From the toxic, industrial wasteland where the Atlantic Steel plant once puffed smoke above the neighboring Connector, Atlantic Station rose as a pioneering and oft-heralded example of brownfield development. With it came promises of a thriving cultural hub where residents might ditch their cars – and the long-commute, suburban mentality – and walk to where they eat, work and play.
Five years later, on the heels of a recession, the 150-acre development is suffering from an identity crisis. Some city leaders and residents fear the development may have become too much like a mall, too suburbanized or too inviting to the wrong sort of demographic, such as loitering teenagers who stay long and buy little.
But Atlantic Station's new owners want to change that.
Pam Barnett, the corporate communications director for Atlantic Station’s new master developer, CB Richard Ellis Investors, sees great potential in the development’s future.
CBRE Investors closed a deal with former owners American International Group on Dec. 31. The sale included 14 acres of undeveloped land and the 25-story office building at 271 17th Street. The company also entered into a joint venture with North American Properties to acquire the Town Center, a central district with key components like Publix and the Regal 16 Cinemas, Barnett said.
The price tag topped $168 million but represented a sharp decline in pre-recession real estate values, the Atlanta Business Chronicle reported.
To the deep-pocketed leaders of CBRE Investors, the development still holds its luster and is capable of being the 24-7, mixed-use cultural hub once envisioned.
“It’s a high-quality property in a phenomenal location,” Barnett said. “And there was a great vision for the property that had just not been fully realized.”
The 14 undeveloped acres once called for a high-rise hotel and more residential space. Barnett said those parcels are scattered throughout the development, from 17th Street to frontage on Interstate 75, and are zoned for a variety of uses.
The company has no immediate plans to build on the land, but it does have the luxury of time, Barnett said.
“One of the advantages of being a well-capitalized, new owner is that we can be patient,” she said. Whatever is eventually undertaken “will build on the original vision of a well-located, urban, 24/7, mixed-use, cultural hub for Midtown Atlanta and its neighboring communities,” she said.
A separate but related CBRE Investors fund in November purchased residential portions of Atlantic Station, the Park District and Icon apartment communities, Barnett said.
CBRE Investors are seasoned players in the Atlanta market, with more than 2 million square feet of Class A office space around town. But an undertaking with the scope of Atlantic Station is a company first.
“(We haven’t) done anything quite like this,” Barnett said. “However, we’ve been a quiet but active player in Atlanta for years.”
The new Atlantic Station controllers seem to have their ears to the ground, in terms of gauging the opinions and implementing the needs of intown residents, especially those that live in Midtown.
Mark Toro, managing partner at North American Properties, in a recent interview spoke about the "evolution" that will come to Atlantic Station. North American Properties manages the retail portion of Atlantic Station.
"We need to reflect our shopper base," said Toro, a Midtown resident and board member of the Midtown Alliance. "We believe the Midtown resident is anti-mall."
Toro said his plan is to change between 20 and 25 percent of the retailers at Atlantic Station. That means of the 1.3 million square feet of retail space, about 150,ooo square feet will be retooled, he said. The development's major tenants IKEA, Dillard's and Target shall remain, Toro said.
"Midtown is a mecca for the creative class," Toro said. He said he wants Atlantic Station to bring in those retailers that appeal to "Generation Y" shoppers. He said he hopes local boutiques and mom-and-pop restaurants will be among the new tenants. "The national chains have not done well here."
Toro said Atlantic Station will evolve over the next three or four years. "It is going to be slow, but steady," he said. But Toro said leaders will immediately be more engaged with Midtown residents.
"We're listening," he said. "We'd like to know what you want to have here."