A redeveloped and revitalized Civic Center stirs our imagination
By Maria Saporta
Selecting a team to redevelop the Civic Center property is just the beginning of what could be a turning point for intown Atlanta.
The board of the Atlanta Housing Authority voted unanimously on Aug. 24 to begin formal negotiations with the redevelopment team of Washington, D.C.-based Republic Properties, Camden, N.J.-based Michaels Organization and Atlanta-based Sophy Capital for 14.7 acres of the 19-acre site.
But several outstanding issues remain – the reuse of the performing arts venue, the site location of the Grammy Museum and the future of the Southface Institute — a nonprofit leader in sustainability and green building located on the block.
The signature part of the site — the 4-acre site that features Civic Center’s performing arts center — has been carved out of the award to the Republic-Michaels-Sophy team. Officials from the Atlanta Housing Authority said they would explore opportunities to work with the team on the use of the 4,600-seat performing arts center over the next six months.
Originally, the entity working to bring the Grammy Museum to Atlanta (Georgia Music Accord) was part of the Republic-Michaels-Sophy team to activate the performing arts venue. But when that was not included in the current bid, it is unclear what role the Grammy Museum could play in the project.
“We’d like to congratulate the winning team,” said Brad Olecki, CEO of Georgia Music Accord. “We look forward to learning more about the Housing Authority’s plans while we continue our due diligence to identify the best site for our exciting project.”
Efforts to redevelop the Civic Center property date back decades. Ackerman & Co. had a long-term lease with the City of Atlanta to redevelop the campus into a mixed-use development, but that project never was built.
Then Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed put the property out for bid at least twice with the hopes of selling it to developers. But those plans also never moved forward. Finally, Reed convinced the Atlanta Housing Authority to buy the property in 2018 for $31 million, a move I questioned at the time.
Most of the previous redevelopment plans had envisioned demolishing the historic performing arts center, but when Eugene Jones became CEO of the Atlanta Housing Authority in October 2019 that changed.
“The plan was to tear down the whole thing,” Jones said in a telephone interview a few days after the vote. “When I came, I said: We are not going to tear this down. We had a vision of what to do with the Civic Center. We are going to make this happen.”
In August 2021, AHA requested qualifications from potential development partners, and in November 2021, it sought request for proposals from firms with the “capacity and capability to execute a large urban, multi-phased development. There were three finalists, including the first team that was selected — New York-based Tishman Speyer and Atlanta-based H.J. Russell & Co. But the day after the AHA vote, it was announced that Tishman Speyer was withdrawing from the team.
On Aug. 24, AHA approved the Republic-Michaels-Sophy team, which calls for a 10-year development plan to turn the property into a mixed-use, mixed-income community. It will deliver 1,311 units, of which 525 will be affordable at or below 80 percent of area median income.
Jones expressed excitement that the project could now move forward after so many false starts.
“It’s going to be a great legacy for the city of Atlanta,” said Jones, who credited his “great” staff for representing the human aspect of housing. “The 4,600-seat panoramic center is like a gift back to the city. It’s a big amenity in my mind.”
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens also applauded the movement on the project.
“The vision for this development has the potential to infuse $1 billion into the Historic Old Fourth Ward, providing thousands of Atlantans from all walks of life with endless opportunities,” Dickens said in a statement. “The project will also honor the legacy of Buttermilk Bottom by embracing the site’s rich history while preserving the Performing Arts Center and transforming the site into a true civic anchor at the heart of a new livable and equitable community.”
During the AHA board meeting, a slide on the development team shared the following details. Republic is a 47.5 owner of the development team, and the firm is described as a vertically integrated mixed-use developer and asset manager.
The Michaels Organization also is 47.5 percent owner, and its specialty is in affordable housing and student housing development.
Sophy Capital, an Atlanta minority business enterprise led by Michael Green, is a 5 percent owner, but it has an option to increase that to 33 percent. Sophy is a real estate investment firm specializing in development. Green also serves as vice chair of the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority.
The slide also mentioned additional members of the team:
- Development: Vantage Realty; Crow Hospitality, Alux Partners; T. Dallas Smith & Co.; and Coats Dev.
- Architect: SOM; Goode Van Slyke and TVS Design
- Engineer: Kimley Horn
- Sustainability: Southface Institute
- MBE/WBE oversight: Larkan Green & Asso.
- Education: Charter Facility Team
- Community Engagement: Ohio River South, Coleman Asso.
- Branding: Majority Agency
Members of the development team gave brief remarks to the AHA board before the vote, but they hurried out of the meeting and boarded an elevator — not open to the public — to go AHA offices upstairs. They did not answer questions of the journalists who were present.
Jones said he looks forward to bringing the development team to meet with the community and other members of the public in the near future.
Another major question is the future of Southface, a nonprofit founded in 1978 and has been a national leader in sustainability and green building practices. In 2018, Southface purchased 1.8 acres of the Civic Center site that housed its campus for $3 million. It had been leasing the land from the city since 1996.
The rendering of the Republic-Michaels-Sophy redevelopment project showed multistory buildings on the site now owned by Southface.
James Marlow, who was named president of Southface in May, said his board is open to exploring opportunities with the Civic Center redevelopment team.
“We at Southface are very excited to work with the Atlanta Housing Authority, Republic and Sophy,” Marlow said. “We have had several conversations with them. We want to be their sustainability partner. Our vision would be for this to be a true demonstration of sustainability leadership. And we want to work with the community to have walkability, livability and affordability.”
Marlow said Southface is open to all options. It could rebuild a new campus on its existing site, it could become part of the overall campus. Or Southface could leave the campus altogether and build a new “living” building elsewhere, such as along the Atlanta BeltLine. A living building, such as the Kendeda building on the Georgia Tech campus, actually generates more energy and water than it uses.
“We see all those options as exciting and positive,” said Marlow, who said his board is reimagining Southface. “We want to be the sustainability partner regardless of the option. The developer wants a vibrant and profitable community that can be a showcase for other developers This could be a community demonstration, and we want to be part of the planning. We look forward to negotiating at the table with strength.”
For example, Marlow said Southface would like to see a water feature on what is now the parking lot that floods after heavy rains. He envisions a stormwater lake that becomes a green amenity like the nearby Historic Fourth Ward Park or Cook Park on the westside.
AHA Interim Chair Tené Traylor thanked the AHA staff for getting the project off the ground.
“Because of their hard work and community outreach, AH and our new partners will deliver hundreds of affordable new units to needy Atlanta families and breathe new life into the old Buttermilk Bottom,” Traylor said in a statement.
Fellow AHA commissioner Larry Stewart called it a “tremendous opportunity” for the authority and its partners. “We are also very proud that this project will preserve the important memory and legacy of Buttermilk Bottom,” Stewart said of the community that was displaced because of the building of the downtown connector and urban renewal.
The authority also said the development team will invest $575 million to create 1.8-million square feet of residential, office, retail, hospitality and cultural spaces, as well as a new school. In addition to affordable and mixed-income housing, the plan includes a grocery, rooftop gardens, open spaces and recreational areas as well as a civic square and outdoor space for local food.
Under the redevelopment proposal, AHA will fully recover its $41.7 million cost of acquiring the property over a 99-year ground lease. It will begin negotiating a master development agreement, and it expects to have a signed agreement in the next six to nine months with construction beginning in late 2023.
The redevelopment of this part of Atlanta would help connect downtown with Midtown and the residential areas to the east. And the potential to revitalize the performing arts center, which opened in 1967 as a major entertainment venue and convention center before closing in 2014, also stirs the imagination.
After so many years of drama and false starts, it finally appears the redevelopment of the Civic Center is moving forward.