The future of Pullman Yard

Redeveloping Kirkwood’s 26-acre former industrial hub could transform the neighborhood. But first, someone has to buy it.

Originally set to go on the block this spring, the state has postponed selling Kirkwood’s historic and beautifully dilapidated relic from Atlanta’s railroad past until at least next year. The hodgepodge of turn-of-the-century buildings has sat mostly empty since the 1990s. If scooped up by a developer with vision, the 26-acre parcel has the potential to create another destination on Atlanta’s eastside.

In the early 1970s, 14-year-old railroad buff Doug Alexander was given the opportunity to tour Kirkwood’s Pullman Yard to see how the massive machines he found so fascinating got made.

Inside the sprawling complex’s more than 18,000-square-foot barn-shaped main building, he marveled at cranes, stamping machines that could bend metal, and massive platforms where railroad cars moved from the tracks to maintenance bays. Outside sat the historic Savannah and Atlanta No. 750, a black beast of a steam engine that once served the Southeast.

“Going in there, all these cool trains, all these cool parts ... Boy, I wanted to take home a set of wheels and a truck — the frame and the wheels,” says Alexander, who would later become an Atlanta City Councilman in the 1990s. “I wanted one of those in my backyard.”

» INTERACTIVE: Take a virtual tour of Pullman Yard

For more than 100 years, the compound of brick railroad warehouses that make up Pullman Yard has sat on Kirkwood’s northern edge, sometimes a bustling industrial hub, and sometimes in limbo. Commuters likely know the compound best as the hodgepodge of rusted, graffiti-covered buildings along DeKalb Avenue. The state purchased the property in the early ’90s and made it the home of the now-defunct New Georgia Railroad train. But for the last six years, the imposing main building and surrounding saw-toothed structures have sat relatively unused. Aside from a few Hollywood film productions, urban explorers drawn to modern ruins, graffiti artists, and the occasional clean-up crew, the property has seen little action.

“It was there, never particularly achieving its potential,” says Earl Williamson, a Kirkwood resident since 2001 and the chairman of the Neighborhood Planning Unit O, which encompasses the community.

For years, the Georgia Building Authority, the agency that oversees the state’s real estate portfolio, has sat on the land. As recently as this month, it was planning to start accepting bids from developers with plans for the 26-acre site, considered one of the last large untapped pieces of property inside the city limits. That plan has been pushed back until next year at the earliest.When the time comes, if you’ve got at least $4 million to spend, you just might be able to walk away with a piece of Atlanta history.

Kirkwood residents have different opinions on what they think should happen to Pullman Yard. But above all, they want to see the complex’s 20th-century buildings preserved and the rest of the property developed in a way that boosts their working-class community. The question is whether the state will accept a developer’s highest bid or consider what will most benefit the surrounding community — one of intown Atlanta’s most diverse.

“How do you use that?” asks Wayne Carey, a Kirkwood resident since 1986. “We already have the Edgewood Retail District. We have property that can be redeveloped. How do you develop that resource? Do you take the one iconic piece of architecture or place and do you use it for whatever happens to be the going trend of the moment?”

Since Brendan Butler moved to Kirkwood from Old Fourth Ward 14 years ago, he has watched Pullman Yard sit idle across the street from his Rogers Street home. The area surrounding his eclectic 1903 bungalow has improved — abandoned loading docks on Arizona Avenue are now soccer fields for the Atlanta Youth Soccer Association and it seems like a house is getting rehabbed every week, he says — but the property has remained in limbo.

The 41-year-old “garden architect” operates Kirkwood re-Cycle, a community organization based in a garage on his property that restores and donates bicycles to needy children. He and neighbors have enjoyed the quiet, he says, and the state’s been a good neighbor. But aside from the movie shoots, regular visits by groundskeeping crews, and a long-gone pack of feral dogs that once roamed the many acres, it’s been still.

The industrial complex’s first buildings date back to 1904, when Pratt Engineering opened the Kirkwood manufacturing plant. During World War I, workers produced munitions for soldiers in Europe here.

In 1922, the Chicago-based Pullman Company purchased the plant to serve as one of its six hubs across the country to maintain and restore its storied passenger rail coaches. The train cars were staffed by Pullman porters, an all-black workforce whose members were considered paragons of customer service in train travel. At the time, Pullman was the largest employer of black workers in America. Plant foremen lived in small bungalows across the street from the plant.

In 1969, the land was sold at a bankruptcy sale. The property would have a variety of owners over the following decades but never shook its Pullman name. By the 1970s, the property had fallen into the hands of Atlanta-based Southern Iron and Equipment, a locomotive manufacturer that later built freight cars.

Atlanta at that time, was still “making stuff — from scratch,” says Alexander, who worked two summers at Pullman Yard in the ’70s. Kirkwood is a working-class neighborhood that helped make Atlanta an industrial and manufacturing hub in the South.

In the late 1980s, Pullman was home to New Georgia Railroad, a one-time tourist and dinner train operated by the Georgia Building Authority that left from downtown and journeyed as far as Stone Mountain on the city’s active rail lines.

“In the fall and winter, when they did the excursions downtown, there were those déjà vu moments when you’d hear the locomotive coming up the grade coming from downtown,” remembers Carey. “Or you’d hear it going back in and you’d smell that very distinct odor of burning coal and all the sounds. And it was a very sensory thing. It was quite incredible.”

By that point, Alexander recalls, the building was in “really bad shape.” Walls had fallen in and a fire had caused some damage. One building on the campus was being used to store recycling. The New Georgia Railroad shut down in the early 1990s.

A few years later, Carey unsuccessfully campaigned to convert the property into a museum dedicated to Georgia’s transportation and industrial history. The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority briefly considered using it as a bus maintenance site. Longtime residents recall a retired airline pilot and train car collector storing his old Amtrak coaches in the building. In recent years, the property has doubled as a set for such films as Fast Five and Catching Fire, the second installment in the Hunger Games trilogy. Last year, the state made $51,000 from film shoot rentals, more than covering the annual $18,000 cost of maintaining the property. But Pullman Yard has sat vacant while Kirkwood has grown.

When Pratt Engineering set up shop on Rogers Street in 1904, it marked the moment when Kirkwood evolved from an agricultural community and trolley car suburb into a truly urban neighborhood. Up through the 1950s, working-class families employed at the yard or other manufacturers around the city comprised the predominantly white community. In a 2004 oral history compiled by Georgia State University, longtime residents remember the neighborhood’s once-thriving downtown business district, which boasted a movie theater, ice-cream shop, grocery, and more.

The second half of the 20th century was marked by racial conflict, segregation, and “blockbusting,” an underhanded and illegal tactic in which real estate agents capitalized on racial fears and encouraged white homeowners to sell their homes at a loss. By the 1970s, the neighborhood’s demographics had reversed and African-Americans made up the vast majority of Kirkwood’s residents.

“White flight happened, but you were still dealing with blue-collar, working class,” Williamson says. “The racial color changed but the job description stayed the same. White, middle-class, industrial transportation workers who left Kirkwood were replaced by black, middle-class, industrial transportation workers.”

Regardless of demographics, residents say there was always a strong sense of community, something that continues today. Rosa Holmes, who moved to the neighborhood from Old Fourth Ward in the 1960s, recalls tea parties, block parties, children’s events, and fellowship among the families. “It was a very comfortable neighborhood to live in,” she says.

In the ’70s and ’80s, more people began scooping up the affordable homes and starting families. Longtime residents describe it as a rough but livable neighborhood, one which was hard hit by drugs and riddled with property crime.

“The lawn mower that walks off by itself,” says Carey, recalling that period. “Garden tools that have a tendency, like in Fantasia, to grow legs and kind of go walking off by themselves. My classic one was ... we were watching ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ and we heard this incredible, annoying noise as it went down the street. It was two neighborhood folks pushing a refrigerator on Sunday evening.”

Since the 2000s, neighbors have learned how to become squeaky wheels at City Hall, pushing for improvements for their tight-knit community. Today Kirkwood is home to white, black, Hispanic, and Asian families, not to mention some of the city’s most beautiful housing stock, linked by bike lanes and trails, and served by an up-and-coming commercial district that could easily return to its former glory. Stack up Atlanta’s most engaged neighborhoods and Kirkwood stands among them. The residents want to continue to improve the area. If developed right, Pullman could play a role in transforming Kirkwood into a neighborhood with the draw of an Old Fourth Ward or Westside.

As far back as 2000, developers and the state have scratched their heads over what to do with the 26-acre property.

In 2008, as the first signs of the economic crisis became apparent, the state put the property — then valued at $12-$14 million — up for sale. Several developers expressed interest, including the Cousins Foundation, Atlanta real-estate titan Tom Cousins’ nonprofit that helped transform East Lake Meadows into a successful mixed-income community. The move sparked the Kirkwood Neighbors’ Organization to propose its own vision for the land, which called first and foremost for preservation of the historic buildings, mixed-use developments, single-family homes, and greenspace near the property’s eastern side. The state ultimately rejected all bids that same year, though there is speculation that the deals fell through because of disputes over who would pay to clean up toxins and pollutants on the property.

The Georgia Building Authority, which says the land is now valued at $4.2 million — a more realistic figure for the current real estate market — recently considered hearing developers’ plans for the property but have backed off until next year because of “market conditions.” As one of the largest chunks of developable property close to downtown Atlanta, it’s a prime piece of real estate. It’s nearly perfectly rectangular. It’s also located between two rail stations on MARTA’s east-west line that the transit agency is currently eyeing as mixed-use developments.

One group has spent years planning its vision for the Pullman property: Atlanta ContactPoint, a local community organization led by Virginia-Highland resident and teacher David Epstein. ACP wants to transform the property into a multimillion-dollar facility for social, educational, and physical activities and community events. Five of the acres would be wooded greenspace.

“We want to conserve the land, preserve the historic buildings and turn it into a model of sports fitness and nutrition and sustainability,” says Epstein, whose team has presented its plan to GBA officials and representatives from Gov. Nathan Deal’s office. “That’s our overall goal.”

The transformation would require environmental remediation and the construction of offices, sports fields, and food venues. Once complete, Epstein says, the project would unite Atlanta’s north and south sides and host programs for both communities. Local residents would have easy access to the center using MARTA or bike trails that either abut or pass the yard.

The ambitious endeavor “could be a $30, $40, $50 million project easily,” he says, but feels confident that ACP can raise the cash. “When we show we’re impacting 10,000 people a week with a facility like this, the money will come,” he said.

“It’d be a giant park where people could play and do different activities,” adds Butler, who has talked with Epstein about possibly relocating Kirkwood re-Cycle to the proposed center. “I can’t see anyone being against that.”

At this point, though, the center is still just an idea. Renderings are available and general plans printed, but no advanced engineering studies have been completed.

Speaking as a resident and not the NPU chair, Williamson says the yard and Kirkwood would most benefit from a developer sticking to the community’s general vision of preserved buildings, street-level retail, and dense development that the neighborhood organization proposed — and the NPU approved — in 2007.

Williamson points out that similar projects have worked throughout the country, and even in Atlanta, a place where developers are often keen on demolishing the past to profit in the present. He cites the Westside’s King Plow Arts Center as an example.

The buildings are a relatively undisturbed image of what the first half of the 20th century’s industrial buildings looked like,” says Williamson. “You have the big main building, the saw-toothed building, and the railroad tracks. If you can’t turn those into a draw you’re not trying too hard. You drive down Rogers Street, they’re in your face. You drive down DeKalb Avenue, they’re in your face.”

Turning the property into a well-planned development with a mix of shops, dense development, and single-family residential would also help boost nearby Toomer Elementary School, which has struggled to keep students.

“The idea behind attracting that kind of development is to support the elementary school,” Williamson says. “You attract more population, ergo more families, ergo more children.”

Or the property could serve as a cultural hub. Carey thinks the buildings would be the perfect home for something like the Museum of Contemporary Art. Ryan Gravel, the urban designer who envisioned the Atlanta Beltline as a graduate student at Georgia Tech, studied Pullman’s potential future for a client after he joined an architecture and design firm. He thinks the property and its existing buildings could serve a multitude of uses, including restaurants, farmers market, or event, performance, and studio spaces in the grand barn-shaped building, “another Goat Farm kind of place on the eastside,” he says.

“The question is: Are the buildings really part of the design and its future? How well is it done? How well are they preserved? Are they publicly accessible? Are they done beautifully or interesting? Does it contribute to the cultural scene of the city or is it just another loft project?” Gravel says.

Redeveloping Pullman Yard presents an opportunity for Atlanta to move beyond its tear-it-down past and, provided the buildings can be saved, give the historic buildings a second life.

“I think that site is really significant, particularly when you look at our track record — this is a railroad town, it’s still a transportation town,” says Jackson McQuigg, vice president of properties at the Atlanta History Center. “And we’ve done a lousy job of preserving the rail stations that exist. Union and Terminal Stations are gone, which is unconscionable in today’s age. What’s left around town are things like Pullman Yard. It’s arguably the most significant that’s left.”

In addition, McQuigg says the Pullman Company has important links to the Civil Rights Movement. A. Philip Randolph, who helped organize the Pullman porters and create the nation’s first black-led labor organization, was an ally of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and coordinated the March on Washington where the civil rights icon gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

“There’s a huge story that relates to Atlanta’s history,” he says. “It becomes so much more than about preserving some old buildings. And there are important reasons to keep it as intact as possible because some parts of it are already gone.”

The question then is: What will the state do? GBA Spokesman Paul Melvin says the state agency understands the site’s historical value and the neighborhood’s wishes. Considering that there are plenty of parcels in Kirkwood and throughout Atlanta where someone could build a run-of-the-mill development, there are hunches that no developer would pursue Pullman Yard without wanting to maintain the buildings. That type of architectural authenticity is valuable in a city like Atlanta, Gravel says.

And judging by the success of the Goat Farm Arts Center, White Provisions, and the King Plow Arts Center, not to mention the anticipation building around Krog Street Market and Ponce City Market, it’s hard to imagine that smart developers won’t recognize that selling point.

“We all will benefit from something positive happening here,” says Carey. “What that is ... I have no earthly idea.”