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Brian McGowan: an Amtrak station at Centennial Yards would be ‘fantastic’

Centennial Yards Co., looks over the interactive model of the 50-acre development planned for downtown Atlanta. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

By Maria Saporta

During a standard presentation of the planned $5 billion Centennial Yards project, Brian McGowan spoke of the role the 50-acre railroad gulch has played in the development of Atlanta.

“We always show people the history of the site,” said McGowan, explaining how three railroad lines converged at a spot called “Terminus,” the original name of Atlanta. “This was where Atlanta was founded. This is why Atlanta came together.”

McGowan, president of Centennial Yards Co., then spoke of the greater symbolism of the role the hub location plays for the Southeast region.

“This is the center of Atlanta,” he said. “If you are in the center of Atlanta, then you are in the center of the Southeast.”

An aerial view of the planned Centennial Yards development in the heart of downtown Atlanta. (Special: Centennial Yards Co.)

On the Centennial Yards website, one of the promotional taglines states: “All roads lead to Centennial Yards.” A more accurate statement is: “All railroads lead to Centennial Yards.”

During a one-hour interview on Aug. 30, McGowan embraced the idea of Centennial Yards fulfilling its historic role as the city’s crossroads by saying the company would welcome Amtrak having a station as part of the massive retail, office, entertainment and residential project.

“We would love for [passenger] rail to be part of the project,” McGowan said. “What a great amenity that would be. To add an Amtrak station would be fantastic. We would love to have an Amtrak station. It would be nothing but a value-add.”

McGowan repeated those sentiments several times to make sure he had made the point. And he also sent Amtrak a message.

“We would try to accommodate whatever Amtrak would want to do,” McGowan said. “But we have to balance that with the fact that this is a private development and there are investors. A lot depends on how fast they can move. They have got to move fast because we’re moving fast. It would be fantastic to have an Amtrak stop.”

Map shows the urban design plan for Centennial Yards and the many other projects underway in close proximity. (Special: Centennial Yards Co.)

Centennial Yards’ plans to transform a 50-acre hole in the southern heart of downtown are well underway. McGowan has stated the goal is for the project to be the center of gravity during the 2026 World Cup so that has become the new deadline.

To meet that ambitious timeline, McGowan said the current schedule calls for breaking ground on the first phase — four buildings — by the end of the year.

When asked about its plans for Atlanta, Amtrak sent over an enthusiastic response.

“Atlanta is a key market in Amtrak’s proposed national network expansion planning,” Kimberly Woods, a senior public relations manager for Amtrak, wrote in an email. “Currently served by a single Amtrak train daily, the ‘Crescent’ connecting New York and New Orleans, the city represents a great opportunity for future intercity passenger rail service growth connecting the dynamic cities of the Southeast.

Woods continued: “We look forward to engaging in a robust process to discuss options to expand Amtrak services, station, infrastructure, and support facilities in the region. We are committed to working with city, state, federal and other partners in realizing a common vision for rail service expansion for the people of metro Atlanta and the state of Georgia.”

Metro Atlanta would benefit greatly under Amtrak’s proposal to expand its service as part of the Biden infrastructure plan. (Special: Amtrak.)

When asked if he had met with Amtrak officials, McGowan would neither confirm nor deny. But there was no question about McGowan wanting to have Amtrak be part of Centennial Yards.

The prospect of Amtrak locating a station in downtown Atlanta gained tremendous steam when Atlanta City Councilmember Jason Dozier introduced a resolution in May to expand passenger rail in the center city. The resolution, co-sponsored by 10 other councilmembers, passed unanimously on June 6.

“The resolution generated a lot of buzz, but no, we haven’t gotten a phone call or anything hinting at Amtrak’s next move,” Dozier wrote in a text. “What has happened though, are numerous additional conversations and outreach efforts from stakeholders who have studied this issue across the Southeast, including at least one of our U.S. Senate offices, wanting to know how they help move this forward with intention and with speed.”

After reading Amtrak’s statement, Dozier sent over a new text.

“I’m thrilled by Amtrak’s enthusiasm and positivity,” Dozier wrote. “I look forward to working together to make the expansion of passenger rail in Atlanta a reality.”

A rendering showing green space that will be part of the Centennial Yards project (Special: Centennial Yards Co.)

McGowan also embraced the idea of greatly expanding Atlanta’s streetcar network to help the city become even more attractive to technology companies looking to expand their operations.

“The streetcar should connect to the Atlanta University Center to the west and then to BeltLine on the west,” McGowan said. “If you could connect Georgia State University, the Atlanta University Center and Georgia Tech with a streetcar, the opportunities for private innovation would be mind-blowing.”

Already Microsoft is building its second-largest U.S. campus in Atlanta, and McGowan said other tech companies are considering investing here largely because of the diversity of academic talent coming out of Atlanta’s universities.

That should be an impetus for the Atlanta region to become “more creative about transit,” McGowan said. “If we are going to continue on this trajectory of becoming a tech city, we are going to have to figure out transit, workforce skills and affordable housing.”

Centennial Yards has been an opportunity for McGowan to return to Atlanta from Seattle, where he founded and ran an economic development partnership.

Rendering of Centennial Yards shows the development’s proximity to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Special: Centennial Yards Co.)

McGowan has had a diverse career working in economic development for then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and for then-President Barack Obama before coming to Atlanta in 2011 to become president of Invest Atlanta.

Three years later McGowan joined the Metro Atlanta Chamber as chief operating officer, where he served less than two years. Then he spent less than two years as a principal for the Dentons law firm before being named president and CEO of the Atlanta BeltLine Inc., where he stayed for 13 months before moving to Seattle in 2018.

“You know I get bored,” McGowan laughingly said. “I’m really happy to be here. You just can’t get bored with this project. It’s so enormous. It’s so impactful. And it’s so transformative. For me, it’s also a culmination of all the things I’ve done in my career.”

While presenting the project, McGowan’s enthusiasm for Centennial Yards is contagious. The development is being spearheaded by the CIM Group and an investor group led by Atlanta Hawks owner Tony Ressler.

“The bottom line is that this will become a new neighborhood with 7,000 to 8,000 people living down here,” McGowan said. “We really want to build something unique to Atlanta. If you are not experiencing Atlanta’s culture, music, what’s the point? We want you to know you’re in Atlanta.”

The Canyon will become a fun focal point of downtown Atlanta, according to Brian McGowan. Wild Leap Craft Beverages will locate a brewery in a space under the Lofts at Centennial Yards. (Special: Centennial Yards Co.)

McGowan said the Lofts at Centennial Yards — the historic headquarters of Southern Railway — is 92 percent occupied. Plans are to build another 4,000 apartments with 20 percent at 80 percent of area median income for 99 years. The development is busy signing up retail tenants and is courting prospective office tenants. It has been declared a “digital signage district,” which will give it a festive feel.

“When I got here in 2011, prospects only wanted to look at Buckhead. By 2012 to 2014, everyone wanted to look at Midtown,” McGowan said, adding development patterns are pointing to downtown. “South downtown is undergoing a renaissance.”

The master plan for Centennial Yards will extend Fairlie-Poplar’s street grid towards Castleberry Hill, helping reconnect parts of Atlanta that have been disconnected because of “a 50-acre hole in the heart of downtown where the main feature is parking,” McGowan said.

Imagine how an Amtrak station providing intercity rail connecting cities across the Southeast would restore Atlanta’s role as the true hub in the Southeast.

We have an amazing opportunity if federal, state, regional and local leaders galvanize behind restoring passenger rail — Amtrak — to the heart of Atlanta.

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Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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5 Comments

  1. Eric September 5, 2022 10:08 pm

    Please ask about what the protected bike lane network will be provided.

    Will they include the route identified in Cycle Atlanta 1.0 along Walker & Centennial Olympic Park Drive?

    The project I mention is much more feasible and attainable than the Amtrak relocation.Report

    Reply
  2. Steve Vogel September 6, 2022 10:16 am

    Amtrak’s response is interesting in that in the past they have rejected any downtown stations because it would cause a 30+ minute backup move in or out.Report

    Reply
  3. tom September 6, 2022 12:08 pm

    Brian is the best. We are in great hands.Report

    Reply
  4. Writes of weigh September 8, 2022 7:02 pm

    I thought Amtrak’s Marketing Department response curious, and if accurately quoted, incites grave concern, as Amtrak, which provides skeletal service to Atlanta, at best, when operating seven days a week, for the past several months has been operating only five days a week through here! Given that a recent Amtrak president, Richard Anderson, was recruited from the executive ranks of Delta Airlines, and given that around the time of his tenure at Amtrak, that railroad quit printing public timetables for ready reference! Perhaps a qualification for a job in Amtrak’s marketing department might, in the future, include a demonstrated ability to read a printed train timetable! Similarly, but not equal, one presumes some future Amtrak president, might require demonstrated competence in hiring adept marketing / operations staff? Oh! COVID…I forgot! Just to remind…Amtrak Joe’s son, Hunter was on Amtrak’s board of director’s around the time in question, along with former Georgia Congressman Lynn Westmoreland. Is there a pattern to be devined here?Report

    Reply
  5. Letmesaythis September 12, 2022 12:33 pm

    Is he new to Atlanta? If so, he needs to clue in quick.
    Atlanta metro area (Not city of Atlanta boundaries) and the state of Georgia need a regional rail network.
    A train from Savannah to ATL, from ATL to Macon then connect Augusta and Columbus.
    Train from ATL to Blue Ridge and Chattanooga.
    THEN….connect the passenger rail network to other City/states …like BIrmingham or Charleston and so on….
    This idea is not mine but the best idea that has been tossed around for decades but nothing is built.
    We…in the metro area get Lexus Toll Lanes that NO one ask for….but real logical mass transit is never built.
    Why?
    Trains take from the automobile and air travel market share.Report

    Reply

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