A new era of urban redevelopment has taken off. Long-neglected industrial sites and rundown neighborhoods are getting a second look as well-heeled developers have embarked on a flurry of reurbanization projects.

Atlanta is at the epicenter of this reurbanization revolution with billions pouring into the city to redevelop and repurpose a host of sites. From the rail yards of the Gulch to the Civic Center to poverty-stricken neighborhoods on the Westside, new development is taking shape.

A panel was set to discuss reurbanization at Atlanta Business Chronicle’s Defining Atlanta event on March 15.

“It’s a very distinctive demographic trend of people moving back into city centers and we see this not only in big cities where it really makes sense, but we’re seeing it in smaller towns as well,” said Steve Howe, chief operating officer, WRS Inc.

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Steve Howe • Chief Operating Officer • WRS Inc. • As COO, Howe’s primary responsibility is over new development. He also manages all operations of WRS Inc. — a full-service commercial real estate development firm. WRS currently has a number of projects under construction in several states across… more

Millennials are being joined by older empty-nesters in forsaking the house in the suburbs in favor of city center condos and walkable neighborhoods. It’s a truly national phenomenon that has spread beyond the nation’s biggest cities into towns of less than 500,000.

“What people are looking for is the personality of the place,” said Howe. “That’s what originally drew us to Underground was the unique flavor of the place. People are looking for a place to live that has a certain vibe and personality or has a history to it.”

WRS Inc. purchased Underground Atlanta from the City of Atlanta for $35 million, and is redeveloping it with plans including 150,000 square feet of retail, office and public areas. New tenants are The Masquerade and Post-Office Cowork.

“South Downtown is directly adjacent to one of the largest office cores in Atlanta,” said Jake Nawrocki, president of Newport U.S. RE. “One thing that it has going for it is the largest collection of commercial historic buildings in Atlanta. A trend that’s happening nationwide is millennials and their respective companies and retailers are all interested in branding themselves in historic buildings. You see that in Midtown South in Manhattan, South of Market in San Francisco, downtown L.A.”

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Jake Nawrocki • President • Newport US RE • Nawrocki has worked on or led the acquisition or disposition of over $3 billion of commercial real estate in major U.S. markets, and possesses experience in real estate investing, asset management, and fundraising.

Newport U.S. RE plans to invest $500 million in a south downtown redevelopment that will total 1.8 million square feet. The company has acquired 47 buildings totaling 1 million square feet, a parking deck and more than four acres of surface parking and vacant lots in the historic commercial center between Atlanta City Hall and Mercedes-Benz Stadium and two MARTA stations.

One of the most dramatic examples of reurbanization is the planned transformation of the Gulch, near CNN Center and Philips Arena. CIM Group plans to develop 9.35 million square feet of office and 1 million square feet of retail space with plans for a hotel and apartments.

“The Gulch clearly is a perfect example of depending on how you measure it — 40 to 60 acres of land,” said Jennifer Ball, vice president for planning and economic development at Central Atlanta Progress Inc. “It was the original urban settlement in the city of Atlanta that has not been occupied by anything other than the rail infrastructure and parking for 80-some odd years. Here you’re building back the street network and the activity that you need to place to create blocks and put buildings on (them.)”

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Jennifer Ball • Vice President, Planning and Economic Development • Central Atlanta Progress Inc. • Ball is an accomplished urban planner and project manager with 16 years of experience successfully advancing projects and initiatives to influence the built environment and improve the… more

Reurbanization often looks very different than what it replaces. When the Atlanta Braves left Turner Field for Cobb County, the fate of that downtown stadium and its surrounding area fell to Georgia State University. The former Olympic Stadium is home to the university’s football team, while other land will be developed into an athletics complex and student spaces.

“If Georgia State hadn’t been able to do that, the stadium would have gone the way of other Olympic cities, where stadiums get built and get left behind,” said David Cochran, president and CEO, Paces Properties LLC.

In the Summerhill neighborhood near Turner Field, Carter, Oakwood Development and Healey Weatherholtz Properties plans to build housing, retail and offices, with an emphasis on adaptive reuse.

“We’re rebuilding the older buildings we have on the street (because) there are a lot of tenants who put a lot of value in being in those buildings,” said David Nelson, senior vice president with Carter. “From a cost standpoint, it’s just as expensive or more so to do adaptive reuse of an older building rather than just building new off the ground. There is an interest both from consumers, as well as the shop and business owners and office tenants who will be in those spaces.”

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David Nelson • Senior vice president • Carter • As a senior vice president for Carter, Nelson leads major redevelopment and acquisition efforts in Atlanta. He has experience managing almost $1 billion worth of complex project portfolios balancing their various risks, exposures and opportunities to… more

Another project that could have big impact is the redevelopment of the underused Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center site. The Atlanta Housing Authority purchased the property and plans an estimated $300 million mixed-use, mixed-income redevelopment. A big component of it will be affordable housing, which urban development plans often lack.

Redevelopment in Atlanta is taking on what some call a more “urban” look that includes active street grids coupled with retail, entertainment and housing. At the historic Pratt-Pullman Yard, Atomic Entertainment is expected to create a more than $100 million development that includes one sound stage; a boutique hotel; an outdoor concert venue; residential, office and coworking space; and an incubator.

“If you think about it, they’re not just redeveloping, they’re redeveloping in a more urban way,” said Ball.

Some projects like the Mercedes-Benz Stadium have fueled additional development to address critical local needs. The Atlanta Falcons’ owner’s Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation created a $15 million prosperity fund for the Westside neighborhoods around the stadium and additional partnerships are creating opportunity for residents.

The Westside Future Fund acquired a 35-unit vacant apartment building with plans to convert it to affordable housing.

“When you get the right people together then that social responsibility is addressed,” said Howe. “There are plenty of developers out there who really do want to make sure that what they’re doing is good not just for them but for the city.”

Development in Atlanta tends to look different than in other cities due to the ways the city has been divided into segments by interstates and other physical obstacles, according to Nawrocki.

“We don’t have a major central core area, but really a series of commercial clusters that go up and down from downtown up to Midtown, Buckhead and Perimeter,” he said. “Atlanta became fragmented in that sense due to the downtown connector coming on through Atlanta and essentially cutting off downtown from Midtown. At the same time, the preference was for affluent people to live further north. You had this one-two punch of people wanting to leave the city and literally physically cutting off downtown from the rest of the city.”

Without the interstates bisecting the city, Atlanta might have developed a more “consistent urban fabric,” said Nawrocki.

These physical barriers will continue to shape development in the future as it has in the past, he added.

Ball, Howe, Nawrocki and Nelson were slated to take part in the Defining Atlanta panel discussion March 15.

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