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In the early- to mid-'80s, a team of investors from Singapore had a vision: convert 19 blocks south of Mitchell Street into, according to a 1985 AJC article, an "international town" comprising high-rises where more than 30,000 people would have lived, worked and played.
When one of the investors, the late A.C. Toh, heard interest from only half the area's property owners, he knew the team would have a hard time assembling land. It stalled, but he still hoped to push forward.
"Your downtown needs life," he said, but the project eventually fell through.
Had Toh's proposal been given the green light, it's quite feasible that south downtown, rather than Buford Highway, could have become metro Atlanta's epicenter for international cuisine and culture. Longtime business owners sometimes mention his proposal in passing, calling it yet another of the ambitious plans that have come and gone over the decades.
The past hundred years has seen a litany of proposals — from a grand plaza on top of downtown's railroad tracks to a branding campaign centered on the district's 9-to-5 government offices to a mixed-use development in the old C&S Bank building on Mitchell Street. And don't get folks started on the proposal to build a casino in Underground Atlanta.
"Every five, 10 years we get letters saying this might be happening, this is gonna happen, we might take your building and turn it into this or that," says Rondo's Amato.
Everyone's in agreement about the key ingredient needed to help south downtown grow: more people. Which raises the obvious question: How do you coax new residents and tourists to a historic area that has very few vestiges of its glorious past, offers little in the way of decent shopping, and which becomes a ghost town after workers hop in their cars at 5 p.m. to head to the 'burbs? How do you build retail when the number of residents hasn't reached critical mass and probably won't if such basic amenities as grocery stores aren't nearby? It's a chicken-or-egg scenario, one that leaves many interested parties scratching their heads.
Some urban pioneers, both residents, businesses and nonprofits like the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, have flocked to the area — especially historic Mitchell Street — for its lower rents, historic feel and authentic grittiness.
"I couldn't do this in Buckhead," says longtime Atlanta chef Paul Luna, who in 2009 opened up Lunacy Black Market, a "Mediterranean-Southern" restaurant serving Euro-sized dishes in what feels like your cool uncle's living room. "I couldn't do this in Midtown."
Kyle Kessler, an architect, community advocate and amateur historian, moved to the Kessler Lofts (no relation) with his wife Kristin in 2006 to be near MARTA and downtown life. Their spacious, top-floor condo looks out onto the Nunn Federal Center and enjoys easy access to the roof patio, where the couple can watch a dozen different Fourth of July fireworks shows from East Point to Buckhead.
"We've got great MARTA connectivity," Kessler says. "We've got great interstate access. There's plenty of parking. You can still get your Peachtree address. All that exists here and there's no reason, technically, that something couldn't happen. But there is some reason, psychological or some other hindrance, as to why it's not happening."
"The big challenge now is how to repurpose areas that maybe don't serve the traditional function they once did," says Haddow, the real estate consultant. "We had two department stores at one time. You're not going to get them back. It's just as unlikely as a major law firm is going to move back to Five Points. At some point you have to accept change and find a new role."
Making things difficult for developers is that the neighborhood has historically been home to mom-and-pop stores, which has left the area carved into small parcels. Some property owners have become accustomed to sitting on their slivers of land waiting to cash in on a large-scale redevelopment that never comes.
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