A German development firm has acquired more than two dozen historic downtown buildings, with plans to buy about a dozen more, in a $200 million plan to bring the largely vacant and boarded up structures south of the Five Points MARTA station back to their former glory.
The project by Newport US RE, the American arm of Newport Holding GmbH, could help to extend the revitalization of downtown from Underground Atlanta to “the Gulch.” Unlike Atlanta’s typical fashion of plowing over buildings for ever larger and glitzier new high-rises, Newport US’s plan is to renovate the historic structures for a mix of retail, restaurants, art galleries, office space and apartments.
The project will sit between the redevelopment of Underground Atlanta and plans by the Atlanta Hawks and their partners for an entertainment district outside Philips Arena. The buildings are largely south of Five Points between the Fulton County Government Center and the downtown federal courthouse.
Combined, the three projects could bring more than $1.5 billion in new development to the area over the next several years. Not far to the south, meanwhile, Georgia State and its development partners are in the process of redeveloping Turner Field.
“This area has been ignored for decades somehow,” said Jake Nawrocki, president of Newport US in an exclusive interview with Channel 2 Action News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s almost unbelievable how this stock of buildings could sit for decades and decades at the center of the city at the Five Points MARTA station and City Hall and be in the condition they’re in.”
Nawrocki said the company plans to be a long-term holder of its real estate, which currently includes 25 buildings on Peachtree, Broad and Mitchell streets south of the Five Points MARTA station. The company is also in talks to acquire parking lots for future new development.
The company has about a dozen other buildings under contract, including the massive and vacant 222 Mitchell Street complex that once housed offices for NationsBank, a predecessor to Bank of America.
“We are absolutely not planning to buy and flip,” Nawrocki said. “This is not a buy and flip investment.”
Nawrocki said his firm’s development vision isn’t firmly set, and his group plans to meet with downtown neighborhood groups this summer to learn more about what the community needs.
That’s in sharp contrast to the sale of Underground Atlanta, where neighbors complained of a lack of communication during the city’s protracted sale to South Carolina developer WRS Real Estate Investments.
Kyle Kessler, an architect and downtown resident and advocate, said he wants to learn more about how Newport’s plans gel with the rest of the master plan for downtown Atlanta. He said he also has some concerns about the potential for displacing existing businesses and artists’ groups that are remaking buidings Newport bought along Broad Street.
But Kessler said Newport has been more responsive thus far to the community than other development groups.
Nawrocki described the community in 10 years as being mixed-income, and said his firm is supportive of workforce housing. Newport US is also not planning to add new structured parking, because of the area’s connectivity to MARTA. That would avoid substantial development costs that could help keep rents lower for residents and commercial tenants, but also flies in the face of Atlanta’s car-centric culture.
Kessler said that type of design focus is needed downtown.
“I think all those are great initial takes, but obviously, there’s a lot of additional work to do,” he said. “The sooner they can engage with the broader public the better.”
Newport Holding was formed in 2004 in Hamburg, Germany, and is led by Olaf Kunkat. The firm has a specialty in developments with active streets and lively street front retail, Nawrocki said.
Nawrocki, who opened the U.S. office last July, joined the firm from Jamestown, the firm behind the redevelopment of Ponce City Market. Another Atlanta principal is Katharine Kelley, who also has experience in the Ponce City Market project.
For about a year, group has been gobbling up pieces of downtown with little notice. The AJC first reported the company’s interest last year.
Most of the buildings Newport has acquired are vacant and boarded up. Nawrocki said his firm wants to retain the burgeoning Broad Street arts community and complement that with loft-style offices for creative companies, neighborhood service retail and restaurants.
Unlike the redevelopment of Underground Atlanta in the 1980s, this project will be geared to the existing community, he said, but if successful, the new street buzz will attract conventioneers and residents of other neighborhoods.
“This is a place for visitors but it is a place for residents,” Nawrocki said. “This is not a luxury area we are building here, this is a neighborhood.”
Mark Vaughan, executive vice president and chief sales officer for the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, said a new mixed-use development within a short walk of the city’s convention hotels would be appealing to conventioneers and other travelers.
“Anything that gives our tourists and convention attendees additional options can only be good for the city,” he said. “People want to walk out of their hotel and find restaurants and retail close by, and you need residential to support that year-round.”
Newport was at one point a partner with WRS, the South Carolina firm that acquired Underground Atlanta this year after a prolonged negotiation with the city. The two firms initially were partners in the historic building acquisitions, but eventually Newport emerged as the sole investor.
Nawrocki said he and his firm will work with WRS, Georgia State University and other downtown business and government groups to help create a cohesive development vision.
Atlanta City Councilwoman Cleta Winslow, who represents the area, said she met with representatives of Newport just a few weeks ago and was impressed that their development plans included keeping the area’s character.
“It’s really exciting that they want to maintain the architecture of the buildings that are there,” she said.
Winslow said downtown is on the precipice of change. She said for years she has taken colleagues on walking tours of the area around MARTA’s Five Points station and point south in downtown in the hopes that they would see how much the area needed support.
“I said, ‘We’ve got to change this,’” she said. “This is not a good image for our city.”
A key motivator for the changes taking place now, she said, is the sale of Underground Atlanta. That sale opened the floodgates of what she hopes will be explosive interest in developing downtown.
“In the development world, nobody wants to be the first,” she said. “WRS took a chance and they got pretty beat up for it. Now others are beginning to take the plunge because they see they aren’t the only ones.”