The Upside of Atlanta's Downtown

December 9,2013

By Ken Ashley, Cushman & Wakefield

Let me share a little secret: I’ve been pretty down on downtown.

Whenever I’d think about Atlanta’s central business district, I’d picture the beggars and junky looking merchant carts that resembled a yard sale, dirty sidewalks and burned-out streetlights.

I knew when I walked down the street I’d have to look over my shoulder and think about who was watching me and my wallet.

Why couldn’t we be like other cities including New York, Austin, Portland and even Greenville S.C. that have gotten their acts together and had a renaissance? While Atlanta’s Midtown bloomed and Buckhead built tower after tower, downtown felt to me like a BB King Blues Song on repeat: "The Thrill is Gone."

But there was a skip in the blues record when Larry called.

That’s Larry Gellerstedt, CEO of Cousins and incoming chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber. He and his colleagues work at Cousins’ downtown office, and he’s clearly vested in the central business district.

It seems he wanted to have some real estate brokers in to talk shop about the heart and soul of our city. Change is afoot, promised Larry. “Come on by, and you’ll see what I mean,” he said.

Indeed, Larry had put together an all-star panel of downtown heavies and hosted a lunch at the Commerce Club to preach the gospel of a revitalized downtown. The speakers were Jim Hannon, president and CEO of Georgia Pacific LLC, Bill Rogers, chairman and CEO of SunTrust Banks Inc., and A.J. Robinson, CEO of Central Atlanta Progress.

Let The Good Times Roll

The BB King tune changed as I walked into the room at the Commerce Club. As I listened to the facts about downtown and heard the senior leaders proselytizing about the their positive experiences, I realized I’d had an outdated perception rather than reality playing in my head.

Here are a few highlights of what they shared:

Developer Investment – Since 2003 $6 billion has been invested in downtown in the form of new housing, hotels, restaurants, retail and offices. Another $1.3 billion in investment is on the way, including that Falcons’ ”nest” stadium, The College Football Hall of Fame, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, and several hotels. Also, office developers are renovating several buildings including 100, 34, 82 and 230 Peachtree St. As the rest of the office market tightens up, these investments are looking smarter and smarter.

Public Safety – Downtown is the safest place in the city and crime continues to decrease. Of the 2,000 officers on duty at APD, 450 are downtown and they partner with another 3,000 private security officers. Soon there will be more than 10,000 cameras downtown, according to A.J. Robinson.

Georgia State University - GSU is growing like kudzu and now has 32,000 students (yes, you read that right) walking around downtown. They’ve acquired - and removed from the office market - 1.2 million square feet, including 55 and 25 Park Place and 100 Auburn Avenue. GSU now owns $5.4 billion in real estate and they have another $1.5 billion in capital investment underway, including the opening of a new Law School in the Fall of 2014.

Infrastructure – The self-taxing Downtown Improvement District has invested more than $11 million and obtained matching federal funds to bring the total to more than $127 million since 2003. They are seeking more federal funds now. Soon the Atlanta Streetcar will roll, and a $5 million enhancement of Peachtree Street over I-75/85 is under design.

Panhandling and Vending – Under the leadership of Mayor Kasim Reed, many are working hard on this issue. The Metro Atlanta Chamber and Central Atlanta Progress have a number of initiatives cooking. APD is working under a new ordinance that is easier to enforce and secure more convictions for wrong doers. As you’ve doubtless seen in the news, the vending program has had a complete evolution that removes visual blight, professionalizes the business and limits the size of the program.

Homelessness – Always a perplexing issue, the completed Gateway Center has placed more than 500 individuals/families in permanent supportive housing. The new Unsheltered No More community partnership will serve to catalyze new levels of coordination on this issue. The short-term goal is to move 800 people into stable housing by 2015.

It’s My Own Fault

As BB sang in his famous song on what could have been with women, it’s my fault for not seeing all these positive changes in the CBD until now.

Consider me part of the converted, and like “Downtown” Larry said at the lunch, “The best is yet to come.”