Behold! Aerotropolis!

Turning the no man's land around Atlanta's airport into, well, somewhere

On a sweltering day in early July, under the roar of jets taking off and landing from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, College Park broke ground on the city's first apartment complex in more than 30 years.

Executives and city leaders hope Harvard Avenue's new 109-unit development, ThePad, which is located spitting distance from the College Park MARTA station and the world's busiest airport, would not just cater to pilots and baggage crew. Speakers wager the complex will help give the no man's land near the state's largest employer a long-needed jolt.

Save for historic College Park and Hapeville, the area surrounding HJIA for decades has been a mishmash of warehouses, restaurants serving airport workers, and hotels for travelers. But surrounding cities, along with a coalition of business heavies, developers, and airport officials, want to breathe life into the land traditionally written off as just "those areas by the airport."

"Look at Washington Dulles or Dallas/Fort Worth," says Joseph Folz, the vice president of Porsche Cars North America, which recently opened its $100 million headquarters north of HJIA. "Those airports were in the middle of nowhere and now they are the centers for the most important residential, business, and entertainment centers in those cities."

The Atlanta Aerotropolis Alliance, which Folz chairs, and the Atlanta Regional Commission have partnered to create a "blueprint" aiming to transform what was once a stagnant area into a hub teeming with business.

During the recession, Steve Berman's firm OA Development started buying commercial properties around the airport with the expectation that the area would recover quickly. The economy improved elsewhere but the airport area took longer than expected to bounce back.

"We weren't getting incoming commercial tenants at the usual rate," he says.

OA started working with College Park and other commercial property owners to create the Airport South Community Improvement District, one of two organizations that plan to pay for planning studies, streetscape improvements, and raise cash to match government funding.

Property owners within these districts voluntarily tax themselves to pool money for local improvements. The two Airport CIDs are anticipated to raise roughly $2 million each year to go towards infrastructure development, planning, and better signage.

In the coming years, CIDs will be working with the community, developers, and AAA to turn the surrounding streets and communities into places where travelers will want to stick around. Currently, boosters say, people fly into HJIA and then take MARTA or drive a few miles away to their hotels or business meetings. They want to see more office space, hotels, cargo storage space, and other businesses, in addition to raised property values.

The airport is embarking on a similar mission. HJIA could soon have its first hotel located on the airport campus. Airport officials also own 26.5 acres on its border that could become a mixed-use complex to help spur the area's growth. HJIA recently requested an on-call real estate consultant to advise on buying and selling property.

Those sales and development could help fund the airport's future construction, including a $430 million renovation, its first in decades, and take advantage of the area's planned-for growth. Delta Airlines, the airport's biggest tenant, wants the city to squeeze another runway onto HJIA's land. Delta CEO Richard Anderson would also like to see additional concourses built to handle additional overseas flights. Mayor Kasim Reed has also pushed to increase cargo shipments in and out of HJIA at night when passenger flights slow to a trickle.

Michael Smith, HJIA's deputy general manager, says that influx of international travel and trade could help revitalize nearby neighborhoods.

"As the economy and the community grow, we will see an increased need for more vibrant and impressive housing and office space," he says.

ThePad in College Park, says Artie Jones, the city's director of economic development, will help the area capitalize on the growth of its mammoth neighbor. "What's good for College Park is also going to be good for Hapeville, East Point and all the cities around the airport," he says.

If everything pans out, it could not just make better communities, but draw people to what Ryan Gravel, the principal of Sixpitch and visionary behind the Atlanta Beltline, calls Atlanta's "truly global asset."

"Why is it that HJIA is so important but the only way we can experience it is if we buy a ticket to leave town?" Gravel says. "If we made it more a part of our lives, we would open up all kinds of opportunities that are difficult to see right now. Like all good infrastructure, the airport is driving our economy. Unlike good infrastructure, it's not yet also driving our cultural and social life - but it should."

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