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The future of Pullman Yard 

Redeveloping Kirkwood's 26-acre former industrial hub could transform the neighborhood. But first, someone has to buy it.

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GUERILLA GALLERY: Urban explorers and graffiti artists cherish the site for its open spaces and state of decay.
  • Joeff Davis
  • GUERILLA GALLERY: Urban explorers and graffiti artists cherish the site for its open spaces and state of decay.
click to enlarge TEST RUN: An old Union-Pacific freight train simulator sits in the property’s 22,000-square-foot Butler building.
  • Joeff Davis
  • TEST RUN: An old Union-Pacific freight train simulator sits in the property’s 22,000-square-foot Butler building.

As far back as 2000, developers and the state have scratched their heads over what to do with the 26-acre property.

In 2008, as the first signs of the economic crisis became apparent, the state put the property — then valued at $12-$14 million — up for sale. Several developers expressed interest, including the Cousins Foundation, Atlanta real-estate titan Tom Cousins' nonprofit that helped transform East Lake Meadows into a successful mixed-income community. The move sparked the Kirkwood Neighbors' Organization to propose its own vision for the land, which called first and foremost for preservation of the historic buildings, mixed-use developments, single-family homes, and greenspace near the property's eastern side. The state ultimately rejected all bids that same year, though there is speculation that the deals fell through because of disputes over who would pay to clean up toxins and pollutants on the property.

The Georgia Building Authority, which says the land is now valued at $4.2 million — a more realistic figure for the current real estate market — recently considered hearing developers' plans for the property but have backed off until next year because of "market conditions." As one of the largest chunks of developable property close to downtown Atlanta, it's a prime piece of real estate. It's nearly perfectly rectangular. It's also located between two rail stations on MARTA's east-west line that the transit agency is currently eyeing as mixed-use developments.

One group has spent years planning its vision for the Pullman property: Atlanta ContactPoint, a local community organization led by Virginia-Highland resident and teacher David Epstein. ACP wants to transform the property into a multimillion-dollar facility for social, educational, and physical activities and community events. Five of the acres would be wooded greenspace.

"We want to conserve the land, preserve the historic buildings and turn it into a model of sports fitness and nutrition and sustainability," says Epstein, whose team has presented its plan to GBA officials and representatives from Gov. Nathan Deal's office. "That's our overall goal."

The transformation would require environmental remediation and the construction of offices, sports fields, and food venues. Once complete, Epstein says, the project would unite Atlanta's north and south sides and host programs for both communities. Local residents would have easy access to the center using MARTA or bike trails that either abut or pass the yard.

The ambitious endeavor "could be a $30, $40, $50 million project easily," he says, but feels confident that ACP can raise the cash. "When we show we're impacting 10,000 people a week with a facility like this, the money will come," he said.

"It'd be a giant park where people could play and do different activities," adds Butler, who has talked with Epstein about possibly relocating Kirkwood re-Cycle to the proposed center. "I can't see anyone being against that."

At this point, though, the center is still just an idea. Renderings are available and general plans printed, but no advanced engineering studies have been completed.

click to enlarge TAKE TWO: Over the last few years, Hollywood film productions including Fast Five and Catching Fire, the Hunger Games sequel, have shot on the property.
  • Joeff Davis
  • TAKE TWO: Over the last few years, Hollywood film productions including Fast Five and Catching Fire, the Hunger Games sequel, have shot on the property.

Speaking as a resident and not the NPU chair, Williamson says the yard and Kirkwood would most benefit from a developer sticking to the community's general vision of preserved buildings, street-level retail, and dense development that the neighborhood organization proposed — and the NPU approved — in 2007.

Williamson points out that similar projects have worked throughout the country, and even in Atlanta, a place where developers are often keen on demolishing the past to profit in the present. He cites the Westside's King Plow Arts Center as an example.

"[The buildings] are a relatively undisturbed image of what the first half of the 20th century's industrial buildings looked like," says Williamson. "You have the big main building, the saw-toothed building, and the railroad tracks. If you can't turn those into a draw you're not trying too hard. You drive down Rogers Street, they're in your face. You drive down DeKalb Avenue, they're in your face."

Turning the property into a well-planned development with a mix of shops, dense development, and single-family residential would also help boost nearby Toomer Elementary School, which has struggled to keep students.

"The idea behind attracting that kind of development is to support the elementary school," Williamson says. "You attract more population, ergo more families, ergo more children."

Or the property could serve as a cultural hub. Carey thinks the buildings would be the perfect home for something like the Museum of Contemporary Art. Ryan Gravel, the urban designer who envisioned the Atlanta Beltline as a graduate student at Georgia Tech, studied Pullman's potential future for a client after he joined an architecture and design firm. He thinks the property and its existing buildings could serve a multitude of uses, including restaurants, farmers market, or event, performance, and studio spaces in the grand barn-shaped building, "another Goat Farm kind of place on the eastside," he says.

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