Streetcar Could Spark Downtown Development
As construction of the Atlanta Streetcar cranks up, so too is the effort to spur economic development along its route.
Crews are doing utility work along the 2.6-mile route that will connect the King Center and Sweet Auburn District to Centennial Olympic Park Centennial Olympic Park and the CNN Center. At the same time, downtown economic development officials with Central Atlanta Progress (CAP) have been stepping up their marketing of properties along the route to new investors and equity partners.
One of the largest tracts is the former Wheat Street Gardens apartments at 75 Hilliard St.
Georgia State University recently purchased a small portion of the site — owned by the Wheat Street Baptist Church — to develop intramural fields within walking distance of its student housing.
Central Atlanta Progress has been talking to several developers with interest in various sites along the route that could be turned into new mixed-use, retail or residential projects, including student housing developer Campus Crest Communities and Russell New Urban Development LLC, said CAP’s Jennifer Ball.
Property owners like the church don’t have the capital or the expertise to redevelop their sites.
CAP is trying to find partners that do.
“It’s not just retail, it’s not just housing, it’s not just office that could be developed here,” Ball said of the former Wheat Street apartments. “If there’s going to be one place that is truly a mixed-use district that is dense and connected by transit, this is where it’s at.”
CAP has at least 12 developable tracts along the route that are at least a half block, and 10 infill opportunities where smaller developments might take shape. The range of developers that CAP is targeting will include smaller, entrepreneurial firms to the largest real estate companies.
The plans involve Kristi Rooks, a senior project manager who came to CAP from the developer The Sembler Co.
“The part that a lot of people don’t understand is that the downtown zoning is open to multiple uses,” Rooks said. “There aren’t tons of restrictions. So that opens developers up to a lot of possibilities. They see a multitude of things they can do.”
The ambitions come as the first construction on the route got under way several weeks ago.
In March, MARTA’s board of directors gave the green light to a $46.6 million contract with a San Francisco engineering firm, URS Corp.
Service is set to begin in the fall of 2013.
Some parts of the route have already seen new investment.
The eastern side has an emerging restaurant and bar district on Edgewood, where hip spots such as The Sound Table have popped up.
Amid the office towers that rise on the western side of the route, America’s Capital Partners plans a $20 million to $30 million restoration of the Equitable building that will include improvements to retail amenities.
Nationally, the gravitation of young adults to urban cores is sparking more investment in downtown projects, said Dan Sherman with the law firm Greenberg Traurig LLP.
But downtown Atlanta has been hit hard by the economy. Americas’ Capital Partners bought Equitable after lender Capmark Bank had foreclosed upon it in 2010.
Government job cuts have at least partially contributed to downtown having about 4.6 million square feet of vacant office space.
The Georgia Department of Labor Georgia Department of Labor was to consolidate at least 500 jobs into downtown’s vacant 250 Piedmont tower by this summer, sparking an investor to plan at least a $15 million renovation to the building. But it never happened.
Even so, streetcars have proven successful economic development catalysts in other cities, such as Seattle, Sherman said. CAP is also convinced the streetcar will become a catalyst.
The Atlanta streetcar project is expected to exceed $70 million, much of it funded with federal dollars.
“Anytime you have that much federal investment in a project, private dollars will follow,” Sherman said. “That is all but inevitable.”