If you like to do that sort of thing. Which I don't. But if you're going to have a vibrant city, you need shopping.
In far-sighted metropolises -- Denver comes to mind -- downtowns have been revitalized based largely on a rebirth of retailing and entertainment, blending historic renovation with people-oriented (as opposed to huge office mausoleum) construction.
There's a downside to that. Unscrupulous hucksters often try to foist trendy schemes to cities as salvations for downtowns -- ranging from ill-conceived transit systems (that don't have a prayer of relieving congestion) to sports arenas (that are merely corporate welfare for billionaire team owners) to gimmicks such as aquariums (that, unlike Bernie Marcus' magnanimous plan to build a fish tank, have often left taxpayers holding the bag in thievery dubbed "public-private partnerships") to urban retail-entertainment complexes (that sometimes work, but commonly don't).
I'm sort of shocked that Atlanta -- with its renowned gullibility in the face of colossal public criminality (see: Bill Campbell administration) -- hasn't bought into more of the urban rebirth deceits.
There's a downside to that, too. Not all the schemes are scams. Some ideas are good. Plans by City Council President Cathy Woolard and others to use an existing ring of old rail lines to turn MARTA into a train system that actually takes people where they need and want to go -- that's good. Mixed-use developments such as Atlantic Station that bring people into the city to live, and that transform moonscapes into livable, walkable neighborhoods -- that's good.
Then, you have downtown. Part of the problem with downtown is identity. "Business left downtown for the suburbs and Buckhead years ago," bemoans Richard Reinhard, president of Central Atlanta Progress. "There was a lot of development in Midtown, which was branded as upscale and hip. Downtown was branded as just the opposite."
A couple of decades ago, downtown was, indeed, hip. Big department stores, stylish haberdasheries, high-end specialty shops. The recent closing of Macy's sounded the final retreat from those days.
Compounding that, grouses downtown mavens such as Reinhard, is an image problem. "If something good happens, they ..." -- "they" being the media -- "call it Midtown. If it's negative, they call it downtown," he says.
Reinhard has compiled a list of media offenses. A shooting last October at the Varsity was referred to by a local daily paper of declining circulation as happening in "downtown Atlanta." And, a Falcon team member was shot two years ago, according to the press, "at a popular restaurant just north of downtown."
Alternatively, big tenants considering office space, festivities, philanthropic big hits -- all seem to happen in "Midtown" even when the addresses are almost the same as the "downtown" crime hotspots.
Standing in the Sweet Auburn Curb Market recently, Reinhard raised his hands in a Job-like gesture and asked, "Why us?"
One doesn't even need to be a deity to know the answer. Atlanta is racially and organizationally dysfunctional. Buckhead is the last grand redoubt of white wealth. Midtown was cleaned up by gays and urban pioneers -- and now the big bucks have moved in. Call it Sugg's Cosmic Law of Development: The amount of real estate economic gravity in a city is constant (when adjusted for growth) -- so when some areas gain, others lose. Each area is out for itself, and the city as a whole takes a hit.
Where is the retail energy flowing? For years, in the direction of Buckhead, which has about 7.5 million square feet of retail space and a relatively low 7 percent vacancy rate. Downtown, by comparison, has less than 1 million square feet of retail -- and, attesting to my cosmic law, even before Macy's fled, about a fifth of the space was vacant.
The new bully boy is Midtown. It has about 2 million square feet of retail space. Atlantic Station will add another 1 million. Reinhard says that will cause a glut and predicts a war between Midtown and Buckhead for tenants.
I sort of think he wouldn't be horribly unhappy to see that happen, but I don't think it will. Others agree with my take. "A glut? Not at all," says Dean McNaughton, a broker with the Cushman & Wakefield commercial real estate firm. "I have a lot of tenants who would love to get into Midtown."
The price of land is high, and that makes new retail space unaffordable to many merchants. "The demand," McNaughton says, "is through the roof."
The reason is that for years people have clamored for tony intown housing, which has pumped up the population in Midtown. "That's really the key if downtown wants to make a comeback," McNaughton allows. "They need to develop a population base." He is, of course, not referring to the poor and the transients who dominate much of downtown. And there is a lot of middle- and upper-income housing being built in the city's center. But the critical mass still isn't there.
Retail development often follows one of two patterns. The cheap, vacant land of suburbia lures developers of everything from strip centers to multimillion square feet regional malls. This is the way of the "big box" and "power" centers. Often huge malls are built on barren tundra, and attract bedroom communities. That's sort of like growing your own food.
Then, as is happening intown, developers seek to insert stylish, specialty centers into already densely developed areas. That's comparable to fishing at a well-stocked pond.
Problems -- at least for intown inhabitants -- arise in mixing the two. It all depends on style.
Atlantic Station, for example, has style. It incorporates elements of "new towns" and "new urbanism." Transportation modes are integrated, and the new community will create its own population base.
It is designed around a "town center," says its development director, Bruce McCloud. The initial 800,000 square feet of retail space -- about two-thirds the size of a regional mall -- is a lot. But what it isn't is a suburban mall transplanted intown. Most shops will be at street level, and homes and offices in upper floors, a la hometowns of old.
Over near Little Five Points, we're going to see something much less attractive, the Sembler Co. big box center. Yes, there are some apartments on the perimeter of the project, but it is basically a suburban power center shoehorned into a residential area. It will be out of character and out of scale for the neighborhood. It will likely demolish the funkiness of Little Five Points. It is not integrated with transportation (OK, they'll put in some speed bumps). Traffic along Moreland will be slowed to glacial pace.
Sembler is an interesting company. Based in St. Petersburg, Fla., it honed its reputation with cookie-cutter strip centers anchored by stores such as Publix and Eckerd's. On the positive side, during the real estate calamity of the 1980s, Sembler was a rock of stability. It put its own money into projects; other developers borrowed 150 percent, 200 percent or more of construction costs from banks, and went belly up.
Sembler isn't exactly a fortress of aesthetic achievement, however. Take a look at the Publix shopping center at Piedmont and North, or the mucho-ugly mall across from City Hall East on Ponce for evidence of Sembler's (lack of) style. The blandness can work in the suburbs but doesn't translate well into historically rich intown areas.
In Tampa, the outfit two years ago opened an entertainment-retail complex in the city's historic section, Ybor City. The project tried to capitalize on Ybor's allure, which is similar to Little Five Points'. But Sembler made it clear that it didn't much want the artists, kids, frolickers and minorities who had long called the area home. The company has Gestapo rules for patrons -- wearing your baseball cap turned backward will get you booted (I'm serious).
The company's pere, Mel Sembler, is a Republican ideologue and mega-fundraiser who has twice bought himself ambassadorships -- he's now trying to bludgeon Italy and the Vatican into accepting Bush's American Empire. In other words, Sembler likes to get his way. (I've long thought that he likes to live overseas so that he doesn't have to keep driving past his one-just-like-all-the-others shopping centers.)
But he doesn't always like to pay his own way. Like many in the GOP, he firmly believes in welfare -- if rich white guys are getting it. Tampa paid tens of millions of dollars to build Sembler a parking garage and provide him with some of his financing.
I'm sure that Atlanta taxpayers will pay millions to unsnarl the traffic around the Little Five Points Sembler project. Hey, that's free enterprise.
Senior Editor John Sugg -- who says, "I really tried to write a whole column with slamming Bush and his war, but I just couldn't stop myself" -- can be reached at 404-614-1241 or at email@example.com.
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