The Prince and the paupers of Vine City

Downtrodden neighborhood gets a boost from Wal-Mart and Prince Charles. Seriously.

It was nearly a year ago that the Publix supermarket on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive quietly closed its doors, packed up shop and fled under cover of darkness from Atlanta’s downtrodden Vine City neighborhood. In fact, most nearby residents could tell you the exact date — Christmas Eve.

When presents were being unwrapped the next morning, not a creature was stirring at the grocery store. Even the sign had been pulled down off the front of the building.

“It’s like it had never even existed,” a disappointed Councilman Ivory Young said a few days later.

Young, who has represented the area for the past eight years, has seen potential economic engines, employment centers and revitalization initiatives come and go over the years like a series of false dawns, each providing temporary hope to one of the city’s most beleaguered communities.

And yet, there he was this past Monday, standing on the threshold of the empty Publix, surrounded by community activists, city officials and local businessmen, touting the latest spurt of progress — an 80,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter planned for the former grocery store site.

“This neighborhood has too much history for us to abandon,” Young crowed.

History notwithstanding, it’s clear that Wal-Mart apparently feels the neighborhood has too much sales potential to abandon. The only incentive the city had to dangle to lure the retail giant to the location was an agreement to staff an on-site police precinct.

Also speaking at the Monday’s event, Mayor Kasim Reed was similarly upbeat: “This announcement ends my first year in office in a perfect way. I think the redevelopment and investment you’ll see here in the next few years will be unprecedented.”

Of course, going back a decade to the early days of the failed and corrupt Empowerment Zone under Bill Campbell, Atlanta mayors have stood in roughly the same spot to make similar predictions, few of which were fulfilled. Is it naïve to note that this time it could be different?

In addition to the Wal-Mart, the neighborhood has also attracted notice from Prince Charles of England, of all people, whose Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment has pledged planning support for its redevelopment and economic revitalization. And even the relatively small infusions or public capital — including Tax Allocation District grants and Atlanta Development Authority loans — are helping spur the kind of private investment that’s leading to incremental improvements, says Young. He points to the recent restoration of the historic Bronner Brothers building at the corner of MLK Jr. Drive and Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard, accomplished with a $2 million TAD grant and $1.5 million of private money. Tenants are already waiting to move in.

If it seems Vine City really could be poised for a revival, perhaps it’s because the neighborhood has been down so long that up is the only way to go. Bounded on the south by MLK Jr. Drive — home to the now-shuttered Paschal’s Restaurant, where Civil Rights leaders met to plan strategy — on the north by Donald Lee Hollowell Boulevard and on the east and west by Northside Drive and Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard, Vine City has been an example of urban decay for decades — and most previous attempts to revive it have fizzled.

When construction began on the Georgia Dome in 1989, the city established the Vine City Trust Fund, an ongoing source of revenue gleaned from the rental proceeds of nearby apartments. Over the years, the fund has bankrolled more than $8 million in local redevelopment grants, but has had little visible impact in a neighborhood wracked by crime, drugs and poverty. When a flood ravaged the community nearly 10 years ago, Mayor Shirley Franklin established a relief fund to buy up and replace ruined homes; the program saw dozens of dilapidated houses torn down, but only a handful were rebuilt. And when the housing boom came to Atlanta in the late aughts, Vine City became mortgage-fraud central. When the bubble burst, many of the neighborhood’s old, decaying and empty houses had simply been replaced by newer but equally empty houses, many stripped of any saleable metal and trim.

Perhaps that’s why its apparent reversals of fortune come as something of a surprise.

“It’s pretty incredible that, of all the blighted neighborhoods across the world, they choose Vine City,” Young says of the Duke of Edinburgh’s interest. When the Prince’s Foundation, which successfully redeveloped the ailing Poundbury community south of London, began looking for projects outside Britain, it somehow selected the English Avenue corridor on the north end of Vine City, an area with houses that are about 90 percent vacant and bank-owned.

“Since the late ’80s, there’s been close to $100 million in public funds spent on English Avenue with little to show for it, but there wasn’t a comprehensive revitalization plan,” Young says.

He and the mayor recently visited Prince Charles in London to discuss plans for Vine City, which could involve buying up an astonishing 1,000 acres of houses and vacant lots and redeveloping the neighborhood as a mixed-income community with affordable housing for many of the current residents and local commercial nodes — a more ambitious version of what’s been done with the city’s old public housing projects.

While the Prince’s Foundation hasn’t pledged any of its own money and no private investors have yet come knocking, Young is hopeful.

“When Prince Charles puts his name on something, it gets attention, and Vine City needs attention,” he says.

And in the meantime, he notes, the neighborhood will again have a place to shop for groceries.