Doraville GM plant redevelopment kicks off

A 165-acre vacant industrial site envisioned to become Doraville’s new hub

The General Motors assembly plant in Doraville shuttered in 2008. Since then, the hulking, nearly empty beast, has served as a reminder to motorists along I-285 of metro Atlanta and America’s past life as an industrial and manufacturing powerhouse.

Traces of the lettering on the main office remain. A sign warning visitors not to bring unauthorized chemicals still stands at the worker entrance. Grass sprouts through cracks in the vast parking lot.

In several months, most of these remnants will be gone. A construction worker last Friday hopped behind the controls of a trackhoe and ripped a chunk of bricks from the plant’s midcentury office building, drawing applause from media, civic leaders, and developers. After shattered hopes and failed efforts to re-imagine the megasite, developers are promising that the 165-acre property, once teeming with activity, would hum again. The vision: a walkable and transit-connected residential and business hub, almost 30 acres larger than Atlantic Station, that could bring new parks, restaurants, and other amenities — not to mention a sense of place, something lacking in the 10,603-person community.

“It’s going to give us a sense of meaning,” says Doraville Mayor Donna Pittman. “It’ll put us on the map.”

In the mid-1940s, General Motors started building the factory on a former dairy farm and, in the process, became the foundation of Doraville. It employed thousands of workers over its approximately 60-year history, many of whom settled in the nearby neighborhoods. The plant was so immense that employees used adult-sized tricycles to pedal to different stations and areas. It even had its own medical director.

In its final years, the plant workers churned out minivans. One year before closing, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report in 2008, the factory built 10,000 vehicles for the United States Postal Service. In 2008, GM moved vehicle production to Canada.

“It was a big impact,” Pittman says. “People lost jobs. People lost homes. It was a devastating time for our city with revenue. They had a lot of great employees, great citizens who have stood by us in this really hard time. This was our city. This is what built our city.”

Aside from the lonesome tours by security guards and occasional group of urban explorers, who called the factory “Neverland,” the building sat empty in recent years.

Developers’ efforts to buy the property located adjacent to MARTA rail, and a short ride away from Chamblee, Brookhaven, and the rest of the transit network, had faltered. At one point, the site had been pitched as one of several potential sites for a new Atlanta Falcons stadium. Integral Group confirmed it had the property under contract last May.

The development has the potential to be the largest project that Integral CEO Egbert Perry, who has overseen the transformation of several Atlanta public housing complexes into mixed-income communities, has ever led. But there are still many unknowns, he says — including what buildings he and development partner Macauley and Schmit will construct first and what sort of knots of utility, sewer, and water lines they’ll find under the ground. The project doesn’t have a name yet.

According to a new plan unveiled last week, the future development will include high-rises, greenspaces, and grand walkways — a mammoth mini-city that Perry says will embrace the “public realm.” Pittman says future features might even include a high school — something else Doraville currently lacks. Executives also plan to connect under the MARTA and freight rail tracks to have better access to the rest of Doraville.

The site location itself is an advantage for businesses. A direct link to MARTA could make the site easy to reach Millennials who want to live in intown Atlanta. And the proximity to I-285 might entice older executives who prefer the suburbs.

According to Perry, development work could start in several areas, including what’s being referred to as “The Yards,” the old Norfolk-Southern railroad tracks that jut into the heart of the property. Other names of project areas include “the Docks,” “the Commons,” and “Peachtree Square.” Executives are considering asking local bicycle shops and artists to repair and paint the 50 oversized tricycles that were left behind by GM and using them in a bike-share program once the development opens.

Until then, work will continue. Some notable buildings might undergo salvage efforts, Perry says. Scrap metal will be sold. And the process will unfold.

“We’re going to have a blast doing this over the next, who knows, seven to 10 years if we’re lucky,” Perry says.