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787 Windsor aims to boost Mechanicsville, provide workspaces for artists

Can a vacant circa 1900s metal foundry become a community hub?

Up and down Windsor Street, Tidoe Brown has seen the shattered glass of car windows. He's heard the rapid clap of gunfire near the home where his children sleep.

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"It's a lot of bad stuff going on over here," says Brown, who has lived in Mechanicsville with wife Tornisha Johnson and their four kids for almost two years. He recently heard a shootout near a house with boarded-up windows and waist-high weeds. "This whole place, it needs a little change."

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Change is what developer Ric Geyer hopes to bring to this edge of the historic southwest Atlanta neighborhood. He and a group of artists, advocates, and community members are in the process of renovating 787 Windsor Street, a multi-building property that's sat vacant for more than six years.

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Inside 787 Windsor, Geyer is building an artist community similar to the Westside's Goat Farm Arts Center, a lumber recycling center, and a rehabilitation and training facility for people trying to get their lives back on track. He's also planning to lease space to a restaurant, although a tenant has not yet been determined.

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Located in the shadow of Turner Field, 787 Windsor was once used as a metal foundry back in the early 1900s. It's part of a sprawling series of mostly vacant former railroad buildings. Some independent businesses are located in the railroad compound, but most of the commerce these days comes from the film productions. Most notably, a large brick building was used as Terminus, the fictitious cannibalistic compound in the "Walking Dead" series.

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Jim Collier has seen the film crews come and go since 2001. He's staked his own claim in the historic block with his metal fabrication business, Collier Metals. As the next-door neighbor of the soon-to-be artist complex, Collier is hoping for the best.

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"It's been tough here," Collier says. "This thing Geyer's doing, it really could change the image. It dang sure can't hurt."

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Geyer, a former Detroit developer and furniture maker who previously worked in the Office of Innovation with Mayor Kasim Reed, says Collier has been a great neighbor and an advocate for the cause. As a newcomer to Mechanicsville, Geyer puts great stock in being a good neighbor.

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"The problem with a lot of these developments is you get guys who come in and say, 'Oh, we've got to put a big barbed-wire fence up because we've got to keep folks out of there," says Geyer, gesturing toward the barbed-wire fence currently surrounding his property. "Our goal is to take these fences down as soon as possible."

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In the roughly two months that Geyer's owned the property, he and community members have removed most of the remnants from past tenants: hundreds of pounds of leftover beams, gears, and various hunks of mangled metal. They've also replaced much of the old walls with new steel.

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Geyer says there were, conservatively, 1,000 bullet holes pockmarking the metal paneling inside 787 Windsor — Collier teases Geyer about whether he's covered them up yet — but "we're cutting them out, and we're going to have a graffiti artist decorate them, and then we'll sell the panels. It will make for some interesting art."

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Graffiti art will be a major component inside the artist complex, with a "graffiti alley" in between two parallel buildings there. On Oct. 24, the building will play host to the 787 Graffiti Ball. More recently, 787 Windsor hosted a pyrotechnic-packed, open-air performance of the Nameless Fire Theater's The Apple Prince.

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Organizers are aiming for a complete buildout of the artist community by the end of 2015, although the restaurant may take longer to build.

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Kawan Moore, a creative director for 787 Windsor, says artists of all kinds will be welcome to set up in one of the approximately 14 workspaces the team plans to rent for $1 per square foot. The areas will be separated not by walls, but a chain-link fence.

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"We want to create an inclusive atmosphere for the artist," Moore says. "We don't want it to be an atmosphere where you're able to close your door."

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Project Manager Imran Battla says the 787 Windsor vision has served as a guiding force in moving forward. But the ideas are "not set in stone": "If there's things other people want to see happen, we're going into this with an open mind."

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Brown, for one, says he's curious to watch the plan take shape.

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"I want to see how it unfolds," Brown says. "From what I heard so far, it sounds good to me. Maybe it can brighten things up around here."



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