Fast times on Memorial Drive

Gritty industrial strip becomes intown development's next frontier

When Beth Tilley's work crews would arrive to rehab buildings on her Memorial Drive properties, they often saw extinguished fires that homeless people had lit during the night to keep warm. Across the street in Cabbagetown houses were selling for $6,000 apiece, the Cartersville-based real estate investor says. The crime rate was so high that Tilley made sure her team headed home before dark.

That was 1993. The street, Tilley says, "was far from what it is today."

Now a rare vacant parcel in Cabbagetown can set you back more than $80,000. A three-bedroom house can cost around $400,000 or more. All along Memorial from the Capitol to Moreland Avenue, former industrial sites are planned to become — or have already turned into — multistory, mixed-use developments.

Memorial Drive's past life as an intown highway lined with industrial properties is quickly changing. But fulfilling the vision planned decades ago by neighbors and making the street a destination will require fixing the road itself. Residents of surrounding neighborhoods are watching with interest to make sure the new developments meet their expectations.

Memorial Drive was in a similar situation nearly 10 years ago. In 2007, a dozen projects were planned or under construction along the stretch between Downtown and Moreland. The Jane, a converted loft-office complex, had just opened. A former motorcycle-parts warehouse along the railroad tracks that would become the Beltline was waiting its transformation into Triumph Lofts. An abandoned freight depot across the tracks had yet to become the Depot, a restaurant.

In 2008, a tornado downed trees and headstones in Oakland Cemetery and ripped through the old Parmalat plant. Then the Great Recession happened, halting many of the plans and snuffing out Memorial's metamorphosis. The Depot shuttered and became H. Harper Station. Beltline officials bought Triumph Lofts out of foreclosure and converted them into condos.

"The spigot turned off right before the crash," says John Raulet of Raulet Properties, the firm that developed the Jane. "As soon as the writing was on the wall, Memorial Drive was the first to go because it was on the edge, the periphery of interesting places to develop. When the recession came, it just stopped."

The spigot is now gushing, so much so that last year Atlanta City Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong called for a development moratorium along Memorial. The reasons for Memorial's rebound are simple, developers say. The street is one of Atlanta's few east-west routes and intown corridors that still offers developers sizable parcels for big projects. In addition, says Paces Properties CEO David Cochran, it's surrounded by strong neighborhoods with spending power that are underserved by commercial options.

Nearly every property along the bustling segment between Downtown and Moreland Avenue has recently changed hands or is under contract (Tilley says the calls from developers have picked up in recent years). The love-it-or-hate-it Azar Package Store is tagged for demolition to make way for the George, a mid-rise development, next to the Leonard, Urban Realty's apartment complex that rose from the ashes of Lenny's. Fuqua Development, led by veteran developer Jeff Fuqua and business partner Heather Correa, are under contract on the 17-acre Leggett and Platt property near I-20 and plan to build a residential, office, and retail complex just down the road from WonderRoot's planned 25,000-square-foot multiuse arts and studio center in a former Atlanta Public Schools building.

Few developers, however, have doubled down on the street like Paces Properties. The team behind Krog Street Market is building the Larkin, a neighborhood-focused retail and restaurant spot, at the Atlanta Habit for Humanity's old headquarters by Oakland Cemetery. In addition to purchasing the Jane, launching a Grindhouse Killer Burgers, and another project nearby, Paces is turning the Parmalat site into Atlanta Dairies, a 93,000-square-foot regional destination with residences, offices, and restaurants that could set the tone for the rest of Memorial Drive and bring music back to the street a decade after Lenny's was bulldozed.

"If you believe in people are wanting to live intown, this is where we think the growth is," says Merritt Lancaster of Paces Properties. "And in studying that, Memorial Drive as a street was really the only place left that touched these protected neighborhoods with large commercial properties."

The blueprints for density along Memorial are already in place. Nearly a decade ago the city created a special district calling for mixed-use and mid-rise buildings along the street from the Capitol to Pearl Street. The Beltline Overlay District calls for density in the area where the project intersects with Bill Kennedy Way. And city building rules require developers to build wider sidewalks and trees to buffer pedestrians from the street.

But there are many variables looming over Memorial's next phase. The long-planned Capitol Gateway Park, a linear greenspace stretching on Atlanta Housing Authority-owned land from the Gold Dome to Oakland Cemetery that could be Atlanta's version of Washington, D.C.'s National Mall, is still a question mark. Residents are optimistic and delighted at the new options but have concerns about affordability, what will happen to such pioneer businesses as Ria's and Stone Soup, and whether parking from new attractions and shops could spillover onto their streets.

And the street itself is a cluster. The number of lanes changes three times in three miles and even tosses in a suicide lane for kicks. It's a pedestrian's nightmare; sidewalks are busted and cars disregard speed limits, giving the feeling you're walking along I-75.

Paces argues that the additional development could help play a role in slowing down cars by giving them something to see. Beltline transit could run along Memorial to avoid tunneling under Hulsey Yard.

But to push for more concrete changes, the developer, other landowners, and Central Atlanta Progress have hired Greg Giuffrida, who helped produce a well-regarded Georgia Tech study envisioning a safer and more walkable Memorial, to work with GDOT to bring some order to the street. The state agency is considering a traffic study Memorial from the Capitol to Candler Road just outside Avondale Estates.

"We want to make it a connection for the communities, not a barrier," Giuffrida says.

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