Call them diamonds in the roughest neighborhoods. A 1920s Mason's hall sitting empty and abandoned. Warehouses waiting for a new use. Vintage movie houses that have grown decrepit since the days when a double-feature was a quarter. Pockets of quaint old storefronts filled with a whole lot of nothing.
Across much of south and west Atlanta, cool commercial nodes, semi-vacant lots and landmark buildings await rebirth as lofts, coffee shops, boutiques -- perhaps as the next East Atlanta Village -- if only the right developer or urban pioneers could see their potential.
Many of these spots are located in some of the city's poorer communities: a once-thriving commercial strip in Summerhill, rows of warehouses on the edge of Adair Park, deserted shops in the old Bankhead Highway corridor. They are places that haven't seen significant private investment since white flight focused developers' attentions on the northern suburbs nearly a half-century ago.
But the likelihood that these overlooked revitalization opportunities will soon be discovered is greater now than ever. Atlanta is experiencing an intown housing boom that's spurring developers to look at parts of town they wouldn't have considered a couple of years ago.
"There's a great number of untapped areas on the south side of town," says Robert Begle, a principal with Urban Collage, an Atlanta land-use planning consulting firm.
Begle observes that redevelopment seems to be taking a clockwise swing through the city. That could explain why Kirkwood, a fast-gentrifying neighborhood on the eastern edge of the city, is the scene of one of the latest civic makeovers.
The Kirkwood Station project, which broke ground last month on the corner of Hosea Williams Drive and Howard Street, will replace a row of gutted storefronts with 12,000 square feet of new shops and restaurants topped by 23 two-story condos with prices starting around $300,000.
That development follows the recent revival of Decatur's Oakhurst commercial district a few miles away, where neighborhood restaurants and art galleries have filled old storefronts, a former hospital, even a gas station.
But even popular parts of town that today seem like sure bets typically began their upswing because a local entrepreneur was willing to gamble on an unsavory area. To many old-timers, it wasn't all that long ago that a pre-Biscuit, pre-Fellini's Candler Park was the sole province of the un-air-conditioned Sylvia's Atomic Café.
Twenty years ago, for instance, when Don Bender began buying property along Flat Shoals Avenue, the name "East Atlanta Village" hadn't yet been coined. Nor did the street have the cozy, welcoming vibe -- much less the mix of funky shops and hipster hangouts -- that now make it one of the city's liveliest neighborhoods.
One storefront Bender bought was filled with used tires. Another was crammed floor-to-ceiling with old furniture -- not for sale, as he recalls, but waiting for the occasional flea market. To put it bluntly, East Atlanta in 1985 was not what any sane developer would've called prime real estate.
But Bender saw in the woebegone commercial district the same kind of potential that had drawn him to invest in Little Five Points a decade earlier, back when that neighborhood was still considered poison by most conventional lenders.
From the two-story triangular building at the southeast corner of Flat Shoals and Glenwood to the stately, former East Atlanta Bank across the street to the majestic (and still vacant) Madison Theatre in the middle of the block, the forgotten 1920s strip was every bit as impressive, architecturally speaking, as Little Five or Virginia-Highland.
"I thought East Atlanta was an attractive place," Bender says. "It seems like a no-brainer now that people like pedestrian-friendly commercial areas, but that wasn't the thinking back then."
Bender had trouble finding other entrepreneurs who shared his enthusiasm -- almost 10 years' worth of trouble. He beat the bushes looking for retailers and restaurateurs with enough creativity to take a chance in a risky, unproven part of town.
Then, in 1995, aided by a $50,000 low-interest loan from the city, Todd Semrau and his mother, Bette, opened Heaping Bowl and Brew. With its Eastern European menu and a blue-collar boho ambiance, the restaurant and bar proved a near-instant success.
Along with the newly opened Sacred Grounds coffeehouse and a nearby gallery, Heaping Bowl (which closed this fall) helped kick-start East Atlanta's decade-long rejuvenation as a dining and shopping destination. The neighborhood's heightened profile captured the attention of first-time home buyers, which created more competition among potential retail tenants, which, in turn, helped boost surrounding property values.
"It seems like when you get one good, viable business, then things start to shift," Bender says. "When the ball gets rolling, it tends to feed on its own energy."
Of course, the trick with neighborhood revitalization is getting the ball rolling in the first place.
John Ford, vice president of Robert & Co., an Atlanta urban-planning consulting firm, says sections of south side Atlanta have been allowed to languish not just because of commercial red-lining, but because they lie outside the comfort zones of many investors.
"Developers are like everybody else; they like to do what's already been successful," he says. "There are a lot of good developers who are still risk-adverse, but over the past few years, we've seen a greater willingness to take chances."
In other words, revitalization depends on more than just numbers. Sometimes it also takes vision.
Murphy Avenue: Blessed by the Beltline
To most passersby and no small number of nearby residents, the industrial stretch of old warehouses and abandoned factories that lies between the Adair Park neighborhood and the West End looks like a wasteland.
But when Jerry McDowell looked at the boarded-up, rust-belt buildings along Allene Avenue, he saw opportunity. A partner in the nearby B Complex artist's co-op, McDowell was comfortable with the area's edginess and willing to bank on the hunch that others might feel the same.
Last year, McDowell completed the 12-unit Coeur D'Allene Lofts in a modest brick warehouse across the street from an overgrown brownfield industrial site. The spaces were snatched up so quickly for condos and artist studios that he's planning next year to develop the three smaller buildings next door for 12 more lofts.
"I'm really a small-scale developer," he says, "but I tell people I'm a large-scale recycler."
Last month, McDowell opened Capitol Coffee in a spare room at the back of the loft complex; he'd simply heard enough complaints that the neighborhood didn't have any place to get a cup of coffee, so he decided to do something about it.
"Our occupancy is 20 people, max, but it's a start," he says. "I'm not expecting to get rich."
But around the corner on Murphy Avenue, somebody might. Running along the western side of the MARTA line, parallel to the busy Lee Street, Murphy Avenue serves as an access road to a long row of ancient, run-down warehouses. The huge Candler-Smith Warehouse, a former munitions factory now filled with artist lofts, lies at the northern end of the street.
"I think you're going to see Murphy Avenue as the next major site for loft development," McDowell says. "It's getting harder and harder to find great property like that intown."
Two of the largest parcels along the street -- a total of 24 acres on either side of an old railroad track -- are owned by the state of Georgia. When contacted about the land, Barry Parker, a manager with the State Properties Commission, replied somewhat wearily, "You're not the first person who's asked about it recently."
No wonder. The larger of the two lots, the former site of a State Farmer's Market dating to 1939, lies flush against the Beltline, a proposed 22-mile transit loop that would circle downtown and Midtown and run through some of the city's most downtrodden areas. Not only does the Beltline offer the promise of a transit corridor, but it comes loaded with local tax incentives, which -- along with low-interest loans and public seed money -- often are seen as necessary catalysts for development in long-ignored sections of town.
While the Beltline is spurring interest in a number of sites on Atlanta's south side, the Murphy Avenue property is especially well-placed; it sits just where the Beltline meets the MARTA tracks, arguably one of the most desirable spots along the entire Beltline route.
Both properties had been labeled as surplus and were about to be put on the market earlier this year, but then Parker says he received orders not to sell them -- presumably because state officials are waiting to see what happens with the Beltline.
"Land values are still affordable, but it's only five minutes from downtown and only a few blocks south of the West End MARTA station," says Urban Collage's Begle, whose firm produced a land-use planning study of the area in 2003 for the Atlanta Regional Commission. "To me, that's gonna be the next place in Atlanta to take off."
Summerhill: Still waiting
Back in the 1950s, Summerhill was a thriving middle-class community just south of the State Capitol with its own bustling commercial district.
State Rep. Douglas Dean, D-Atlanta, a lifelong resident who runs the Summerhill Neighborhood Development Corporation, recalls, "When I grew up, we didn't even have to go downtown because we had everything we needed -- clothing, groceries, hardware -- along Georgia Avenue."
But then came a mid-'60s double-whammy. The city cleared out a huge swath of Summerhill for the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and acres of surrounding parking lots. That was followed by the construction of both the Downtown Connector and the I-20 expressway, which cut the neighborhood off from downtown and the rest of central Atlanta.
Since 1988, Dean's group has helped build more than 400 affordable-housing units throughout the area. But it has yet to make much headway in reviving Georgia Avenue, where the most vibrant business among the padlocked old stores is a low-key Chinese take-out joint.
Even the 1996 Olympics, which brought more than 2 million visitors to Summerhill's doorstep and left behind the sparkling Turner Field, did little to help. In fact, Begle says, the Ted is probably holding the neighborhood back because the vacant blocks around the baseball palace are worth more to their owners as game-day parking lots than as development sites.
In 2002, the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority spent $2.5 million to build Fanplex, a miniature golf course and video-game arcade, across from the stadium in an effort to bring daytime traffic to the neighborhood, but the controversial project went belly up within two years and now sits empty.
Except for scattered home-building on vacant lots, there seems to be little going on in Summerhill at the moment, despite being within walking distance of Grant Park. Just this summer, a deal for a major mixed-use project that would have brought a new hotel, condos and offices to Summerhill fell apart, Dean says.
Peggy Harper, president of Neighborhood Planning Unit-V, which includes Summerhill, Peoplestown and her own Mechanicsville, believes it could be several years before developers can be coaxed to the neighborhoods just south of downtown -- although she concedes that just last year, an upscale row of brick town homes was built in a particularly blighted section of her community.
Dean, however, says he's not worried. He imagines Georgia Avenue eventually becoming another Little Five Points, with outdoor cafes and boutiques. It doesn't hurt that the former Capitol Homes housing project just across I-20 is being redeveloped as Capitol Gateway, a $200 million mixed-use complex with more than 900 apartments, 90 homes and 45,000 square feet of neighborhood retail space.
"People are impatient, but the demographics have to be right for investors," Dean explains. "I think it's just a matter of time -- perhaps another year or two -- until development comes along."
Lakewood Heights: Big dreams, joyless reality
Sometimes it helps to delve into the history books to learn how things wound up where they are in Atlanta. Many of the city's best-known commercial areas, including Little Five Points and Virginia-Highland, sprouted up near the end of a streetcar line. Others, such as the West End, pre-date the city that later annexed them. Still others evolved organically to provide neighborhood shopping within walking distance of nearby homes.
The Lakewood Heights retail district, which stretches two blocks between the intersections of Jonesboro Road and Lakewood and Sawtell avenues, dates back to the late 1800s, when the first Atlanta water works was located at what would later become Lakewood Fairgrounds.
Around the turn of the century, the city extended a streetcar line to the commercial district. In the late 1920s, the area got another boost when General Motors opened a plant less than a mile away at Sawtell Avenue and McDonough Boulevard.
These days, however, a visit to Lakewood Heights reveals a neighborhood that's fallen on hard times and can't get up. Some of the more impressive buildings, such as the two-story, granite Mason's hall and a 1920s filling station, are seemingly empty. Even the nearby Lakewood Heights Elementary School, built in 1932, was decommissioned last year and now sits vacant.
Not that there aren't big dreams for the area. Gaylon Rogers, vice president of the Lakewood Heights Community Civic Association, says his group has applied for about $1.6 million in Empowerment Zone funds from the city in order to buy up the commercial buildings and redevelop the area as an entertainment district with restaurants, boutiques, galleries and artist lofts.
East Atlanta Village's Bender advocates creative uses for old buildings -- music venues, playhouses, galleries -- to enhance a neighborhood's cultural life. He also believes the city makes a poor redevelopment partner.
"Public funding can help an area with façade and streetscape improvements, but business decisions have to made by entrepreneurs," he explains, citing Underground Atlanta as an ill-conceived city-backed project. "When you get public officials involved, that's a sure-fire plan for driving a project into the toilet."
Still, Mayor Shirley Franklin's recent announcement that the city plans to open up the 117-acre Lakewood Fairgrounds to mixed-use development has the local commercial real-estate community buzzing. It may be only a matter of time until the buzz finds Lakewood Heights.
Crossroads Shopping Center: A 26-acre blank canvas
It's a rare investor who wants to be the first one to sink money into an untested market, says Matt Gove, editor of Atlanta Property News, a commercial real-estate newsletter. However, he adds, the lesson of Camp Creek MarketPlace may help to change some thinking.
Two years ago, the 100-store shopping center opened at Camp Creek Parkway and I-285, a former retail no-man's land west of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and was so wildly successful that a second phase was launched immediately.
"A smart developer will look at something like what's happened at Camp Creek and realize there are great overlooked opportunities in Atlanta's south side," Gove says.
One such opportunity could be Crossroads Shopping Center. Built in the 1950s by the same developer who gave us Ansley Mall, Crossroads is a 26-acre expanse of asphalt surrounding an open-air mall in which many of the storefronts have been gutted to discourage vagrants and drug deals.
Located at the nexus of intown notoriety, where the former Stewart Avenue meets Langford Parkway, the ailing center is home to a small handful of down-market retailers: a wig shop, a dollar store, a diner. Still cited as a haven for prostitution, much of the southern stretch of Metropolitan Parkway is lined with auto-parts shops and empty parking lots. To find a halfway decent supermarket or hardware store, nearby residents are forced to drive south to East Point or beyond.
In its visible obsolescence, Crossroads is like a lot of other mid-century shopping plazas around Atlanta -- Campbellton Plaza, Greenbriar Mall, Moreland Shopping Center, to name a few -- that have more concrete than commercial appeal.
That's why it needs to be replaced by something more useful, says Friends of the Beltline founder Ryan Gravel, who lives a mile or so north off Metropolitan Parkway.
"By all accounts, the redevelopment of that property would be the catalyst for the revitalization of the whole street," he says.
If a developer were to combine the Crossroads parcel with the two smaller shopping centers to its north, Gravel suggests, there might well be enough room to build something similar to the new Edgewood Retail District that replaced the old Atlanta Gas Light site on Moreland Avenue.
"While residents over there were complaining about that development, folks over here were saying, 'Bring it on! We'd love some big-box retail,'" he says.
Of course, Gravel concedes it's not quite that simple -- as Crossroads' owner, Larry Walinsky, can confirm. Walinsky bought the property while it was in bankruptcy in the late '80s and has spent nearly 20 years trying to attract a major retailer, such as Home Depot or Publix.
"At one time, this was a beautiful shopping center with all the big department stores," he says. "People here want it back the way it was in the '50s, but we're in one of the poorer areas of the city. All the big anchor tenants are afraid to come in, because they don't want to have to put burglar bars on their windows."
But there have been recent signs of life, most notably a new apartment complex that opened across the street, replacing a trailer park. And Walinsky is hoping to win Atlanta Housing Authority approval this spring for a senior citizen's high-rise on the backside of the Crossroads property that would allow him to tear down 100,000 square feet of unusable retail space.
In the meantime, he's still looking for a tenant willing to go where others fear to tread.
"We're trying to help the neighborhood and do something good here, but it's going to take time," Walinsky says. "They let this street go to hell; you can't change that over night."
Bankhead Highway: The next big thing?
Say you had a time machine that could transport you back four decades or so. If you tried it out at the corner of Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway and Hollywood Road, you'd probably think the thing was broken.
Very little has happened within living memory around the juncture of the old Bankhead Highway. There's a used appliance shop with broken stoves spilling out onto the sidewalk and signs left over from soul-food restaurants that couldn't make a go of it. Just up Hollywood Road is the sprawling, overgrown Hollywood Cemetery and the notorious Gun Club area, long known as the favored place for Westside thugs to dump the bodies.
But local real-estate agent Keith Sharp takes a more positive view. "I think that intersection is one of the up-and-coming potential areas," he says. "It could be the next big thing."
Sharp's statement may sound like a salesman's spin until you consider how the Westside real-estate market has thrown conventional wisdom out the window. In 1997, development firm Brock Built began buying up land along the blighted Marietta Road for Adams Crossing, an upscale subdivision with homes starting around $200,000.
"People thought we were nuts because we were surrounded by the R.M. Clayton (water-treatment) plant, the Waste Management landfill and the Inman train yards," recalls company CEO Steve Brock. "It was the first new residential construction in that area in 40 years."
Since Adams Crossing opened in 2000, Brock has gone on to build four other large subdivisions on Marietta Road, Perry Boulevard and even Bolton Road, directly across the street from an active landfill. Each has been a fast-seller and, last year, West Highlands -- built on the site of the old Perry Homes public housing project -- won a Community of Excellence Award from the Atlanta Regional Commission.
Brock now plans to branch out into commercial development with Bolton Crossing, a retail center at the run-down intersection of Marietta Road and busy Bolton Road. He's looking for a restaurant for a stunning, turn-of-the-century Masonic Lodge on the southeast corner, as well as a tenant for the old hardware store next door that had once sold blasting supplies to a nearby rock quarry.
Brock Built's activities have helped touch off a housing boom throughout the area, explains Sharp, an agent with Keller Williams Realty.
"These new subdivisions were the catalyst for new development and infill housing in what I call the 'Upper West Side' of Atlanta," Sharp says. "When I moved here 13 years ago, it was pretty redneck, and some areas were rough. But over the past four years, the demographics have shifted enough so that I believe the commercial areas are about to explode."
Although the redevelopment pendulum hasn't yet swung as far south as the corner of Bankhead and Hollywood, Brock believes it's only a matter of time. Already, new houses are sprouting up on vacant lots in the surrounding neighborhoods and some long-abandoned Bankhead buildings are being transformed into lofts.
"It's still a little scary there at times, but it's a lot better than it was," Brock says. "It wouldn't take that much to kick it into high gear."
Grappling with the "G" word
In addition to decay and developer disinterest, there are other impediments to community revitalization. The absentee owner, for instance, who lets his buildings sit vacant because he's in a nursing home in Florida. Or the real-estate speculator who's unwilling to spend a dime to upgrade his tract until the market heats up. Worse still are the slicksters who buy up portfolios of tax liens, then wait years to foreclose while the land sits in legal limbo in order to avoid paying property taxes.
Then there are the bureaucratic hurdles and dated zoning laws that hold developers back from building imaginative, site-appropriate projects.
Jerry McDowell says it took six months of paper-shuffling with the city before he gained approval to put lofts in an area zoned for heavy industrial use.
"It was a very time-consuming process," he says, "that might not be worth it for some of the big developers."
Don Bender says people still complain that he built the Little Five Points strip that houses Junkman's Daughter behind an unsightly parking lot, rather than placing the buildings against the sidewalk, as they are in the rest of the pedestrian-friendly retail district. "What they don't realize is that we were required by zoning laws to have a 40-foot setback," he says.
"Some of our current zoning laws are a product of two-dimensional thinking," says Robert & Co.'s Ford, who explains that the old model of keeping commercial use strictly segregated from homes and offices doesn't hold up any more.
While high-profile mixed-use developments that blend lofts, boutiques and restaurants have been popping up across town in recent years, Ford still believes Atlanta officials need to streamline the approval process to make it easier for creative developers to undertake unique projects in transitional neighborhoods.
One of the reasons that hasn't quite happened yet is gentrification.
Larry Keating, a Georgia Tech planning professor who chaired the city's Gentrification Task Force a few years back, says there are some very real concerns about gentrification when it comes to maintaining affordable housing and racial diversity in Atlanta. But those concerns shouldn't stand in the way of thoughtful redevelopments that find ways to preserve the history and character of intown neighborhoods.
"Revitalization, when it's driven by the private sector, always involves gentrification," Keating observes.
Besides, he says, the stereotype of yuppies displacing poor blacks isn't always the case. Sometimes it's buppies who move in, as is the case in the West End, which has a miniscule white population.
"The whole city is gentrifying," Keating says.
While it may take several more years of revival efforts for many south side neighborhoods to reach the level of Ormewood Park -- or even Kirkwood -- Bender feels that creative developers who care about a community have an opportunity to make things happen.
"Some people believe if you have the right demographics, things will take care of themselves," he says. "I don't think that's true."
Every once in a while, however, when Bender meets a newcomer and introduces himself as a major landlord in Little Five Points and East Atlanta, he'll get a predictable response.
Says Bender: "The person will say, 'Wow, you really lucked into a gold mine there,' and I just have to smile."
@Wesley: It is called BeltLine Kroger.
Please see http://www.SaveTheTed.org
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