Cover Story: Jeff Fuqua: Atlanta's Most Controversial Developer
After 25 years, more than 8 million square feet, and lots of opposition, few have shaped the city like Fuqua
Scott Boulevard Baptist Church is running out of options. The 58-year-old church located at the corner of North Decatur Road and Scott Boulevard has an aging congregation. Most remaining churchgoers are over 80. Membership has shrunk from a peak of 500 worshippers in the 1960s to about 50 people today. The church no longer has the funds to stay open for Sunday services.
In attempts to keep its doors open, the congregation tried to rent space to nonprofit organizations, merge with more than a dozen other churches, and sell the building to a nursing home operator. Every effort was a bust.
That's when Jeff Fuqua stepped in. In September 2012, his real estate development firm, <a href="http://fuquadevelopment.com/" target="_blank" http://fuquadevelopment.com/">Fuqua Development, offered to buy the church and 10 nearby homes. If he closes the deal, Fuqua plans to level the church and residences and construct a 7-acre mixed-use shopping center.
"It was not an easy decision," said Pastor Greg Smith at a July meeting with worshippers and nearby residents. "It was a decision we felt like we had to make. We choose to take care of our people rather than take care of our landlord."
Fuqua, who has built around 40 major retail, residential, and mixed-use developments in metro Atlanta over the last 25 years, calls the DeKalb project one of his company's finest proposals. According to his plans, the site could include a 200-unit apartment complex and an organic food store. It could also help revitalize the busy and somewhat desolate crossroads. The area surrounding the six-way intersection in unincorporated DeKalb County once brimmed with auto dealerships, retail complexes, and clusters of small ethnic shops and restaurants. But over the last two decades, it's suffered from an investment drought as businesses have either moved away or closed up shop. Sprawling parking lots and decaying storefronts now dominate the landscape.
Fuqua sees potential in the tired corner. He envisions retail space lining the streets. Parking tucked away out of sight. A "public gathering space" for pedestrians and shoppers at the corner of the bustling intersection that sees more than 70,000 motorists a day. He'll call it "Decatur Crossing."
Never mind that it's not actually in the City of Decatur.
Some local residents have a different vision. They'd like to preserve the church and surrounding neighborhoods rather than watch them bulldozed for major retailers and increased traffic congestion. While the intersection lies one-and-a-half miles north of downtown Decatur, most residents identify with and appreciate the city's walkable design, community-owned establishments, and quaint atmosphere. They want to extend the Decatur experience beyond the city's historic square.
During the July meeting, more than 100 citizens filled the church to express their concerns. One of Fuqua's representatives fielded questions and responded to acrimonious remarks over how the proposed site is co-opting Decatur's name and aesthetic without living up to the city's rigorous planning standards. Tensions boiled inside the church as some community members criticized the company for being "disingenuous" and not entirely transparent.
Few attendees noticed the blond-haired, baby-faced Fuqua, who watched the proceedings from a front-row pew on the room's edge. He quietly observed the discussion heat up over the course of an hour and occasionally nodded to his rep as a show of support.
The 52-year-old veteran developer is usually the person presenting to communities. Throughout his career, Fuqua has debriefed citizens, assuaged fears, and listened to neighborhood wishes more times than he can count. He's also caught his share of flak. He believes most people desire his developments, including this DeKalb one, and calls most vocal opponents "professional agitators," saying they don't represent the greater community's interests.
"We offered everything you can do in the world of modern planning today, but the opposition decided they didn't like that," Fuqua says about the reaction to Decatur Crossing.
View Jeff Fuqua's metro Atlanta developments in a larger map
Over the past two decades, Fuqua has become one of metro Atlanta's most influential and controversial developers. As a driving force behind commercial real estate titan the Sembler Company for 24 years, he's built more than 80 projects, approximately 14 million square feet, which are worth more than $4 billion. Roughly half of them are located in metro Atlanta. He's constructed retail, residential, and mixed-use projects in Buckhead, Midtown, Edgewood, Brookhaven, Old Fourth Ward, and numerous metro Atlanta suburbs.
Last year, the development tycoon started his own company and is currently working on nearly a dozen projects in Georgia, Florida, and Colorado. Those plans include eight new metro Atlanta developments. The ones he's revealed so far include Decatur Crossing, as well as projects in Lindbergh, Morningside, and Peachtree Corners. Three more will be announced in the next two months. Rumor has it one may be located near Vine City.
Currently, his insistence on constructing a big-box-anchored strip mall along the Atlanta Beltline in Glenwood Park has made the developer a villain in the eyes of many Atlantans. But in the face of fierce opposition and an inevitable legal battle, the developer insists he'll move forward.
"The whole world is property," he says. "Everywhere I go I look at real estate. If I go on vacation, I'm looking for sites. I've developed a very good ability to pick a site and see what can be done to make it a better, more interesting property than it is today."
Fuqua is unassuming at first glance. Soft-spoken and seemingly reserved, his boyish cheeks belie the shark in a well-tailored suit. He often wears black-rimmed glasses, but takes them off, slowly twirling them between his fingers, when he's giving someone his undivided attention.
He was born in Salida, Colo., a 5,300-person ranching town near Monarch Pass' base near the Continental Divide. He moved to the Denver suburbs at an early age and later studied geology at the University of Colorado in hopes of becoming an oil man. But as Colorado's oil industry declined in the early '80s, he was tempted by another career.
In a college real estate class, a condo developer for ski resort towns gave a compelling presentation. The lecture offered Fuqua a glimpse into development's high-stakes and creativity. He transferred schools and enrolled in the University of Denver's Real Estate and Construction Management program.
"It's the wild wild West in this business," Fuqua says. "If you can put a project together, make it work, finance it, and create a valuable asset, you've done something good. You eat what you kill, and if you do it well, there's no limit to what you can do."
After briefly working for an acquisitions firm, Florida-based the Sembler Company recruited Fuqua in 1988. When Publix, one of the company's biggest clients, began expanding to Atlanta, he followed and opened Sembler's first regional office.
Fuqua remembers the exact day he arrived in Atlanta. It was December 16, 1992. He moved to Virginia-Highland, where he still resides, and attempted to make his mark as a developer. He faced steep competition in a local industry predominantly controlled by several affluent, influential, and established families.
"When I first came up here, a well-known figure said, 'Son, you're not going to make it in this business,'" Fuqua says. "'The property and business deals are really controlled by eight or 10 families. You're just not connected enough to do that.' I took that to heart."
Fuqua managed to break through in a cutthroat real estate market following an early '90s recession that hit metro Atlanta hard. The 1996 Olympics brought a construction boom and the heirs to many of the long-standing development empires opted out of their family businesses.
Sembler first built two Publix shopping centers in Clayton County and then eight more complexes in Cobb County. He struck his first intown deal when he purchased the Rio Shopping Center at North and Piedmont avenues. Once a kitschy open-air mall with a rectangular pool lined with more than 300 gold frogs, the property was converted into a Publix-anchored strip mall and a 351-unit apartment site in 2000.
His market research in the mid-'90s revealed that Buckhead lacked large, dense retail sites — something few Atlanta developers had considered. In 1999, Fuqua opened Lenox Marketplace, what he considers his first contribution to high-density development in Atlanta's city limits. He says the development, which was four-to-five times denser than his past suburban projects, was risky and difficult. The site's Target was only the chain's second multi-level store in the country.
Lenox Marketplace was also among Fuqua's earliest developments to face community opposition. At a Neighborhood Planning Unit presentation in Buckhead, Fuqua remembers one board member who, he says, hacked up the company's project and cost Sembler millions of dollars. He was particularly bothered by her lack of design, real estate, or financial experience.
"We had to design and build around her particular ideas at that moment to get the board's support," he says. "I thought to myself, 'Wow, is that the way it's supposed to work?' ... I still see what those comments did to the project and was surprised at how an unelected official can affect your project that badly. I learned then that's the way the business is going to be."
It's hard to imagine Buckhead without its sleek skyscrapers, boutique shopping, and massive strip malls. Commercialism is one of the neighborhood's defining characteristics. The area also exemplifies the car culture for which Atlanta is so well known. Fuqua played a role in shaping the neighborhood as we know it today.
The veteran developer's projects often include large, national chain stores fronted by sprawling parking lots. Critics argue that his developments diminish the neighborhood feeling, and bring the less desirable elements of suburbia to urban Atlanta.
"Attempting to work out a compromise with Fuqua is like beating your head against a wall," says one source, who asked to remain anonymous, but has worked with him on several different projects including Lenox Marketplace.
Fuqua describes his approach to development as more of an art than a science. With each new project, he sees an "open canvas" where he must propose a design, cater to concerned citizens, negotiate terms with tenants, and hold private conversations with financial stakeholders all while racing against the clock.
"I make money if I'm successful at it," Fuqua says. "If I'm not, I lose money. It's different than lawyers, doctors, accountants, or architects. This is the risk-taking side, and a very creative, side of the business. It's pedal to the metal, 24/7."
Fuqua says he understands smart development and knows its value firsthand. When he's not working at his ninth-floor corner office in Buckhead, he spends time in his Virginia-Highland home with his wife and 6-year-old daughter. He's seen that part of town transform into a denser, more walkable area with lots of local shops.
He can walk from his house to Ponce de Leon Avenue, the Beltline, and Midtown Place, the nearly 257,000-square-foot shopping center he built that now includes a Whole Foods, Home Depot, and TJ Maxx. At night, he frequents restaurants and bars in Virginia-Highland, Inman Park, and Old Fourth Ward.
Outside of the city, Fuqua and his wife spend time at their 22-acre estate in Milton where they train Grand Prix dressage horses. The $4.8-million property, known in equestrian circles as Collecting Gaits Farm, boasts a 20-stall brick barn and Olympic-sized arena. The married couple has served as a patron to the United States Equestrian Federation, becoming a title sponsor to the National Dressage Championships.
Fuqua's pastimes speak to his development successes. He's a sharp businessman who knows how to close deals and it's paid off handsomely. Fuqua credits his accomplishments to his ability to develop shopping centers in parts of Atlanta where access to major retailers or grocers was once limited.
The major corporations Fuqua often works with tend to prefer more conventional suburban-style developments. He says he has to negotiate a middle ground between the lower-cost, conventional projects and the more innovative options many communities desire.
"He's smart, sophisticated, and a hard negotiator," says Atlanta City Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong. "He knows what his bottom line is, when he needs to cut his losses, and what he's looking to achieve out of the relationship."
In 2003, Fuqua constructed his first mixed-use development with Edgewood Retail District along Moreland Avenue, less than a mile from countercultural mecca Little Five Points. The $110 million project transformed an old Atlanta Gas Light facility into a 540,000-square-foot complex with retail, apartments, condominiums, and single-family homes.
Residents — who had leverage since Sembler needed to rezone the property — rejected the company's original plans. Fuqua says he met with neighborhood leaders nearly 60 times during the planning process. The conversations helped reduce the shopping center's size by more than half and led to other smaller concessions. Yet Fuqua held his ground regarding the need for four big-box stores — now a Best Buy, Lowe's, Target, and Kroger — to go ahead with the project.
As former CL staff writer Michael Wall wrote in 2003, residents chose "the lesser of two evils" as opposition would've led to only retail and no residential development. According to one stakeholder, Fuqua's "very sharp, very astute" approach helped him navigate the process in a way that led to his project's approval. He was, as Archibong puts it, a "reluctant, but engaged" participant.
"People ask us why we're making such an effort to work with the neighborhood," Fuqua told CL for a 2003 cover story. "Sometimes we ask ourselves that."
Fuqua is often the face of the project to neighborhoods, a role that comes with much responsibility. But Caleb Racicot, a senior partner at architecture firm Tunnell-Spangler-Walsh who previously worked for the city's Office of Planning, says many people overestimate Fuqua's sway in development deals.
"In the kind of business he does, the retail tenants call the shots," Racicot says. "Fuqua has to deal with that. If he pushes retail tenants too far, they will walk out of a deal."
Fuqua sees Edgewood Retail District as a major success and claims the complex's retail stores perform exceptionally well compared to their other metro Atlanta locations. To him, that's a sign he's served a community.
"Edgewood is convenient," Candler Park resident Amy Stout says. "It's just such bad urbanism. I wish they could have designed it better."
Ellen Dunham-Jones, a Georgia Tech professor of architecture and urban design and author of Retrofitting Suburbia, thinks Fuqua has shown an increasing willingness toward smarter development.
"Many retail developers are beginning to make this transition, integrating mixed use with big-box retail," she says. "Fuqua has experimented more and more with their residential building types, but doesn't seem to have been willing to push on the retail with a few exceptions."
Dunham-Jones says the developer generally avoids stacking big-box stores above parking like one would find with the Target in Washington, D.C.'s Columbia Heights neighborhood; nor has he lined major anchor tenants with boutique retail or placed condos or apartments above those spaces, similar to what you'd find at Vancouver's Cambie Corridor. While she acknowledges that Atlanta's property isn't as valuable as those cities, she thinks Fuqua can do a better job creating developments that are true to the character of Atlanta's neighborhoods.
"Atlanta is Atlanta," Fuqua says. "It's not D.C. and it's not New York and it's not San Francisco and it's not L.A. The cost of doing a lot of those kinds of developments just don't really make sense at this point."
Fuqua's urban developments in metro Atlanta continued in the late 2000s, including the transit-oriented Lindbergh Plaza, Perimeter Place, and the Prado. Some projects slowed during the recession and others such as Town Briarcliff and Westside Crossing were tabled. The massive 600,000-square-foot mixed-use development Town Brookhaven survived.
He amicably split from Sembler in March 2012 and moved forward on his new firm's projects without many hiccups, aside from a stalled Walmart-anchored retail center last fall near Lindbergh. In September 2012, Fuqua Development unveiled preliminary plans for a mammoth retail site near Glenwood Park along the Atlanta Beltline.
The 10-acre property would potentially include a 143,000-square-foot anchor tenant (rumored to be a Walmart), a giant surface parking lot, and no residential units. Streetfront retail would line Glenwood Avenue and a new street grid system would include an extension of Chester Avenue. About 1,500-1,800 feet of the Beltline's multi-purpose trail would meander onto the site.
The 800 Glenwood Ave. project has become a divisive battleground for future development in the neighborhood, along the Atlanta Beltline, and throughout the rest of the city. Despite intense rallies, residents say the developer either doesn't care about, or seems oblivious to, their calls for a denser and more walkable site. For many, it's hard to tell why Fuqua builds these kinds of cookie-cutter projects other than for profit.
Fuqua contends that his projects positively impact communities. He thinks 800 Glenwood Ave. has the potential to be beautiful and could invigorate an old cement factory — even if a big-box store gets erected along the Beltline. He says his team tried to take the Edgewood approach and collaborate with neighborhood organizations, but after a handful of meetings, talks stalled.
"They wouldn't communicate," Fuqua says. "We met with them many times with groups of our architects, design people, and attorneys to talk to them about how we could work together. They only had one idea and that was to stop us."
Several local residents, who asked to remain anonymous, dispute his claims. They say citizens made requests to work with Fuqua on a more urban, mixed-use project that adhered to the Beltline Master Plan.
"He was asked, at the first meeting, if he would work with the community to rezone the property to a mixed-use designation," says one neighborhood representative. "He said he would not consider doing that until after the big box was approved and constructed."
Unlike Edgewood, Fuqua didn't need to go through the long and uncertain rezoning process with the cement factory. After applying three different times, he received several exemptions from streetscape and street grid requirements from Atlanta's Office of Planning. Given the amount of residents' time and public money invested into the Beltline, East Atlanta Community Association Vice President Ted Bradford wants whatever happens to the old freight corridor to benefit taxpayers instead of private developers.
"His developments all have the same look and feel," he says. "He has not shown he's capable of delivering that style of development that everyone understands is necessary for the Beltline."
Because of the adamant neighborhood opposition, Atlanta City Councilwoman Carla Smith introduced two ordinances to proactively, and controversially, rezone the property to prevent Fuqua from building the retail complex. Emotions ran high last month at a contentious Zoning Review Board hearing over Smith's proposals. At the standing-room-only hearing, citizens heckled Fuqua's representatives, community supporters applauded their leaders, and one woman wept tears of joy after the ZRB voted in favor of the ordinance.
Last week the ordinance moved to Atlanta City Council for a vote. Fuqua sat alone in the second row of Council's chambers and watched as Atlanta's elected officials approved the measure, effectively undermining his development.
Technically speaking, Fuqua plays by the rules. His firm knows the ins and outs of the city's outdated codes and how to use them to its advantage. Until the recent rezoning, his 800 Glenwood Ave. project met all the legal requirements.
"Atlanta has an over-the-top planning process that's full of requirements unusual in most of the United States," he says. "It's as tough of a place to develop as there is out there based on regulation, oversight, review, and scrutiny."
Racicot says City Hall needs to become more active in vetting developments that shape the city's core. Atlanta's zoning code hasn't received an overhaul since 1982, so the law hasn't evolved along with residents' desires to see smarter development. That's allowed Fuqua and other developers to build suburban-style projects intown.
"Fuqua is operating in an environment that makes what he wants to do legal," Racicot says. "The city could update their zoning and there needs to be a framework for change. The current Beltline overlay doesn't do that, but for now Fuqua has the right to build until the city makes some proactive changes."
By proactively rezoning properties prior to development deals, the city would be able to pressure developers, and indirectly banks and retailers, to play by its rules - not the other way around. Talks are underway to do just that along certain parts of the Beltline.
"Ninety percent of developers do the bare minimum that they're required to do under zoning codes anywhere in the country," Racicot says. "If the zoning lets them put up a cheaper building, they'll do it. Fuqua's not unique in that respect."
Fuqua insists his company will move forward with the 800 Glenwood Ave. development unless it's forced to stop. He'll likely file a lawsuit within the next few weeks to challenge the "illegal" proposals. Lawyers for LaFarge, the concrete company that currently owns the property, and a few committed tenants are considering suing the city. Fuqua could conceivably walk away from the deal, but the odds of that happening are slim to none.
Following Council's rezoning votes, Smith and her constituents gathered in City Hall to discuss the road ahead. Out in the atrium, Fuqua leaned against a brass railing, talked calmly on his cell phone, and plotted his next moves. When you see the whole world as property, there's always a deal to be done.