When is a plan not really a plan?

GRTA sending mixed messages about old Pullman Yard site

Just off DeKalb Avenue, where the Kirkwood and Lake Claire neighborhoods meet, lie 27 acres of beaten mud between the rotting hulks of warehouses. But when you’re in the gentrification business, you need to see beyond decay. You need to see lofts and condos, green spaces, playgrounds, grocery stores and studios. Those are the things that Robert Fischbach, the developer from Arapahoe Holdings Inc., sees.
Others see different mirages floating over this popular parcel at 225 Rogers St., where the Pullman company used to haul in its massive railcars for maintenance and which today is owned by the State of Georgia. The Atlanta Classical Theatre sees an arts center. The Atlanta Youth Soccer Association sees a soccer pitch. And at least one neighbor, Wayne Carey, sees a museum devoted to transportation and industry.
Catherine Ross, on the other hand, sees something else. She is executive director of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, the agency in charge of reducing traffic congestion. In an Oct. 31, 2000, letter from Ross to Ray Crawford, director of the state properties commission — whose job it is to oversee the state’s real estate transactions — she writes: ” ... GRTA plans to use this site as a daytime layover and bus maintenance site for the Express Buses running into downtown Atlanta from outlying counties. By the year 2005, GRTA projects more than 200 express buses will require this support facility.”
Informed by CL of the agency’s plans, the neighborhood wasted no time. Last Friday, the Pullman Yard Land Use Planning Committee — comprised of neighborhood associations from Kirkwood and Lake Claire — met for the first time. Said Lake Claire resident Ted Brodek: “We sure don’t want this to come down without our input.”
At Lake Claire’s regular neighborhood association meeting, the group’s president, Rob Collins, peered over his glasses and said, “It may be that we have to come up with attorney’s fees to fight this.”
Fischbach’s reaction to GRTA’s plans was a bit more visceral. “I think,” he said, “I’m going to puke.”
About 100 years ago, the property in question was home to Pratt Engineering, a manufacturer of parts for sugar and fertilizer processing plants. Twenty years after that, it was the Pullman Company’s regional repair hub. From then on, it would be known as the Pullman Yard. The name is painted letter-by-letter across the windows of one of the larger warehouses. During World War II, the cars were whisked in, cleaned and sent out again as troop transport.
The 1950s saw a change of hands. Georgia Power bought the place with its turn-of-the-century buildings and rare “saw-tooth” warehouses (named for their jagged rooflines), and used it to store “trackless” electric buses that were pulled by overhead cables, like trolley cars. When a-car-for-everyone became the going thing, Georgia Power sold it to a couple of small rail car manufacturers. In 1990, the Georgia Building Authority bought it for $1.6 million. A 2000 appraisal put the parcel’s value at more than $3 million.
The property was used by the New Georgia Railroad, a restaurant-on-rails that ran to Stone Mountain from Underground for a few years until that venture went belly-up in the mid-1990s.
The yard has stood mostly empty since then, except for one building where the Georgia Building Authority houses its recycling operations. The tall Pullman warehouses stand self-consciously, like elderly visitors at a rave. But while the parcel is easy to ignore, it’s caught the eyes of several developers over the years.
Last year, Fischbach, the man behind the Mattress Factory lofts and several other multi-use in-town developments, began talking with Gov. Roy Barnes about the property. Fischbach envisioned park space, lofts or condos from which kids could walk to Toomer Elementary School, only a couple of blocks away. There would also be office space. He indicated in his correspondence that he was willing to allow for commuter rail on the property. Then, on June 21, the Department of Transportation called dibs on the Pullman Yard.
“Since it is currently owned by the state, we request that disposal, if in fact planned, be delayed,” a letter signed by David P. Meshberger, right-of-way administrator for the DOT begins. “Until we can determine if it can/will serve to support the future needs of the Department.”
Then, four months later, came Ross’ letter detailing her agency’s “plans.” In a telephone interview last week with CL, Ross sought to clarify.
“If I said ‘plans,’ I didn’t mean it in the context that we have specific plans for that site,” she said. “To be honest, it’s not such a great location. I should have said ‘plans to examine’ the property. The building authority is going to be moving out of it anyway so now was the time to let them know I am interested.”
She even sent out a letter addressed “Dear Citizens” to set things straight.
She said, as she wrote in the letter, that she doesn’t know what GRTA’s going to do with the Pullman Yard, but she thinks that it’s important, with private developers snatching up so much in-town property, for the state to hold onto what it’s got.
The Georgia Building Authority’s five-member board — consisting of the governor, the lieutenant governor, Agricultural Commissioner Tommy Irvin, State Auditor Russ Hinton and one private individual, Kent Alexander, general counsel for Emory University — is required to sign off on any transaction involving state property. According to Hinton, however, the Pullman Yard case doesn’t really look like a full-fledged transaction, so much as a transfer of property from one state agency to another.
Helen Scholes, director of the Georgia Building Authority, said her agency has had to put off developers because the state’s master plan, how it will use all of its property, has not been completed — which would explain why the GBA, in nearly a dozen letters to would-be developers, says any plans to dispose of the property are “on hold.” There is no such apologetic letter to GRTA, presumably because it is only another state agency.
State Rep. JoAnn McClinton, who lives in Kirkwood, hopes that Ross will talk with her about any plans she may or may not have for the Pullman Yard.
McClinton said she doesn’t believe that a daytime layover and maintenance facility for buses constitutes economic development, which is, she said, what the area really needs. She also believes that GRTA’s facility would be an insensitive addition to a neighborhood that has pulled itself up with a lot of priceless sweat-equity.
“We are not against progress,” McClinton said. “We are not against mass transit. But we are against the kind of facility described being placed in the middle of our neighborhood. There are better locations for something like that.”
Kirkwood neighborhood activist Tom Kinchen, who bought a house five years ago, accused the state of “trying to decimate the tax base in the city. It’s like dropping a bomb,” he said. “It’s going to squash neighborhood development. Who wants to cope with 200 buses going in and out all day?”
Sean Casey, an air-conditioning and ventilation technician, thinks so too. He and his wife Emily, an attorney, are new parents. They moved into Kirkwood three years ago, thinking, he said, that it was a stable, working class, mostly African-American area that would remain quiet and affordable. It also seemed to have strong-willed residents who took an interest in what happened to the community.
But now, he’s not so sure they’ll be able to influence what happens to the Pullman Yard.
“I feel like the state’s just going to come along and shove this down our throats,” he says.
Maybe not.
“I’m a little bit upset because I’ve worked very hard to gain the trust of the communities,” Ross said. “We have a commitment to open communication with the community. Clearly that’s where we are. When we do have plans we want to hear from the community.”