For neighbors, a dead end

Atlantic Station brings headaches of equal proportions

Lyle Place is
a quiet street with 10 or so houses a quarter-mile from the Silver Skillet diner. It used to connect to 16th Street. Now, it dead ends in a man-made bank 25 feet high.

The house closest to the embankment has a fairly new paint job, and an enormous "For Sale" sign on its manicured, little front yard. The property's north side is bordered with chain link and bright orange fences, telltale evidence of major construction; in this case, they represent the rump of Atlantic Station, the enormous mixed-use development going up in Midtown just west of the I-85/75 interchange.

If the embankment wasn't enough, on Aug. 4, owners Denise and Bob Varnadoe got even more bad news.

"I found out today that they are going to build a retaining wall at my property line and build duplexes on the towering bank next to my house," Denise Varnadoe wrote in an e-mail. "I've tried to be patient, but they are totally destroying my property value ... and I can't take any more."

Commercial construction frequently annoys residential neighbors. But the side effects of a development as big as Atlantic Station are a pain in the neck that few Atlantans have endured.

The mini-city will cost $2 billion and cover 138 acres with major retailers, office towers, three hotels, 2,400 housing units and a carefully laid-out street system designed to encourage walking and a community flavor. Transportation experts say it will encourage fewer long car trips in the metro area, because it's so compact and so close to densely populated intown neighborhoods. And most homeowners surrounding Atlantic Station expect their property values to skyrocket.

At the same time, the usual construction headaches are of a bigger scale too. Building Atlantic Station has sewn bits of havoc in scattered pockets of Home Park, a neighborhood of more than 1,000 homes sandwiched between Atlantic Station and Georgia Tech. A sinkhole has disrupted traffic on State Street for five weeks; neither the city nor Jacoby Development, Atlantic Station's developer, has bothered to fix it.

Two weeks ago, Cole Cowden, Home Park's resident gadfly, called 911 when he saw a construction truck dragging a cable down State Street. The truck had ripped a power line off the side of his neighbors' house and left a live electric cable sitting in the middle of the road.

He saw another mishap Aug. 8. "I just noticed that another truck has ripped the cable TV line from another house on State and it is lying in the road," Cowden says. "We are all sick and tired of the irresponsible and negligent actions of the city, developer and their sub-contractors."

And then there's Lyle Place. It used to be accessed through 16th, but now you can only get there by 14th and Barnes streets.

Until early this year, the Varnadoes thought they had a buyer for their house, which is at the Atlantic Station end of the street. They say Hilburn Hillestad, senior vice president for environmental affairs for Atlantic Station LLC, said he'd buy their home three years ago.

"We moved to Decatur two months ago because Atlantic Station was going to buy our property," Denise Varnadoe says. "Long story and three-years'-worth-of-lies later, we still own the property at the end of Lyle Place. We were supposed to close [on the deal with Hillestad] mid-March, but Hilburn hasn't answered our calls since February."

Hillestad says, "Atlantic Station expressed an interest in purchasing the Varnadoes' house but was ultimately unable to work within their timeframe. The Varnadoes subsequently indicated that they would proceed with selling the property, and Atlantic Station accepted that."

Perhaps, as Hillestad implies, the Varnadoes' problems are of their own making. Perhaps it was a case of inexperienced negotiators trying to play hardball with one of the biggest developers in the country.

Whatever the cause, the Varnadoes are now paying two mortgages. And they can only hope that their home — set behind a row of duplexes at the bottom of retaining wall — will be swept up in the housing boom Atlantic Station promises.