Of all the municipal boondoggles to have tarred Atlanta during the Bill Campbell era, one of the most notorious was the historic Westside Village.
The $130 million development project, located just off the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and what is now Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard, was intended to jump-start the revitalization of the downtrodden Vine City neighborhood. The plan, including an apartment tower, office space, retail shops, single-family homes and a supermarket, was so ambitious it was named "Mixed-Use Deal" of 1999 by the Atlanta Business Chronicle.
In the end, though, Westside Village fell victim to the usual combination of Campbell-related woes -- cronyism, bureaucratic incompetence and a flagrant disregard for federal lending guidelines that earned a scathing report from auditors at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development -- that nearly cost the city years of future HUD grants.
When the dust settled, all that had been completed was a Publix grocery store, a Blockbuster video, a bank branch and a small Chinese food restaurant. The MLK retail corridor promptly resumed its downward slide.
Now the city is in the midst of taking another crack at getting Westside Village right -- a municipal mulligan, if you will. A few weeks back, bulldozers began clearing the 17 acres of miserable turf between the lonely Publix and the Ashby MARTA Station. The first of 60 new townhouses will begin rising in the coming days, ready for occupation by late summer.
Don't worry, says Ron Keller, director of neighborhood development for the Atlanta Development Authority. This time it will be different.
For starters, the city has learned enough hard lessons to leave the jobs of developer and landlord to the private-sector professionals.
"We're trying to be the economic engine, but it doesn't make sense for us to be in the retail business," Keller says.
Last year, the city sold the remaining vacant land to homegrown developer H.J. Russell and Texas-based giant Trammell Crow, then gave the development partners $4 million in public financing from the new Westside Tax Allocation District toward the redevelopment of Westside Village.
For another thing, Atlanta -- and particularly the west side -- is now undergoing an urban renaissance, with newcomers flocking to buy homes in long-blighted parts of town, and developers scrambling to snatch up available land in areas they wouldn't have wanted to drive through a few years ago.
And, finally, the city has gotten much more savvy about how to encourage redevelopment. Last week, the ADA accepted the final bids for $14 million in neighborhood revitalization grants that are being made available for private projects in and around Vine City.
As a testament to the growing interest in the area, the ADA received dozens of grant requests, totaling well more than $30 million, for projects as varied as condo conversions, rehabbed retail strips and neighborhood parks -- each accompanied by an application fee of at least $1,000.
"Obviously, we won't be able to fund them all," says Tarnace Watkins, who's overseeing the grant process at the ADA. "We're looking for projects that will increase the tax base, wipe out blight, conform with the city's redevelopment plan and have neighborhood support."
Ironically, the city's bungling of Westside Village in 2001 probably saved taxpayers a load of cash. Back then, building an office park, apartments and dozens of storefronts in the middle of one the city's roughest neighborhoods would've made Underground Atlanta look like a brilliant investment.
"The project was never properly analyzed to see if the market would support it," says the ADA's Keller of the original Westside Village deal.
The revived project is smaller in scope -- with a price tag somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 million -- and includes the townhouses, 150 loft units and 40,000 square feet of strip-mall retail.
Just last week, the ADA sealed a deal to sell the row of dilapidated storefronts lining the north side of MLK Drive to Russell and Trammell Crow. Terms of the agreement call for the historic buildings, once home to beauty parlors, bakeries and a neighborhood pharmacy, to have their facades kept intact. But Trammell Crow Vice President Lyle Fogarty says the partners likely will add a layer of condos on top of the storefronts.
While that deal does not include the strip's best-known buildings, the Bronner Brothers hair-care headquarters and Sellers Brothers Funeral Home, rumors have it that the two businesses are in buyout negotiations.
Fogarty says his company has few worries about getting its $240,000 asking price for the planned townhomes that will sit across the street from the erstwhile John Egan Homes, which once brought a shooting-gallery ambiance to the area. That public housing complex was replaced a few years back by the Magnolia Homes mixed-income apartments.
Fogarty also is quick to point out that, a few blocks south on Lowery Boulevard, the nearly completed CollegeTown at West End will put 800 residential units and more shopping on the former site of another public housing project, Harris Homes. And, on the other side of I-20, H.J. Russell is finishing up its 105-unit Sky Lofts next door to the West End Mall.
Finally, insiders say a deal between Clark Atlanta University and a hotel chain to reopen the historic Paschal's Motor Hotel, with its famous La Carousel restaurant operated by the nearby Busy Bee diner, is only weeks away from being finalized.
In other words, things are looking up for Vine City, which pleases the area's councilman, Ivory Lee Young. If anything, he's been concerned that the city isn't doing enough to keep housing affordable for longtime residents. But Young is encouraged by word that, later this summer, Mayor Shirley Franklin will announce the details of an expected $50 million housing trust fund designed to provide subsidies for low-income families across the city.
It's anticipated that much of that money will be used to help families in parts of town that are only now feeling the early pangs of gentrification, such as the neighborhoods around Westside Village.
"Going back some 30 years, the city has made well-intentioned but very futile attempts to revive the MLK commercial corridor," says Young. He believes the current attempt has all the elements for success.
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