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