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2014 will be big for downtown

But we still need a grocery store. And what did that guy from Cousins say about MARTA? (Update: Cousins exec clarifies remarks)

A.J. Robinson, the president of Central Atlanta Progress, this morning said the current “surge of activity” in downtown Atlanta is unlike anything the city has seen in decades. He went back even before the Olympics, to 1967, when the Hyatt Regency opened and tourists came from all over to check out the Polaris, the rotating rooftop restaurant that’s set to re-open in 2014.

Robinson keynoted Bisnow’s Future of Downtown Atlanta panel, held, conveniently, in the newly-remodeled Hyatt Regency. Robinson’s brief state of downtown address referenced Georgia State University’s continued growth; enrollment is projected to reach 36,000 in 2015, making it the biggest university in the state. Robinson also ticked off a list of projects set to come online next year: the streetcar, the College Football Hall of Fame, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, the groundbreaking for the new Falcons stadium, the first wave of 2,000 Coca-Cola employees starting work soon in the SunTrust building, the launch of four residential towers that will add 725 units to downtown’s apartment cluster. Robinson bemoaned the planned departure of the Braves from the city center (“a sad day for the city,” he said), but played down Turner Field’s impact on downtown. The presence of the Braves, he said, did not help downtown lease new office space or result in the construction of a hotel. He was sanguine about the team’s flight to Cobb County. “In today’s return to the urban marketplace, it won’t have a huge effect. It will have a psychological effect.”

But downtown still has a ways to go, according to the panelists that spoke after Robinson’s talk. The lack of a grocery store downtown continues to frustrate Merritt Lancaster, chief investment officer of Paces Properties. “We need more retail downtown,” he said.

Cherie Ong heads up business development and strategy for The Creations Group, an offshore real estate investment company that owns the M. Rich building south of Five Points station, to which Creative Loafing recently moved. Its former home in Atlantic Station, Ong said, was “too polished” for the paper’s image. CL signed a seven-and-a-half year lease. “They’re here to stay,” she said. The CL discussion was an example of marketing to millennials, who have become catnip to developers, who seem to view them as exotic and lovely birds with money.

Some other observations from the panel:

  1. The city should forbid the Braves from calling themselves the “Atlanta” Braves, said Scott Jackson, CEO of Jackson Corporate Real Estate. They should be the “Marietta Braves,” instead. (Cue applause.)
  2. Though downtown needs more ground-up residential, space remains an issue. Parking lots remain profitable, and only a high-rise that can command rents north of $2 a square foot can justify converting those lots. Problem is, that price point is still seen as too high for downtown.
  3. Ong said it’s easier to find foreign investment in downtown because foreigners see downtowns everywhere as safe bets. In Atlanta’s case, they’re not hamstrung by old perceptions.
  4. Speaking of old perceptions, I have to mention a puzzling comment from Thad Ellis, senior vice-president at Cousins and one of the panelists. Discussing MARTA, and specifically Five Points station, he said the MARTA experience could be improved with art, cleanliness, and “quality of people.” The woman next to me quietly harrumphed, and so did I, since I use Five Points station twice a day and consider myself of decent quality. Let’s assume he meant—oh, hmm?—aggressive panhandlers?

Editor’s note: After this post was published yesterday, Thad Ellis asked to clarify the transit-related remarks quoted in the post. His points, as outlined an email he provided us:

1. Leadership at MARTA, Central Atlanta Progress, Midtown Alliance, and elsewhere are working together and have developed plans to improve the travel experience by incorporating new art and improved way finding.

2. Five Points station, arguably the key to the entire train system, has some fatigue and needs some attention from a maintenance and cleanliness perspective.

3. More of the business community needs to use MARTA on a more consistent basis. As important as tourism traffic is to the system, our region’s business travel needs to include MARTA on a regular basis. As I mentioned yesterday, MARTA is our community’s best-kept secret. It is a real asset and the business community would greatly benefit by using it more regularly. I am a consistent consumer of the train system. It is efficient and inexpensive, particularly in the urban core and to and from the airport.

I am a real fan of the system and I am a real supporter to expand the lines in all directions.