Fort McPherson's future hangs in the balance

Atlanta's next mega-development - that's four times the size of Atlantic Station - prepares to enter the worst economy imaginable

Drive south along Lee Street past the auto shops, the shuttered warehouses and the sidewalk vendors selling tube socks and you'll encounter a long wall ringed by a barbed-wire fence. Behind the fence sits 488 acres of immaculate lawns, an 18-hole golf course and a collection of historic buildings that could become Atlanta's newest neighborhood.

On Sept. 15, the U.S. Army will hand the keys to Fort McPherson over to a state authority tasked with writing its second act. Gone will be thousands of soldiers, support staff and the bustling — and classified — activity it once housed.

Left behind will be a massive chunk of real estate — nearly four times the size of Atlantic Station — dotted with well-kept brick buildings, walkways and the kind of amenities the impoverished neighborhoods just outside its walls have never enjoyed. And there's debate as to whether the property's next incarnation will help lift southwest Atlanta from its decades-long slump — or become just another Atlanta development.

Named for Maj. Gen. James McPherson, the highest-ranking Union soldier killed in action during the Civil War, the base was first used for military drills in the 1830s by the state's militia. Formally designated as an Army base in 1889, the compound has been home to such notables as Gen. Colin Powell and the Third Army, famously commanded during WWII by Gen. George S. Patton.

Over the years, the fort grew into a walled-in mini-city and Atlanta's seventh-largest employer. According to the Army's public affairs office, more than 6,000 active-duty personnel, reservists and civilians worked at the fort just prior to the 2005 announcement that it would be shutting down. (There are also more than 100,000 retired military personnel who have relied on the base and nearby Fort Gillem, also slated for closure, for such services such as clinics and the commissary.) Surrounding communities, which include Venetian Hills, the now downtrodden Campbellton Road corridor and the city of East Point, grew up around Fort Mac and will be impacted by its next move.

In 2009, the state created a redevelopment authority to produce a master plan (Warning: large PDF file) for divvying up the massive property for sale or lease. Ultimately, the city of Atlanta will have jurisdiction over the area. City planners are currently mulling zoning options.

The completed master plan envisions a mixed-use development anchored by a massive bioscience research facility where private companies and the state's research universities could work side by side to develop vaccines and find cures for diseases. Two nearby MARTA stations and proximity to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport would help woo home buyers and businesses, authority officials say.

"Companies are going to find it very attractive to come from anywhere in the world and, within 10 minutes, be on this research campus," says Mike Cassidy, president of the Georgia Research Alliance, the nonprofit organization heading the initiative.

Thirty-three acres of the complex are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including majestic red brick homes and the former soldiers' barracks overlooking a vast parade ground where troops once practiced maneuvers. A similarly sized tract could become an event space for concerts and outdoor festivals. New housing, some of which would be priced for low-income families, would rise along parts of the golf course. Once completed in 25 to 30 years, the entire development could provide as many as 10,000 jobs.

That sounds like a tempting project — if the year were 2005. But the Fort Mac authority has the unenviable task of attracting tenants and investment dollars at a time when state universities are cutting budgets, corporations are downsizing rather than expanding and developers are leaving subdivisions half-built.

"We had early interest and have continued interest," says Jack Sprott, the authority's executive director. "But in a property like this, when you can't say when and how it's going to be done, it's hard to market. For this type of economy, I won't kid you, we're just in the mix like every other piece of real estate out here."

But some local community members and advocacy groups say the authority's plan is myopic and treats the property as a stand-alone project, rather than a site that needs to become integrated with the rest of the city. What's more, they think the authority has overlooked the role surrounding neighborhoods can play in determining what Fort Mac should become. The push for more transparency and community involvement has brought testiness to negotiations.

"This is public land that the community has paid taxes on for years and years to support a military base," says Deborah Scott, executive director of Georgia Stand-Up, a community think tank that's organized neighborhood forum. "Now that it's no longer a military base, we have concerns that they're going to chop it up and sell it off to developers."

Georgia Stand-Up recently commissioned an alternate plan from Mike Dobbins, a Georgia Tech professor and former Atlanta planning commissioner. Dobbins' 130-page plan urges the authority to encourage future development closer to the two MARTA stations and connect with nearby communities by offering cut-through routes to ease commutes and allow access to the fort's amenities, which include a pool, baseball fields and trails.

Some buildings slated for demolition, including a bowling alley and auto-repair center, could be turned into partnerships with community businesses, he says. Unemployed residents could be hired to provide security, cut the grass and install utility meters. (The base currently has only a handful of meters.) In the near term, Dobbins says, the authority should tear down the walls fortifying the property.

"The fundamental question is: Is this base supposed to become part of the city or remain an island or an enclave?" says Dobbins.

Many of the concerns could be allayed, advocates say, if the authority would reveal its business plan and help develop a community benefits agreement that future developers would be required to follow.

Thus far, officials have declined to do either. Sprott and other board members are quick to say that the development wouldn't prosper if it remained a walled-off enclave, and that any agreement about what benefits a future developer might promise the community can't be brokered until the authority actually controls the property. The business plan remains concealed, he says, because the authority is still negotiating with the army for the property.

"There are all kind of things that could be looked at that we're nowhere near addressing," says Sprott. "When you start talking about how you work the pie, we don't even have the pie yet."