By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on August 22, 2014
Friendship Baptist Church envisions turning the community around the new Atlanta Falcons stadium into a revitalized “Downtown West.”
Friendship is partnering with a well-known national development firm to plan the revitalization of at least 22 acres around the new stadium.
The St. Louis firm of McCormack Baron Salazar is partnering with Friendship to plan the development of Downtown West — which will include affordable and market-rate housing, and retail as well as a number of community amenities – including a new Friendship Baptist Church.
“As we looked for partners, the thing that stood out about McCormack Baron is that they really believed in community development,” said Lloyd Hawk, chairman of Friendship’s board of trustees. “In our development plan, it’s not just about the bricks and mortar, it’s about human development as well.”
McCormack Baron initially will work with Friendship on the master plan for the 22 acres, but Hawk said the expectation is that the St. Louis-based firm will become one of the key development partners in the Downtown West project.
Ron Roberts, a vice president of McCormack Baron, will be heading up the Friendship development in Atlanta.
“To be able to come in with Friendship Baptist Church next to the Atlanta University campus is extremely compelling for us,” said Roberts, a Morehouse College graduate who is a native of St. Louis but views Atlanta as a second home.
McCormack Baron works in about 30 cities across the country, and it has worked with other faith-based institutions, serving as catalysts in the revitalization of their communities.
“That’s why the interest in coming to Atlanta was so exciting for us,” Roberts said. Actually McCormack Baron already has some experience in Atlanta. It partnered with Atlanta developer Egbert Perry on the redevelopment of Techwood Homes into Centennial Place just before the 1996 Olympics.
The Friendship project, however, will be quite different because it will be focused on an area that Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, the city of Atlanta and other entities have said must be revitalized at the same time as the building of the new $1.2 billion stadium.
The desire to be part of the revitalization of the Vine City, English Avenue and Atlanta University communities is not new for Friendship, according to Hawk, who will be heading the development efforts for the church by taking on a new role as CEO of Friendship Baptist LLC beginning in September.
It dates back to when the church decided 25 years ago to stay put — where it had been for more than 100 years at the corner of Mitchell Street and Northside Drive —when plans were being made to build the Georgia Dome.
“About five to six years ago, we came to the realization that we needed to stop waiting for the community to turn around,” Hawk said. “If someone was going to turn around the community, it was going to have to be us.”
So before talk of a new stadium became serious, the church began working on plans to help revitalize the area.
Then plans for a new stadium intensified with two choices — to build on a vacant lot about a half mile north of the existing Georgia Dome or to build just south of the Georgia Dome, which would mean moving two historic churches — Mount Vernon Baptist Church and Friendship Baptist Church.
Friendship finally agreed to sell its sanctuary for $19.5 million after long negotiations with the city of Atlanta and the Atlanta Falcons — permitting the stadium to be built on the south site in between two MARTA stations.
“We believed that what was best for the community was having the stadium on the south site,” Hawk said in an interview on Aug. 18. “We agreed to sell because we believed it would put the community in a better position for transformation.”
But the church’s leaders, who were committed to staying in the community and being part of its revitalization, also wanted to be sure it would not be taking away funds from its development plans during the move.
“We wanted to be whole,” Hawk said, breaking down the expenses – needing to buy land for a new church in the area, needing to find space for all its existing community programs – such as tutorial and outreach – finding a temporary location, then building a new Friendship Baptist Church. “I’m watching the dollars closely.”
Meanwhile, Friendship partnered with the city of Atlanta to buy most of the 37 acres owned by Morris Brown College. The closing on the Morris Brown transaction is expected to happen on either Aug. 25 or Aug. 26, according to Anne Aaronson, Morris Brown’s bankruptcy attorney.
Friendship will be paying $3.875 million to buy the vacant Middleton Towers, the Morris Brown gym and the parking lot across from the towers – about 5 acres. The total cost of the land sale will be $14.825 million, with the city’s development agency, Invest Atlanta, paying for the balance of nearly $11 million, Aaronson wrote in an email.
Friendship already owned 3 acres on Mitchell Street across from its now-demolished sanctuary. It also owns a little more than 13 acres along Northside Drive and Mitchell Street. And then there are the contiguous 5 acres that it is buying from Morris Brown.
Hawk said the church also is in conversations with many of the other interested parties in the Westside communities to make sure they are coordinating their development plans. He also is hoping that the area will adopt the Downtown West name as part of its rebranding.
“The big question we have been asking is, how do you bring downtown to the west side of Northside Drive?” Hawk said. “We have to bridge the gulf.”
Although Hawk said it was too early to estimate how much Friendship’s total redevelopment project will end up costing, he said it would be in the tens of millions of dollars. Specific plans are expected to be unveiled later in the fall.
In addition to new residential and retail, Hawk said the redevelopment plans will include major community amenities such as a sports complex with swimming and basketball, child care and after-school facilities, tutoring programs and “everything you can think of.”
The church is still working on the exact location of where it will build the new Friendship sanctuary. Until then, it is holding its Sunday services at the Ray Charles Center for the Performing Arts at Morehouse College. It should be in its new home by the time the Falcons start playing at the new stadium in 2017.
Meanwhile, Friendship will be working to implement its community plans and tap into the expertise of McCormack Baron as it puts together its development and financial team.
“They are very tied into the foundation community, and they are very well connected at HUD (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development),” Hawk said. “They also have good relationships with the financial community.”
In the last round of the federal Choice Innovation grants, McCormack Baron was involved in two of the four winning Choice awards — each about $30 million. Atlanta was one of the six finalists in that round, but its grant application did not make it into the final four.
“We have enjoyed some success with the Choice Innovation grants,” Roberts said. “We stand ready to assist Atlanta in any capacity. If the invitation comes, we would jump at the opportunity to do so.”