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.

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  • SB

    Good one Thad. Way to show you’ve never actually ridden Marta. The real estate execs at my firm in NYC take the train every single day. High powered guys making probably a million a year all-in taking the subway and then commuter trains with all sorts of DIFFERENT PEOPLE. WOW!!!

  • Darin

    Not sure how much I want to trust the opinions of old-guard real estate companies on a complex market like downtown, one that really requires new thinking for the needs of new generations.

    Getting new residential is the most important thing left to do downtown.

    If parking lot owners won’t sell for prices that allow for that development to happen, the city needs to find a way to mediate a deal or else make it more difficult for lot owners to make a killing at parking cars. Wasting the potential for new residential in the area most heavily served by transit in the city — for the sake of car-parking infrastructure — is as bizarre as it gets.

    And if that doesn’t fly, provide incentives for converting empty office space (we’ve got some Downtown, so I’ve heard) to residential.

  • zack

    Just wondering, but what four residential towers are referred to here? I hadn’t heard of any in downtown, just a ton in Midtown and O4W

  • jamalA

    Yeah, “Quality of People” from the same group that allowed more rumbling suburban buses on downtown streets instead of being relegated to Marta transit stations outside of the periphery in a effort to gain support for their 25+ year dream of a multi-modal terminal has stigmatized the growth of the southside of downtown easily linking to Castleberry-Hill and taking advantage of a under-utilized Garnett Station, with the same kind of warehouse-lofty look. But, my point in commenting is we had a super-market downtown brought in by a progressive developer and innovative thinking by Kroger that I have not sense seen duplicated. In City Plaza Apts. 133 Trinity Ave. right across from City Hall was a wonderful concept a mini-kroger about the size of a boutique market fulfilled a long need that worked the same mis-information about “quality of people” hurt sales in the evening and they eventually closed. That same space could easily be brought back.

  • Doug Bulleit

    IMHO Atlanta officials are doing all they an to downplay the significance of the Braves move. Frankly, many would say good riddance to the mercenary absentee Liberty Media owners; if they’re too myopic as to not recognize the importance of a healthy Atlanta core to their business here, the franchise is doomed anyway. That said, Atlanta’s own clear lack of leadership here is, perhaps, more distressing still. Most important, however, what the city can do to regain the downtown pride and momentum being perceivably lost: e.g., the lost opportunity to have addressed the region’s chronic traffic woes by solving the mass transportation issues long festering around Turner Field. See also http://www.SaveTheTed.org