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Memorial Drive, rising

A new zoning plan means condos on the way, some familiar haunts leaving

Think of it as a real-estate reversal of fortune.

The stretch of Memorial Drive just east of downtown, long a wasteland of seedy warehouses, vacant lots and unsightly auto-repair shops, has suddenly become hot. Make that blazing hot, with developers furiously snatching up old parking lots and empty industrial buildings for prices upward of $2 million an acre.

And three months from now, when Atlanta City Council is expected to rezone the Memorial-Martin Luther King Jr. Drive corridor for midrise condominiums and street-level boutiques, the area almost certainly will achieve white-hot status.

The notion that such a woebegone strip of asphalt could be the scene of a redevelopment land rush might threaten to blow the minds of longtime residents like Michael Shelton — if he weren't already busy trying to buy chunks of it himself.

"Who'd ever have thought we'd see six-story condos on Memorial Drive?" says Shelton, who grew up in Grant Park and spent years building and restoring homes there before turning to commercial properties. Now he's developing a 37-unit loft complex near where the proposed Beltline transit loop crosses Memorial, an intersection that's home to the 5-year-old A&P Lofts and the newer Metal Works Townhomes.

Nowhere does Memorial Drive's projected transition from squalid to upscale seem more surreal than the grease-soaked parking lot of Lenny's Bar and Grill. There's been a dive bar there for about half a century, passing through several owners and name changes (most notably Dottie's, until mid-2001). Shelton says he first drank there in the late '50s, when the place was called Saba's and had a dirt floor.

Bean Summer, the band booker for Lenny's, says the nightclub was informed a few months back that the building's owners were planning to sell the property. The bar already has signed a lease on another building on nearby DeKalb Avenue, but Summer won't spill the, um, beans on the exact location because the bar's liquor license application is pending.

The new Lenny's will be about three times as large as the current location, Summer says, but he is quick to reassure that it will still have pool tables, daytime bar service where the old-timers can get a pre-lunch PBR, and a 6-inch-tall stage for the touring bands and open-mic acts that play nearly every night. The move could be as early as June.

"It's going to be good for us in many ways," says Summer, who acknowledges that the charmingly decrepit building the bar now calls home is "falling apart." Sitting at a picnic table on Lenny's back patio, he marvels at the skyrocketing land values that are displacing many of the older businesses along Memorial Drive — and that will radically alter the area's gritty-chic landscape.

By most accounts, the flash point for the Memorial corridor was the long-awaited start of construction on Capitol Gateway, a $200 million development on part of the former site of the Capitol Homes public housing project that will include more than 900 mixed-income townhouse apartments, neighborhood retail and restaurants on 33 acres.

Now, if all goes as planned, the Memorial/MLK corridor between the Downtown Connector and Oakland Cemetery will be zoned for mixed-used six-story condo blocks along the street, with shops and cafes on the ground floor. Along the north side of MLK Drive, close to the MARTA tracks, property owners would be allowed to build residential towers up to 17 stories tall.

The plan also calls for the now-empty strip of land between Memorial and MLK to be transformed into an urban greenway stretching all the way east to the gates of the cemetery — as soon as the Atlanta Development Authority can afford a buyout with property owners, using money generated from the Eastside Tax Allocation District approved by City Council last year.

But don't look for Daddy D'z barbecue joint to be bulldozed anytime soon. The city doesn't plan to use eminent domain to oust landowners, and the ADA has less than $3 million for land acquisition, so the process could take awhile, explains Karl Smith-Davids, the city planner overseeing zoning for the area.

Eventually, Smith-Davids says, the western end of the Memorial/MLK corridor will have a "European-type feel," similar to parts of Midtown, such as the Post Parkside apartment block next to Piedmont Park. Nearer the Beltline, projects could more closely resemble Glenwood Park, the live-work community built by MindSpring founder Charles Brewer just across I-20.

Although the zoning plan has been in the works since 2001, Smith-Davids says the demand for intown real estate has finally reached the point where the once pie-in-the-sky proposal seems like a sure bet.

"The stars have aligned, the vision is there, the community is for it and [the] city is getting constant pressure from the development community to put this plan in motion," he says.

John Reagan is a Capitol Gateway development partner who also has snatched up nearby parcels for other projects. His Urban Realty Partners has a loft complex in the works near the corner of Memorial and Boulevard, and another project, still in its infancy, that would replace the old King Station MARTA parking lot just outside the western wall of the cemetery. He's also one of the main architects of the city's zoning plan for the area.

"We're trying to keep out car-based strip retail, such as fast-food joints and stand-alone drug stores," Reagan says. "That's the urgency of the high-density zoning, to get it in place before these kinds of things can creep in."

That doesn't mean Memorial Drive will necessarily lose all its gritty charm.

Shelton, who owns the 1920s-era retail strip that includes the popular Six Feet Under restaurant, says he was planning to tear down the old hangar-like structure on nearby Oakland Avenue — that is, until he heard from enough people interested in turning it into a quirky restaurant space.

Next door to Lenny's, Moe's & Joe's co-owner Tracy Crowley is working to open a new pub in an abandoned midcentury Gulf gas station, similar to his Universal Joint in Oakhurst. Over on MLK, the old Mattress Factory Lofts already fit in well with the plan for high-density residential.

And across the street from Ria's Bluebird Cafe, John Raulet, a broker with Raulet Property Partners, is talking to prospective tenants for his firm's new loft conversion at the southeastern corner of Memorial Drive and Cherokee Avenue.

"Everybody says we're stupid for not tearing it down," he says of the former floral distribution warehouse the company bought last year. Instead, he says, it will be converted into upscale office lofts, much like the Southern Dairies Lofts the firm owns on Glen Iris Boulevard behind City Hall East.

He's also scouting for new restaurants to install into the front of the building, which will be outfitted with a large corner patio.

"To developers, Memorial has gotten very hot; you've got downtown and the zoo and Oakland Cemetery all nearby," Raulet says. "Its rediscovery is a great thing for the area and the city."