Metropolis: From miniwarehouses to maxi-condos

Jim Borders told Atlantans they would love high-rise homes — and he was right

The Atlanta Business Chronicle calls developer Jim Borders the city’s “condo king.” So does the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

So, I won’t.

But Borders is a visionary. Considering that references to Atlanta developers often include adjectives such as “land-raping” and “congestion-causing,” attaching any positive reference to Borders’ name is high praise.

He deserves the accolade for one reason: Borders is good at looking over the horizon and connecting the future with today’s trends. The result goes beyond mere making a fortune – which he does nicely, thank you – and contributes to crafting a better city. He doesn’t rip up suburban land and slap up McMansions. Rather, he eyes the urban landscape and reshapes it with towering edifice rexes.

Key to the robust sales of Borders’ high-rise condo units in Midtown is a very simple calculation. “The new generation is waiting two or three years longer to get married. They have time to buy a home,” he says. “Their baby boomer parents have told them how essential home ownership is. These young people don’t want something too edgy, but they want something as nice as what their parents have, and at a price they can afford. That’s what we offer.”

Borders’ company, Novare – that’s Latin for “make new” – dominates wide swaths of Midtown and anchors key territory in Buckhead. His Twelve hotels at Atlantic Station and Centennial Park combine boutique hotels with condos priced within range of broad swaths of the young, trendy middle class. His condo towers along Peachtree define a new, hip lifestyle.

There could be a fly or two in the vichyssoise, however. Atlanta’s condo boom may bust if it keeps stuffing people into the city – especially in ultradense high-rises – without committing to a vast expansion of transit. And, more immediate for Borders, success breeds imitation, and imitation breeds glut. More than 3,000 condo units are on the market, according to a new report by real-estate analyst David Haddow, and another 6,000 units are under construction. That’s about a three-year supply at current selling rates – the definition of a “soft” market.

Borders contends he’ll do well because his projects combine style with technology, augmented by trendy retail – he brought the Vortex hamburger emporium into one of his early projects, for example. “People are looking for an urban experience,” he comments. “People who live in town often think about getting away for the weekend. With us, we want to give people something they look forward to enjoying in the evenings and weekends.”

He’s taken his gospel of remaking downtowns into great places to live to other cities – Tampa, Charlotte, Austin and Nashville. Twelve hotels and condo high-rises are staking out the vital centers in those cities, a pattern honed in Atlanta.

But it all started with some humble self-storage warehouses.

Borders, a Carrollton native, comes across as an ultraconventional Atlanta businessman — trim, suited, preppy, soft drawl. He commands like a general, but he wasn’t always so decisive. He majored in mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech — and quips that he’s the university’s least mechanically inclined graduate.

He worked on oil rigs for a while, and then went to the University of Georgia to earn a law degree and an MBA. After graduation, he was hired by the prestigious firm of King & Spalding. “But I always knew I wanted to do something in business,” he says. “I wanted to own my own company.”

This was during the late 1980s, when commercial real estate had been going through the sort of disastrous bust we’re seeing in the housing market today. Savvy businessmen snapped up the properties for a pittance.

“There was only one thing you had to do to make money,” Borders smiles. “Just show up at the closing.”

After a year of practicing law, Borders left the sanctuary of King & Spalding and purchased some miniwarehouses. “Self-storage was the worst of the worst,” he says. “But that was the opportunity that was there.”

In 1992, he formed Novare, and began to innovate. He purchased an aging, 30-story office building on Peachtree. The price was cheap, $2.2 million, but the office market was staggering. “There had been some loft conversions, but not in a building like this,” Borders recalls. “The question I faced was whether you could take a 1950s office building and convert it to lofts. I really didn’t know, but I liked the idea.”

The idea worked, and became Peachtree Lofts, which he christened in 1996 – leasing the whole building to Australians here for the Olympic Games.

He would turn his eye to other renovations, such as the Biltmore Hotel. In the early 1980s, he’d attended a fraternity formal in the grand spaces of the building. Seventeen years later, the Biltmore was a shambles, and the only residents were homeless people who had taken shelter there. Borders purchased it, and restored it to former glory.

As his successes mounted, Borders embarked on building massive new high-rise condos such as the Metropolis on Peachtree. Units are typically 800-1,100 square feet, priced in the mid-$200,000s. Computerized and outfitted with outlets for iPods, they’re what the Starbucks-drinking, upward-bound 25-34-year-old craves. The proof? The sale of 3,000 units so far – and about 3,500 more units under construction. Last year’s sales topped $250 million.

Atlanta truly does need the density and style that Borders builds. But, if we get density and that’s all, the canyons on Peachtree and in Buckhead will someday be wastelands. We’ll merely have the same glacial congestion commuters experience on every street and avenue in the city.

Borders, looking out his office window at the Biltmore, generally shoots back straight answers to questions. After all, he’s done well and is proud of Novare. But on the questions about what Atlanta will become if something isn’t done, he’s cautious.

Borders deflects the question and says that he’s selling “city life,” explaining: “That means walkable communities, retail at your doorstep and friendly neighbors above, below and beside you. Though most of our developments will also include a parking component, we know and we hope that many of our residents/owners will become regular users of mass transit, as well as their feet, as opposed to making every move in a single-occupancy vehicle.”

I guess what he’s saying is that like the rest of us, he’s waiting for an effective transit system. And waiting. And waiting ...