Reclaiming lost Atlanta 

Five undiscovered redevelopment gems

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.

click to enlarge Kids on their way home from school run past a boarded-up row of storefronts near the intersection of Bankhead Highway and Hollywood Road. - JIM STAWNIAK
  • Jim Stawniak
  • Kids on their way home from school run past a boarded-up row of storefronts near the intersection of Bankhead Highway and Hollywood Road.

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.

click to enlarge The Murphy Avenue corridor, with the MARTA tracks seen in the distance, is filled with historic warehouses and industrial sites. - SCOTT HENRY
  • Scott Henry
  • The Murphy Avenue corridor, with the MARTA tracks seen in the distance, is filled with historic warehouses and industrial sites.

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.

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