Cover Story: South downtown must be fixed for Atlanta to thrive

The area south of Five Points was once bustling - what the hell happened?

Last Tuesday evening, as Atlanta Police mobilized to march into downtown’s Woodruff Park and arrest Occupy Atlanta protesters at the foot of the city’s skyscrapers, the blocks south of the park were mostly silent.

Nearly 30 homeless men and women huddled together, resting underneath the long ramp leading to the Garnett Street MARTA station. Others slept on the steps of the police department headquarters in the shadow of the city jail. Even more wandered the streets, asked motorists passing through for help, or stood alone in parking lots. A skinny man standing at the corner of Forsyth and Nelson streets lifted his sweatshirt to a passing motorist and pointed to his penis bulging through green underwear. Newly waxed SUVs and luxury sedans rolled up to the Magic City strip club. The only businesses still open were bail-bonding agents.

Were it not for the occasional conversations that took place in the shadows of buildings or shrill recordings warning parking-lot customers that no attendant is on duty, south downtown — the area bordered by Five Points to the north; I-20 along the south; “the Gulch,” the massive parking lot and rail yard, to the west; and City Hall to the east — would have been dead quiet.

On Broad Street, one of Atlanta’s oldest streets, a large catering truck served chicken wings, pork chop sandwiches and corn dogs to night owls looking to party at a nearby gay club or walking up from the Greyhound station to Five Points. The truck’s owner, A.C. Bolden, has been working south downtown for about eight months. It’s a good spot, but less busy than the Midtown location where he also sets up shop. On Saturdays, he can be found slinging hamburgers until 5 a.m. to clubgoers looking for a late-night meal. But business could be better.

“We need more people coming through,” Bolden says.

Today, south downtown — the launching pad of Morris Rich, Walter H. Kessler and others of Atlanta’s so-called Merchant Princes; birthplace of her newspapers; and the one-time commercial heart of the city — is a drab landscape of lifeless surface parking lots and loiterers. Stores that aren’t vacant peddle gold teeth, candy bars or offer to charge your cell phone for $2. Business owners complain that drugs are openly sold and used, sidewalk salesmen hawk cheap merchandise and homeless people gather to pick up free hot meals from out-of-town churches. Says one service worker in a nearby outreach organization, “This place is like the forgotten end.”

There’s a reason that early episodes of “The Walking Dead” were shot in south downtown: it took minimal effort to make the area resemble a post-apocalyptic urban wasteland.

Numerous parties share the blame for the neighborhood’s long, slow decline. The culprits include highways, MARTA, the “urban renewal” trend of the ’60s and ’70s and the inattention of elected officials — even the city, county, state and federal workers who fill its office spaces every day. Despite the efforts of longtime and new business owners, urban pioneers, and forward-thinking developers, the neighborhood — which has all the hallmarks of a tree-lined, walkable, transit-oriented community that should have caught fire long ago — is stuck in limbo. Meanwhile, the area north of Five Points just a few football fields away undergoes a grand rejuvenation.

Everyone says south downtown, which Atlanta architect Richard Rothman in 1975 called the “most interesting and misunderstood square mile” in the city, has potential. That’s been the line for decades. So when is it going to prosper? And can downtown Atlanta, which in recent years has seemed close to realizing its revitalization dreams, really say it’s come back while its south portion languishes?

“It needs more attention from all of us,” says A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, a downtown civic booster group. “I don’t know if it’s the city or us. We need to constantly reinforce the potential that’s there ... There are very few of these kinds of areas left.”

Ask any of south downtown’s longtime business owners what stands out about the good ol’ days, and you’ll hear a constant refrain.

“When I started 54 years ago, when you walked on the street, there were nothing but people,” says Bruce Teilhaber, owner of Friedman’s Shoes, a Mitchell Street landmark located in a former hotel that specializes in selling mega-sized footwear to a clientele that includes pro athletes such as Shaquille O’Neal. “You had a square block with a bank. A square block with Southern Railway. The people created a wonderful atmosphere for the businesses. People felt safe on the street.”

Darren Amato, owner of Rondo Distributing Co., a Mitchell Street spiritual shop and Atlanta treasure that sells lotions and oils to ward off bad juju, says the once-crowded streets were reminiscent of New York City.

“Atlanta wasn’t just the center of business and banking, but people came down here to do their errands,” he says. “You could look down Broad Street, you’re looking to the Five Points MARTA station, you’d look down and see hundreds of people.”

In early maps of the city, Peachtree Street between Memorial Drive and Decatur Street was still called Whitehall Street. In the 1850s, amid conversations about erecting lampposts and building a jail, the city adopted its first street-grid layout in the area, a simple, walkable marvel — most of which still exists. The city’s oldest existing church, the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, sits at the corner of Central Avenue and Martin Luther King, Jr., Drive. The Atlanta Constitution, which in 2001 would merge with its north downtown rival the Atlanta Journal, was housed just a block or so southwest of Five Points.

Into the 20th century, south downtown established itself as a retail destination. Though shops came and went, large department stores moved in, including Rich’s, Kessler’s and Davison’s, which would later move north on Peachtree and be bought by Macy’s.

In low-rise buildings along Broad Street and to the south, shopkeepers sold everything the residents of a growing city could want. Upstairs, workers toiled or residents kept homes. Hotels that catered to railway workers and businessman popped up along the western end of Mitchell Street, earning the block the nickname “Hotel Row.”

The foundation of this once-bustling neighborhood was Terminal Station, the soaring, art deco train depot built in 1905 on the neighborhood’s western edge. Designed by P. Thornton Marye, the same architect responsible for the Fox Theatre, the station became the Southeast’s regional rail hub and made south downtown Atlanta’s front door for tourists, businessmen, railroad workers, celebrities and dignitaries.

Once outside, visitors could walk just a block to find a diverse collection of shops, factories and offices that stretched as far south as where I-20 now sits. Or they could hop on Atlanta’s extensive trolley network that ferried workers, visitors and shoppers around town and into such then-suburbs as Inman Park and the West End. Families would come from across Georgia to pick up clothes and supplies.

“You never saw a store go out of business,” says Teilhaber of the area’s mid-century heyday “In those years, you had four shoe-repair shops, all on this one street. How many people do you need to have four shoe shops? And it was all while-you-wait business.”

Richard Miller started working at his uncle’s Rexall Pharmacy on Broad Street in 1965 as a 12-year-old. Every Saturday, he’d attend synagogue and then take the No. 16 bus from Virginia-Highland to work for seven hours at the store, which he later bought. Grocery stores sold everything a person would need to make three meals a day, as well as specialty items such as pig’s feet to pig heads. At Roy’s, where you could select a live chicken, get its head chopped off, and watch the decapitated fowl run around the store. Another shop sold “rat cheese” — cut from a block of sharp New York cheddar — for rodent traps or sandwiches. Yet another bar-be-qued chicken.

“It smelled so good,” Miller says as he leans on the counter. “The street was so vibrant.”

Today, nearly all south downtown — most of the buildings and just as much of the retail energy — has vanished. While the area was humming along, a series of events, some big, others scarcely noticeable at the time, chipped away at its foundation.

Atlanta’s streetcar system was dismantled in the ’50s. Terminal Station met the wrecking ball in 1972, long after cars and airplanes surpassed trains as the primary means of travel. The creation in the mid-1940s of the metro region’s expressway, later to become the interstate system, helped city dwellers leave Atlanta for good. Transportation planners and developers began to cater to motorists rather than pedestrians, by retrofitting in-town streets for volumes of cars along and building high-rise office buildings with parking decks.

The exodus not just of people, but of commercial development, north into Midtown and Buckhead and even out into the suburbs, caused retail centers to pop up in far-flung places. Mom-and-pop stores began to succumb to the chains. The exit of Rich’s in April 1991 from its flagship store overlooking Five Points was a crippling blow to south downtown.

Attempts to spark renewed interest in that part of town, including the late-’80s renovation of Underground Atlanta — the subterranean mall that includes original storefronts buried when viaducts were constructed downtown during the late 1800s and early 1900s — never took off. In 2007, the World of Coca-Cola moved to a new location north of Centennial Olympic Park, taking with it many of the tourists that nearby retailers depended on.

“There’s plenty of foot traffic,” says Frank Kim, owner of Nelly Sports, a men’s clothing and shoe store in the Metro Mall on Peachtree Street. “But people aren’t spending money.”

Helping to keep paying customers away, business owners say, is the combination of panhandlers, homeless people and the perception of crime that has cast a pall over some parts of the neighborhood. Out-of-town churches, many of which, area homeless people say, come from as far as Hall County nearly 60 miles away to set up mobile soup kitchens in surface parking lots surrounding the Garnett MARTA station. Neighborhood residents, businesses, CAP leaders and even some homeless outreach centers consider the churches’ efforts to be well-meaning but misguided, creating dependence among the homeless and helping to stifle investment in a run-down part of town.

“There are already places where the homeless can get a hot meal every day,” says Chuck Bowen, the executive director at the Central Presbyterian Church Outreach and Advocacy Center. “Instead of just feeding them, they should try to find out why they’re homeless and whether they can help them recover from homelessness, whether it’s something as simple as helping them find an ID to getting into a shelter, or getting a coat. Feeding the homeless one time is not helping them.”

One entity that never left south downtown — and actually grew — was government. Large office buildings housing city, county and state bureaucrats and elected officials formed a barrier between south downtown and Five Points. The Sam Nunn Federal Center, which then-Mayor Maynard Jackson said would help revitalize the area south of Five Points despite government studies predicting the massive facility would not generate substantial economic growth, absorbed parts of the old Rich’s building, opening in 1996.

According to a 2006 CAP study, more than half of the property in the area is publicly owned. That concentration is convenient for politicians, bureaucrats and judges who’ve filled up office space surrounding the government buildings. But it hasn’t created an ideal environment for a thriving, 24-hour neighborhood.

In fact, some of the south downtown government buildings, like many corporate buildings, have been described as urban fortresses, self-contained monoliths containing cafeterias, fitness centers, day-care centers and other amenities that give workers little incentive to step out on to the street.

“Can you imagine 10,000 employees on the streets for lunch every day?” Miller asks. “Can you imagine thousands of people walking around downtown Atlanta? It’d be fantastic. That’d revitalize this area.”

Shyam Reddy, regional administrator of the General Services Administration, the federal agency which oversees the properties, says he hears from tenants that they’d love to have reason to leave their buildings during the day, and that he’d be willing to sit down with elected officials and business leaders to make that happen. But in contrast to Ivan Allen Plaza, where federal employees at Peachtree Summit can walk to different restaurants for lunch or after-work drinks, there are few such options in south downtown.

“I’d love to encourage people to go and frequent and support local business,” he says. “But the problem is I don’t have any down here.”

In the early- to mid-’80s, a team of investors from Singapore had a vision: convert 19 blocks south of Mitchell Street into, according to a 1985 AJC article, an “international town” comprising high-rises where more than 30,000 people would have lived, worked and played.

When one of the investors, the late A.C. Toh, heard interest from only half the area’s property owners, he knew the team would have a hard time assembling land. It stalled, but he still hoped to push forward.

“Your downtown needs life,” he said, but the project eventually fell through.

Had Toh’s proposal been given the green light, it’s quite feasible that south downtown, rather than Buford Highway, could have become metro Atlanta’s epicenter for international cuisine and culture. Longtime business owners sometimes mention his proposal in passing, calling it yet another of the ambitious plans that have come and gone over the decades.

The past hundred years has seen a litany of proposals — from a grand plaza on top of downtown’s railroad tracks to a branding campaign centered on the district’s 9-to-5 government offices to a mixed-use development in the old C&S Bank building on Mitchell Street. And don’t get folks started on the proposal to build a casino in Underground Atlanta.

“Every five, 10 years we get letters saying this might be happening, this is gonna happen, we might take your building and turn it into this or that,” says Rondo’s Amato.

Everyone’s in agreement about the key ingredient needed to help south downtown grow: more people. Which raises the obvious question: How do you coax new residents and tourists to a historic area that has very few vestiges of its glorious past, offers little in the way of decent shopping, and which becomes a ghost town after workers hop in their cars at 5 p.m. to head to the ‘burbs? How do you build retail when the number of residents hasn’t reached critical mass and probably won’t if such basic amenities as grocery stores aren’t nearby? It’s a chicken-or-egg scenario, one that leaves many interested parties scratching their heads.

Some urban pioneers, both residents, businesses and nonprofits like the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, have flocked to the area — especially historic Mitchell Street — for its lower rents, historic feel and authentic grittiness.

“I couldn’t do this in Buckhead,” says longtime Atlanta chef Paul Luna, who in 2009 opened up Lunacy Black Market, a “Mediterranean-Southern” restaurant serving Euro-sized dishes in what feels like your cool uncle’s living room. “I couldn’t do this in Midtown.”

Kyle Kessler, an architect, community advocate and amateur historian, moved to the Kessler Lofts (no relation) with his wife Kristin in 2006 to be near MARTA and downtown life. Their spacious, top-floor condo looks out onto the Nunn Federal Center and enjoys easy access to the roof patio, where the couple can watch a dozen different Fourth of July fireworks shows from East Point to Buckhead.

“We’ve got great MARTA connectivity,” Kessler says. “We’ve got great interstate access. There’s plenty of parking. You can still get your Peachtree address. All that exists here and there’s no reason, technically, that something couldn’t happen. But there is some reason, psychological or some other hindrance, as to why it’s not happening.”

“The big challenge now is how to repurpose areas that maybe don’t serve the traditional function they once did,” says Haddow, the real estate consultant. “We had two department stores at one time. You’re not going to get them back. It’s just as unlikely as a major law firm is going to move back to Five Points. At some point you have to accept change and find a new role.”

Making things difficult for developers is that the neighborhood has historically been home to mom-and-pop stores, which has left the area carved into small parcels. Some property owners have become accustomed to sitting on their slivers of land waiting to cash in on a large-scale redevelopment that never comes.

John Sweet, an attorney who converted a former sewing machine factory at the corner of Peachtree Street and Trinity Avenue into his law office nearly 30 years ago, thinks neighboring Castleberry Hill’s energy and momentum will eventually span the Gulch and help transform south downtown one building at a time. But when it does, he says, expect government services — more specifically, lobbyists and lawyers — to flock to the area and snatch up the space.

“This is more of a special-use community,” Sweet says. “This is about the government, the legal system. This is where all the courts are — the bulk, and I do mean the heavy lifting, of the court systems, is here.”

Tim Crimmins, a Georgia State University history professor, however, thinks another downtown property owner, one credited with breathing new life into the area north of the tracks, will play a larger role.

“The catalyst for change is going to be the continued residential expansion of GSU,” he says. Since the mid-2000s, the one-time commuter school has expanded its downtown footprint with the purchase of the SunTrust building, two former hotels and dorm construction, among other properties.

Emory Morsberger, the Lawrenceville developer and downtown booster whose plans to build a mixed-use development on Mitchell Street were shelved when the economy choked, agrees — and even thinks Georgia Tech could eventually consider expanding its footprint from Midtown to the south downtown area.

“You got 50,000 students within two to three miles,” Morsberger says. “That population is growing. That population attracts other people. It’s just a question of time before Georgia Tech and Georgia State bust out of their seams and expand into that area. It’s an area that will have no choice — it’s going to take off.”

Business owners have recently received letters from the Georgia Department of Transportation informing them about the area’s Next Big Thing: the long-promised multi-modal terminal, where commuter rail, buses and streetcars would converge. Though designs are nowhere near being finalized, the project could essentially cap the 100-acre-plus Gulch, creating new real estate that could include mixed-use development and park space. CAP has also proposed the Green Line, a series of walkable plazas over the railroad tracks that could connect Castleberry Hill to south downtown — and possibly to areas north of Five Points. Business owners and residents, while supportive, say they’ll believe it when they see it.

In the absence of construction, commendable efforts have sprung up to improve south downtown’s quality of life. This summer, the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs launched Elevate-Art Above Underground, a two-month public-art showcase centered on Underground Atlanta that included murals, public performances and site sculptures. Murals painted during Living Walls have added color at street level. The Nunn Federal Center has held a farmer’s market that’s open to the public.

There are other possibilities. Mayor Kasim Reed’s recent proposal to convert Underground Atlanta into an arts district is, a spokesman says, still in the “ideas” phase. Reddy would love to see a south downtown street closed during the lunch hour for food trucks to serve downtown and federal employees. The surface parking lots are ripe for a multi-day concert festival a la Music Midtown or large-scale arts performance. The long-awaited re-opening of the Mitchell Street bridge could bring back customers. Jerry Miller, chairman of the Capitol Hill Neighborhood Development Corporation, a nonprofit founded by three south downtown churches to pursue projects that could help rebuild the area, says his group is currently working with planners and architects to imagine what the state could do with the old World of Coca-Cola building. Also on its list: to see if the state’s Georgia Plaza Park at Central and Mitchell avenues — where a restaurant with outdoor seating served workers decades ago — could be “re-energized.”

“We can’t say we revitalized downtown when we have a kind of soft underbelly adjacent to it on the southside,” says Miller. “We have to have a 360-degree view of downtown.”