and when they changed the law, it about put me out of business," Kaplowitz says. "Since I couldn't beat them, I joined them."
In a few years, Kaplowitz and other land owners along Peachtree Road had replaced nearly all their old tenants with nightclubs and restaurants: BAR, World Bar, Lulu's Bait Shack, Mako's, Tongue & Groove, Chaos and John Harvard's Brew House in the former site of the Buckhead Men's Shop.
By the time the 1996 Olympics came to town, there were more than 50 liquor licenses within the triangle formed by Peachtree, Pharr Road and Grandview Avenue. Every weekend, the Buckhead Village was hosting a reasonable facsimile of Mardi Gras, complete with nightly arrests, puking in the streets and college girls who had to be carried to their cars.
"The nearby homeowners were complaining about the noise, underage drinking and littering," says Lee Morris, a former city councilman who represented the area during the late '90s. "I told property owners in the village that they were killing the golden goose. Some bar owners were very responsible, but others were not."
In 1999, Sam Massell, president of the Buckhead Coalition, began calling for a rollback of bar hours as a remedy to the crime and vandalism associated with the late-night party scene.
Then, on Super Bowl Sunday 2000, the official body count began. In the wee hours following the game, two Decatur men, Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24, lay dying in the street of knife wounds after getting into a melee with friends of Baltimore Ravens All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis.
Like many local residents and businessmen, Aaron Rents President Robin Loudermilk began to fret about the violence in the Buckhead Village and the weekend cruising by a largely black crowd that clogged Peachtree with cars blaring hip-hop music.
In January 2004, a few days after a Council-imposed rollback of drinking hours from 4 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. had kicked in, Loudermilk arrived at the furniture-rental company his father founded in 1955. As he pulled into his parking space off East Paces Ferry Road, he spotted a small, shiny object next to his tire that was at once immediately recognizable and utterly out of place.
It was an unspent bullet, a hollow-point. Picking it up, Loudermilk said to himself: That's it. Enough is enough.
Within a few weeks he had formed the Buckhead Alliance, a heavy-hitting group of CEOs and civic leaders that is widely credited -- or blamed, depending on your viewpoint -- with turning the tide in favor of shutting down the Buckhead party scene once and for all.
"There were at least 10 murders related to the nightlife in the Buckhead Village," Loudermilk says. "Our initial goal was to stop the crime in the streets."
Loudermilk certainly wasn't the first person to have that objective, but he focused on a novel way of tackling the problem. The Buckhead Alliance launched a behind-the-scenes campaign, going directly to village property owners and asking them -- shaming them, if necessary -- to stop renting space to the rowdiest clubs.
The Alliance also raised $90,000 among its members to install street lamps around the village and security cameras that were linked directly to the Buckhead police precinct. When properties became available, Alliance members -- Loudermilk included -- bought them and refused to rent to nightclubs.
Loudermilk joined Massell, a former Atlanta mayor, in promoting a vision for the village in which the clusters of nightclubs would be replaced with upscale boutiques and restaurants, and many of the old Peachtree Road storefronts would give way to high-rises.
Declared Massell: "The party's over in Buckhead."
If you believe the hype, Buckhead is poised to become the Emerald City of the South.
The key to this transformation isn't simply the staggering number of planned development projects, it's the type of development. "The towers built 10 to 15 years ago were single-use office buildings with maybe a deli at the bottom to discourage workers from leaving the building and taking long lunches," says the CID's Greene.
"Now, for the first time, we've got five-use buildings -- office, condo, hotel, restaurant and retail."
From the early '60s, with the opening of Lenox Square, through the '70s and the construction of Tower Place and up until the building boom of the '80s, Buckhead functioned essentially as a suburban office market -- an "edge city," in urban-planning lingo -- within the Atlanta city limits.
The new generation of developments is expected to change all that by including restaurants, stores, health clubs and other amenities at street-level, thereby encouraging people to walk.
"Great cities have places where people live, work and shop," says John Long, chief investment officer for Novare Group. "Atlanta has always been a city where, when you left work, you drove home to somewhere else, but that's changing." Novare is putting the finishing touches on the 406-unit Realm condos just east of the Grand Hyatt Hotel on Peachtree. The wedge-shaped, 29-story high-rise also will house 24,000 square feet of office space and ground-floor shops.
"People are trying to live closer to where they work," says Tom Bell, CEO of Cousins Properties. "They're moving from their suburbs and their single-family neighborhoods because they're looking for a lifestyle change that involves less time in a car. We hear time and again people want to be where the action is."
Cousins Properties, one of the region's blue-chip developers, will relocate its corporate headquarters early next year into Terminus 100, a 26-story glass office tower that will stand like a figurehead on the most prominent intersection in Buckhead: Peachtree and Piedmont roads. The building will hug the sidewalk and be anchored by two floors of retail space and a pedestrian-friendly restaurant plaza; plans call for it to eventually be part of a $600 million landscaped campus that will include another office building and three condo towers.
Another difference between the newest buildings and those of previous decades is their height.
Buckhead already may seem a high-rise haven, but among existing buildings, only the Park Avenue condo tower behind Phipps Plaza tops 40 floors. The iconic, green-neon-outlined Tower Place, built in the mid-'70s, stands a relatively modest 29 stories. The wave of proposed towers for Buckhead significantly ups the ante, calling for the number of buildings taller than 25 stories to triple, from the current 11 to at least 33.
In years past, plans of that density often resulted in tooth-and-nail fights between developers and local homeowners. The good news, explains longtime community activist Sally Silver, is that today's developers are building smarter projects, and are often seeking neighborhood support for new proposals before they submit their plans to the city.
By building close to the sidewalk and adding street-level amenities that welcome pedestrians, Silver says, the newest projects fit better into an increasingly urban streetscape than the cold, fortress-like developments of yesteryear.
Silver's concern, however, is that the wave of new projects doesn't get so upscale that it ignores affordable housing and services for hourly workers. "I don't want to be thought of as the exclusive neighborhood," she says, although it may be too late for that. "It's important to have a mix of housing options and normal amenities -- salons and coffee shops and ice-cream parlors -- for residents."
Meanwhile, the pace of development is only intensifying. An investment group recently snatched up the old "Disco Kroger" shopping center on Piedmont Road. The strip of storefronts that includes the Roxy Theatre is targeted for another condo tower by Novare. (Long insists the company intends to build around the old movie house-turned-music venue.) And there are plans awaiting City Council approval for a high-rise at the corner of the Phipps Plaza parking lot, two more a block east of the mall, and another for the "Rooms To Go Tower," a temporary name reflecting the fact that it will replace the furniture showroom on Piedmont Road.
Higher land cost is one reason for the skyward trend. Developers also are building higher in response to a market demand for increasingly urban environments -- and to be better able to accommodate the additional 2.3 million people expected to call metro Atlanta home by the year 2030. "People are coming, whether we plan for it or not," says Clair Muller, who has represented Atlanta's north side on the City Council for 16 years. "We should be pushing for vertical development -- the alternative is much less palatable."
WITH PEOPLE, OF COURSE, comes traffic.
While the CID's Peachtree Boulevard project won't add another driving lane, Scotty Greene insists that, when the project is completed in 2009, it'll feel as if it had. A mile-long stretch of Peachtree Road from Maple Drive to Roxboro Road will be widened by 30 feet to accommodate broader sidewalks and a tree-lined median.
Preventing left-hand turns except at intersections, Greene says, will cut down on the start-and-stop experience for the 55,000 cars that pass through Buckhead every day. "Traffic may move slower, but it'll be smoother," he says. "But this isn't just about travel times; it's about improving the quality of the street-level environment."
Shade trees will be planted to lower the temperature on the sidewalk, and benches, decorative street lamps and flower beds will be installed along Peachtree. The hope is that Buckhead will become a mini-Manhattan, where people live in high-rises and walk to neighborhood stores or local restaurants.
Greene readily acknowledges that streamlining Peachtree and coaxing people onto the sidewalk will only go so far to soothe the traffic woes. As the area grows more dense, he says, the political pressure for public transit will only increase.
To many, that realization makes a proposal to re-introduce streetcars to Peachtree Road seem more and more like a sure thing.
With almost 100,000 new condominiums planned along the length of Peachtree over the next decade, streetcars are the only real answer to the threat of gridlock, says Michael Robison, the parking-deck mogul who spent the past three years as chairman of Atlanta Streetcar Inc., a private group of movers and shakers dedicated to bringing streetcars back to the city.
"We've had buses running up that road for the better part of four decades and almost nobody rides them," says Robison, CEO of Lanier Parking. A feasibility study completed last year by the group indicated that streetcars would not only serve to link downtown, Midtown and Buckhead for local residents, but their novelty would boost tourism throughout the city. Because of the relative ease of laying track, the entire Atlanta Streetcar Project, running north from the West End to Phipps Plaza, could be completed in a year-and-a-half at a cost of about $300 million.
Last month, Robison passed the streetcar torch -- and the study results -- on to the Peachtree Corridor Task Force, a new group created by Mayor Shirley Franklin to determine what Atlanta's signature street should be like in the next half-century. One of its co-chairmen is Tom Bell of Cousins Properties.
Although he is not yet ready to anoint streetcars as the solution, Bell emphasizes that some form of street-based mass transit on Peachtree is a "must-do" as the city continues to grow.
It may seem ironic that a mode of transportation last seen in Atlanta in 1949 could hold a key to relieving the city's future traffic woes, but to Greene, it's a natural.
"The new urbanism is really nothing more than the old urbanism," he says. "In the 1930s, most people lived, got their hair cut, bought groceries and so forth within the space of a few blocks." Greene sees the new Buckhead as a return to that kind of neighborhood feel.
Early next year, work will begin on $4 million of new sidewalks, benches, trees and colored paving stones intended to help transform the village into Atlanta's version of D.C.'s Georgetown -- or Rodeo Drive. "All the buzz and talk is that this will become an area of high-end boutiques," says Robin Loudermilk, who hopes that luxury retailers like Prada can be lured to set up shop. The CID, a self-taxing entity created by major landowners within its boundaries, helped secure a $2 million Woodruff Foundation matching grant to fund the streetscape improvements and is putting up the rest of the money.
In April, the space on Peachtree formerly occupied by Aunt Charley's and the Buckhead Saloon was razed to the dirt underneath by its new owner, Loudermilk. He predicts that by next year, the village will see some of the older buildings start coming down, replaced by two-story storefronts set up against the sidewalk, perhaps with mid-rise units in the back. "Most of the buildings aren't worth saving and need to be torn down," Loudermilk says. "The old owners weren't reinvesting in their property."
But he insists that familiar strips along East Paces Ferry and Peachtree roads will retain their character and that business leaders want many of the current bars and restaurants to stay and be joined by new ones -- as long as the party doesn't get out of control again.
"We want to keep the 'village-y' feel of the area," Loudermilk says. "We want Tongue & Groove and Park Bench and Mike & Angelo's. We want it to be an entertainment district."
To City Councilman Ceasar Mitchell and many other young club-goers, the death of the Buckhead bar scene was a loss to Atlanta. "One of the things that made Atlanta so attractive to visitors was our vibrant nightlife," Mitchell says. "One thing that used to put us over with convention-bookers was the Buckhead Village."
Mitchell hopes later this year to win council support for a return to the old 4 a.m. closing time, but he doesn't expect the village to re-ignite. "There's no appetite now for a vigorous nightlife in Buckhead and the leaders want something else for that area," he says.
Tongue & Groove owner Michael Krohngold agrees. In the year following the Ray Lewis incident, he considered closing his club because many of his customers were afraid to come to Buckhead. He's no fan of the earlier bar hours, but is ready to watch the neighborhood transform itself. "You show up in Buckhead on a Saturday night now and it feels surprisingly civilized," he says. "I don't see how any of this can be a bad thing. Having money coming into the area and condos lining both sides of Peachtree -- that's how it should be."
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