Film producer Adam Rosenfelt feels a little guilty as he shoos a curious retired architect off Pratt-Pullman Yard, as he’s done with the photographers, amateur filmmakers, and urban explorers who tend to poke around the graffiti-covered grounds. In June Rosenfelt bought the historic Kirkwood site from the state for $8 million. At 27 acres, it’s the largest undeveloped parcel on Atlanta’s eastern flank.
Rosenfelt, 47, owns the film production company Atomic Entertainment with his wife, fellow producer and film editor Maureen Meulen, 36. Their plan: a self-sustaining mini-city anchored by film production. If the project pans out, it would mark the long-awaited revitalization of a blighted property that has been not only a place to explore but also a point of pride for Kirkwood residents.
Clustered along an expanse of green grass, the hodgepodge of hulking brick and steel structures punctuated with wide bay doors and a saw-toothed roof is a tie to the fast-gentrifying neighborhood’s blue-collar, industrial, and railroad roots. It is a type of landmark that no other nearby neighborhood has: a gritty piece of history trapped in time, waiting to be reused, says Earl Williamson, a nurse who moved to Kirkwood in 1999. “One of the intriguing things about railroads and railroad architecture is the scale of it,” says Williamson. “The buildings always intrigued me because I knew how old they were. And the buildings were always solid.”
Located between two MARTA stations, the site includes 11 buildings, totaling 153,000 square feet, and is flanked by a small forest, stream, and grassy field. Plenty of big-thinking developers have craved turning it into an adaptive reuse success story, including one nonprofit that envisioned soccer fields and urban farms. But its potential has never been tapped.
The oldest buildings of significance are towering, barn-like, brick-and-steel structures erected on former farmland in 1904 by the Pratt Engineering Company. In the newly founded town of Kirkwood, the company produced sulfuric acid, gasses for soda drinks, and, later, explosive munitions during World War I. In 1926 the Chicago-based Pullman Company bought the facilities and used them to repair railroad sleeper cars. The site was abandoned in the late 1970s. In 1990 the State of Georgia purchased it to launch a dinner-train experience that ran between downtown Atlanta and Stone Mountain but shut it down in 1993. For the past quarter-century the neglected complex has sat vacant under state ownership, aside from occasional movie and television productions that have included The Fast and the Furious, Hunger Games flicks, and, more recently, Baby Driver.
The Georgia Building Authority, the agency that manages the state’s real estate portfolio, had hoped to sell off the buildings in 2008, garnering interest from developers and the Cousins Foundation, the nonprofit that helped revitalize nearby East Lake Meadows. The move spurred the Kirkwood Neighbors’ Organization to create its own mixed-use plan for the property that included preserving the greenspace and, most importantly, the historic buildings. “No one wanted to see the Atlantic Station–approach to the reuse of the industrial site,” says Williamson. “Everyone wants to retain the visual elements.”
But the state scuttled the deal, and the Great Recession halted officials’ plans. Film productions covered the cost of maintenance, and for urban explorers the cathedral-like buildings became a must-see. But in May of last year a Dunwoody college student plummeted through a fiberglass skylight and fell about 40 feet to his death. A few months later “the energy seemed to shift,” says Tina Davis, the president of the neighborhood association, and the state put Pullman Yard up for sale.
Late last year five developers stepped up with plans for the property. The winner of the bidding—a controversial process where one firm, Norcross-based JoJo Investments LLC, claims it was prepared to make a “substantially larger” offer but was still rejected—was the only non-local firm in the mix: Atomic Entertainment.
The owners, who together have financed more than 40 films with A-listers such as Kevin Costner (Mr. Brooks) and Ryan Reynolds (Waiting), heard about the property from a real estate professional after logging thousands of miles searching the country to find land where they could meld film, entertainment, and redevelopment of character-rich properties. Within minutes of visiting the site, Rosenfelt called his wife and said, “This is it!”
Weeks after being handed the keys, the couple uprooted from Silver Lake, California, to nearby Candler Park and, with Lord Aeck Sargent on board as architect, began preliminary work on the estimated $200 million development (working title: “Pullman Yard”). Rosenfelt says a vast, steel-clad structure will be reserved for a soundstage (with thick walls), and a huge former foundry will become a boutique hotel, complete with a “food bazaar” of vendors built into former train bays. Plans call for bringing other brick structures back to life as retail (up to three sit-down restaurants, a coffee shop, bars, an organic grocery, and businesses ranging from a preschool and florist to a barbershop, perhaps) and creative offices (think postproduction and animation companies, and facilities for music and sound recording). A central lawn will act as a nucleus for public gatherings, near the section for residences that could be a mix of townhomes, condos, and affordable apartments catering to crews, artists, teachers, and first responders. Rosenfelt says a “significant portion” of the forest will be preserved, possibly with trails and guest treehouses as part of the hotel package.
“All mixed-use developments have bars, restaurants, hotels, and offices, and there are movie studios all over this city,” says Rosenfelt. “The idea of putting it all in one place—where people can come and live or visit—that’s what makes it truly unique.”
The Atlanta Urban Design Commission has nominated the property as a Landmark District, a process that would prevent the demolition of any structures deemed historically significant. Rosenfelt hopes to see heavy equipment teeming on the site in early 2018, with the first phases opening within two years. Soil tests uncovered no environmental concerns, and the historic buildings, which he calls vital to redevelopment plans, remain in good structural shape.
Davis is excited about the possibility of business development on the site, adding new life to the neighborhood’s northernmost edge. And preserving that past, which people might recognize from films and living alongside the buildings, is important, says Tim Keane, commissioner of Atlanta’s Department of City Planning. “For them to be restored and reused will be a very iconic architectural piece for Atlanta that will, I think, increase the profile of the city from a preservation standpoint.”
To lose that cluster of history, says Williamson, would be a loss of Kirkwood’s identity, turning the neighborhood into “lines on a map without anything of character. And you have to admit those buildings have character. They’re solid, big, imposing, and functional. It’s hard not to see ’em.”
This article originally appeared in our November 2017 issue.