Fort McPherson – Atlanta’s greatest (missed) opportunity

The second of two columns about the pending sales of 330 acres at Fort McPherson to Tyler Perry Studios: Part two: The redevelopment of Fort McPherson – the (missed) opportunity of our lifetime.

By Maria Saporta

A city stands and falls on the decisions and vision of her leaders.

All too rarely, a city has an opportunity to make a decision that will set its future course for generations to come.

Fort McPherson is such an opportunity for Atlanta.

Fort Mac's Van Horn Hall

Fort McPherson’s Van Horn Hall (Source: Images were taken from MILRA website)

The now-closed U.S. Army base is a jewel of 488 acres – nearly three times the size of all of Atlantic Station. It has some of the most beautiful historic buildings and tree-lined green spaces that can be found anywhere in Atlanta.

It sits between two MARTA stations strategically located half-way between downtown Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

The entire property had been appraised in early 2014 as being worth more than $100 million. Yet the U.S. Army has agreed to sell all but 10 acres of the property to the McPherson Implementing Redevelopment Authority (MILRA) for only $26 million.

Fort McPherson's Staff Row

Fort McPherson’s Staff Row

A forward-thinking city administration would seize the opportunity to control the future of this special property – guaranteeing Atlanta residents that they would get the highest quality redevelopment possible for both the former base and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Such strategic investments have been made before.

Consider the Atlanta BeltLine. Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin invested $66 million to buy the 66 acres that is now the Eastside trail. Although one could argue whether the city paid too much for the land, today nobody questions whether it was the right decision for Atlanta’s future.

Mayor Kasim Reed proudly touts the Atlanta BeltLine’s economic and quality of life benefits. But the project never would have happened had the City of Atlanta and former Mayor Franklin not made a strategic investment to secure control of the property.

Fort McPherson's Pershing Hall

Fort McPherson’s Pershing Hall

David Edwards, who served as Franklin’s deputy chief operating officer, pointed to another example.

“Let’s look at City Hall East,” Edwards said. “At the time that we contemplated moving out of that building, no one was lining up to buy that property either.  When I first put out feelers on what the market would be for the building, the only interest came from broker representing Walmart.  They were interested in the parking lot on North Avenue, not the actual building.  We probably could have sold that property for a pretty good price, but we felt that by doing so we would completely undermine our ability to sell the big building. For the sake of the vision for a robust, mixed use development there, we decided to sell the parcels as a package.”

Fort McPherson's Chapel Center

Fort McPherson’s Chapel Center

But to implement its vision, the City had to make two major investments – find a solution to the storm water problem that caused flooding in the building’s basement and relocate the city’s departments housed in the old Sears building.

Edwards said the city secured “more than $100 million in public funding to enable the Ponce City Market development – a 16-acre site – to occur.”

Today Ponce City Market has become one of the hottest real estate properties in Atlanta, city residents got a new park with a water feature that doubles as a storm water basin, and the transformation of Poncey-Highlands and Old Fourth Ward is well underway.

“Now look at Fort Mac.  What public investment has been identified for this site?” Edwards asked. “None. For a property that has arguably much more potential, and certainly a larger area of impact than City Hall East, the City hasn’t found a dime.

Fort McPherson's Troop Row

Fort McPherson’s Troop Row

“Somewhere along the line, people got the notion that Fort Mac had to somehow self-finance itself.  That never made any sense,” Edwards continued. “The city should have purchased and developed the parkland and green space and used that investment to attract private dollars into the rest of the property. That’s how City Hall East worked; that’s how the Beltline works.  It’s how all of these efforts should work.”

Had the City acquired Fort McPherson, worked with a master developer and redeveloped the property strategically, the city easily would have made its money back several times over.

Plus the City would have ended up with a magnificent new event space for mega-festivals like Music Midtown without damaging and disturbing Piedmont Park and the surrounding densely-populated communities.

Fort McPherson's green space

Fort McPherson’s green space

Fort McPherson is so phenomenal because it is a ready-made community – hungry for living and breathing residents, businesses, neighborhood retail with all the amenities so desired by those living nearby. A movie house, a bowling alley, a former grocery store, a post office, beautiful homes and residences available for people of all income levels to move in.

Fort McPherson can and should be so much more than a fenced-off movie set that locks out everyone around it. Selling 330 acres for a mere $30 million to Tyler Perry is an idea that has been ramrodded by Mayor Kasim Reed, who seems to be working on behalf of a friend rather than the people who elected him.

Decisons matter. Leaders matter. Vision matters.

The Atlanta of 10 years to 20 years from now will rise and fall with the choices we make today.

Please – let us make the right one before it’s too late.

Note to readers: Last week’s column examined why the Fort McPherson – Tyler Perry studio deal was such a bad deal for our city.

At the end of the column, I wrote a note saying I knew these columns would put me on Mayor Reed’s enemy’s list. What he fails to realize is that I’m not at war with him. I am at war with the misguided deal for Fort McPherson that he has been forcing through the system. Rather than discuss the merits or short-comings of decisions facing Atlanta, our mayor attacks people who are brave enough to disagree with him.

After I wrote last week’s note, I was surprised by how many people agreed with me about Fort McPherson and how many people are getting weary of the mayor’s heavy-handed leadership style.

If we really want what’s best for Atlanta, it’s time for people to let the mayor know how they really feel and give him an opportunity to adopt a new leadership style for his last two years in office. Mayor Reed’s legacy depends on it.

And a good place to start is Fort McPherson – the greatest (missed) opportunity of his administration.

Thank you all for your support.

Fort McPherson's Health Center

Fort McPherson’s Health Center

Fort McPherson's Forscom building

Fort McPherson’s Forscom building

Fort McPherson's  US Army Reserve Command

Fort McPherson’s US Army Reserve Command

Fort McPherson's staff row

A spectacular home along Fort McPherson’s staff row

Fort McPherson's green space

Fort McPherson’s green space

Fort McPherson's theater

Fort McPherson’s theater

Fort McPherson's green space

Fort McPherson’s incredible green space

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.

51 replies
  1. mnst says:

    The more I read, the crazier this seems. Some of those old homes could fetch a million dollars on their own in Inman Park or Virginia-Highland. I’m sure the mayor thinks he’s doing the right thing, and I see how Perry wants to make a significant investment in the city, but this is the wrong property for that venture.Report

    Reply
  2. brecko77 says:

    mnst Perry doesn’t want to make a significant investment in the city. Perry wants a sweetheart deal. One can only guess what the mayor is getting out of this deal.Report

    Reply
  3. Burroughston Broch says:

    A key difference between Fort McPherson and Atlantic Station – Atlantic Station was mostly a private project while Fort McPherson is a government project.Report

    Reply
  4. David says:

    A city within a city, fire dept, police dept, gated, golf course, hospital, pharmacy, housing, what more could one ask for? I was born at Ft. Mac and took my Dad down to get his prescriptions filled. I hate to see what is happening but not surprised, it is the new Atlanta.Report

    Reply
  5. Ryan says:

    Seems this property is ripe for TOD; it has a MARTA train stop located on the grounds, and is within walking distance of the BeltLine. Not to mention the recent impetus for developing good housing stock SW Atlanta.Report

    Reply
  6. Matthew Rao says:

    I just love Maria Saporta. And she’s so on target with this. Thanks Steve for sharing it.
    At the highest levels in our city, we have an all-too-familiar refrain of going for the lower rather than highest development standards, and this nearly 400 acres isn’t just another parcel, it is a potentially transformative project, but not if the current deal goes through.
    The country is filled with examples of how decommissioned military property can be turned into a vital part of the life of a city, such as San Francisco’s Presidio. Our Ft. Mac is an even better opportunity, not to get Atlantic Station South or a movie mogul’s private film compound, but a new vision of what development can be, of what adaptive re-use and preservation can be, and it is on the south side, which has largely been ignored in the big projects of Atlanta real estate.
    Time to contact our City Council representatives , those of us in City of ATL. Maybe it’s not a done deal yet and we still have time to have a voice.Report

    Reply
  7. Wormser Hats says:

    Where’s the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation? Where’s the outrage by the countless men and women whose personal and family heritage are tied to Ft. Mac?
    Where is the rest of Atlanta’s media empire in shining their spotlights on the TP deal? 
    His empire did nothing to elevate the neighborhood near the old Stageworks, nothing to improve the SW Atlanta community where his current studios are on-the-market.  Where is the outrage from Ft. Mac’s neighbors?
    If the mediocre director is really a “bad actor,” there should be more smoke, if there’s a brewing fire beneath Ft. Mac.Report

    Reply
  8. InfraredGuy says:

    The term Leadership and Atlanta are oxymorons, What leadership? the only thing going for Atlanta is world leadership in carjacking, home invasions and wasting public taxpayer money. the best solution for those tired of this style of ” Leadership ” is two Men and a TruckReport

    Reply
  9. CorkyClaire says:

    Maria, you bring up interesting points I hadn’t considered before about the redevelopment- thank you for that.
    And while bold leadership can be a good thing, bullying isn’t.Report

    Reply
  10. Greg says:

    As an Atlanta native and an old Southsider whose mother worked at Ft Mac for a number of years (and whose father was discharged from the Army there at the end of WWII) I can only add “AMEN” to Maria’s comments.  This property is more than just a jewel….it is an Atlanta treasure !  It could be just the catalyst to jumpstart the revival of the long neglected area between downtown and the airport….which some of us graybeards can still recall as  once being a vibrant part of the metro area. 
    But the stench of cronyism coming from the direction of City Hall taints this city as it has seemed to do from one administration to the next.  One look at the lovely, historic homes  buildings, and grounds shown in the photographs should impress upon anyone how utterly stupid and disgraceful this backroom  ‘deal’ was for this city. What an outrage !Report

    Reply
  11. jamesr1991 says:

    Maria who can we contact with BRAC or US Military to stop or at least slow down this obvious land grab? I don’t know why the city doesn’t sell Perry the Civic Center property.Report

    Reply
  12. Jeff Tucker says:

    Ft. Mac would have made a great modern day “Retro” Mixed Use Development …. it appears a lot of great infrastructure is already in place for mixed-use purposes.  I do believe in protecting our history where it makes sense …. for so long Atlanta has been in “tear-down & re-build” mode and great strides have been made in recent years to save and renovate & re-develop existing structures as “live, work & play” properties.  This accommodates the current Millennial generation, but also the Baby Boomers who are empty nesters and wishing to enjoy a much simpler life.  
        I do believe with the proper vision and working with right developer ….. Ft. Mac could have been a “Build It & They Will Come” opportunity……Jeff TuckerReport

    Reply
  13. Sr Citizen Dawg says:

    If the city administration is unwilling or unable to support the acquisition of Ft. Mc then perhaps private money/investors will see the opportunities afforded and agree to do so thereby preventing the city from getting their hands on it.Report

    Reply
  14. blitzzeit says:

    Great article…really ….But…
    Never mention FtMacs version of a flooding problem.
    Which is…Oakland City poverty drugs and bullets….That is the problem that needs to be remedied either first or along side development/ investment!Report

    Reply
  15. South Side says:

    I respect and appreciate all the concern Maria and the comments have, but I see another side to this. 
    I have witnessed, first-hand, the regentrification and resurgent intown-living boom in Inman Park and other communities. I live in Southwest Atlanta.
    It bothers me that now, suddenly, there’s concern for what McPherson has always been – a diamond nestled in a community that was abandoned in the White-Flight era . The complaint and concern I’m reading here (and in other places) have a tinge of opportunism and reverse “land-grabbiness”.  It sounds like: “We’ve missed the boat on land we want for ourselves, so let’s bash the people who have finally made a move.” 
    I’m not saying Perry is the perfect choice, but he’s been paying attention when others haven’t. That’s what business-people do. Suddenly, because we’re all looking for an urban Valhalla, parties who hardly care about the 45+ years in which the Fort Mac area was ignored, in decline, and “the military’s problem” are driving through the neighborhood (past the blighted parts, of course), taking pictures, and making plans for how they will use it. 
    This concern just seems disingenuous…Report

    Reply
  16. cc333 says:

    @South Side From what I can tell, no one else was given an opportunity to jump on this land. Perry wanted it and his good friend Kasim made sure he got it in spite of what we — the residents of SW Atlanta — want. Personally, I think it’s a crappy deal for us.Report

    Reply
  17. DaA says:

    I think a lot of people are misguided on this deal. The deal that Tyler Perry signed stipulates that some of the buildings have to be used for housing. He’s also going to add a hospital. Essentially it’s going to be a mixed used development anchored by a movie studio. Similar to “Assembly” in Doraville. But I think a lot of the criticism surrounding this deal is rooted in jealousy.Report

    Reply
  18. DaA says:

    There’s so much criticism about Reed’s leadership because of this deal. But I don’t recall any of this criticism when he convinced those churches (with a history predating the city of Atlanta itself) to move to make way for the new Falcons stadium. And before Perry got the deal there was another company in the process of buying the land to build a movie studio. There was no criticism about that but now that Perry’s buying the land its a problem. Just admit that most of you people on here are racist and you don’t want to see a black man own that property. If it was AMC buying that property you’d be praising the deal.Report

    Reply
  19. DaA says:

    @South Side It is disingenuous, they’re jealous a black man brought the land. No one wants to say that but its the truth. They’re disguising their racism in the form of caring about what the land is being used for.Report

    Reply
  20. DaA says:

    cc333 Another movie production company was attempting to buy the property but then the deal fell through. That’s when Tyler Perry came in and acquired it. The vision for that property has always been a movie studio. They just don’t want it to be Tyler Perry Studios.Report

    Reply
  21. blitzzeit says:

    Show pictures of thugs drugs and blight surrounding the historical buildigs…which are preserved becuz they are behind 15 foot walls topped with barbed wire…
    Then itll be clear why only a closed system like a studio will wrk there…why cdc emory universities and others wont touch it.
    Btw didnt Atlantic station LOSE tenants and custs when it was overrun by thugs? Buckhead wiped the slate clean and started over!!
    Dont yiu think developers are aware of this?!
    If you dont address massively the blight …best optin is closed system like a studio….where you can shuttle tourist in and out without getting robbed shot raped.Report

    Reply
  22. tom Houck says:

    I have long respected the work of my friend and colleague Maria Saporta, But, her recent two columns attacking Mayor Reed and the proposition of a new Tyler Perry enterprise at Ft. McPherson are out of bounds. It is clear Maria has her own agenda on this property. However, as she knows the MILRA board decided on the proposed entertainment project, The Atlanta City Council voted 12-1 in favor of the proposal. There are safeguards to preserve Ft. McPherson’s historic homes and charming features. 

    This project can move forward without financial support from the City of Atlanta and help the city move out of the longtime business of real estate and to bringing in tax dollars that can help us move forward to make progress in repairing the city’s infrastructure.Report

    Reply
  23. DebAz says:

    @DaA You clearly don’t know your facts.
    1) There is already a hospital there for the VA. Perry has nothing to do with that. 
    2) Perry is buying a huge part and making a studio. What is left may become a mixed used development. Two separate things, not one big project. 
    3) Plenty of people had an issue regarding the churches. Just because you aren’t familiar with it, doesn’t mean it did happen.
    4) The movie studio from the other company was to use only 80 acres, not over 300. Completely different. And FYI, the people in charge of the other studio are also black. 
    5) the other studio deal was never really made public until they sued.Report

    Reply
  24. LST1 says:

    I smell a rat!  20 bucks the mayor has his friends writing the last couple comments. This is a shame.  And for someone to say it’s racism and that people are secretly jealous of a black man because he bought the place is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.  Furthermore, I think casting racial dispersions is equally as horrible as people who say racist things to begin with, and it diminishes people responsiveness to real racism occurs.  Shame on you commenter DaA.Report

    Reply
  25. LST1 says:

    @South Side the concern isn’t over Perry – if he’s good at his business, of course it would make sense for him to acquire.   Who wouldn’t want it?! The problem is with Kasim Reed.  Reed can’t budge on selling old abondened schools and drags his feet left and right, and the moment he can sell sell the fort for some undervalued number so quickly seems very fishy.  Never has city goverment moved this quickly on anything.  The move was short sighted and does nothing for the future of that area or Atlanta.  Maybe one upside is the jobs creation the studio will create.  But that’s all I can see right now.   I’m sick of this town being so paralyzed by government.  Other cities surpass Atlanta in growth and innovation and I’m sure with not as much money.   And this city stands still while the world passes it by.   Corruption is a major problem for any city, or government if someone isn’t operating for a position of helping the city and it’s future.Report

    Reply
  26. Burroughston Broch says:

    tom Houck  1. What is Maria’s agenda you allege?
    2. The City has to provide a $13 million bridge loan to facilitate Perry’s purchase. Why is that not financial support?Report

    Reply
  27. Hatcher Hurd says:

    Ms. Saporta has hit the nail on the head. There is a huge opportunity to do something transformational with the 330 acres of Fort Mac. I have been hearing about movie studios since the 1980s (Remember Lakewood?).  An opportunity like this for Atlanta comes along once in a generation and we’re going to sell it for $36M? Please, let’s use some sense about this. Let’s get the best business and community minds together to come with a plan for the ages, not settle for chump change.
    Hatcher HurdReport

    Reply
  28. jamesr1991 says:

    tom Houck What? Tyler Perry has proven at his Greenbriar Parkway location what he’s going to do. There is no economic development taking place at that location. The Mall’s movie theater has been closed for a number of years. What business is Tyler Perry in – the MOVIE BUSINESS!!!! Go see for yourself.Report

    Reply
  29. jamesr1991 says:

    @South Side as a native I see us missing an opportunity to do something for so many displaced veterans and a community that needs an economic engine. Ft McPherson is the perfect locale for correcting pretty much all that is wrong with development on the Southside of Atlanta. The  poor souls on the MILRA are nothing but puppets for the mayor. The deal is bad for the Atlanta and especially the Southside. That land should be used to house the veterans, the poor and build economic opportunities for the communityReport

    Reply
  30. Burroughston Broch says:

    @Hatcher Hurd  Hatcher, I agree with you in spirit. However, in reality no other credible group has come forward. I suspect the reasons are (1) lack of expertise of those trying to market the property, (2) too much government involvement, cost, and red tape,(3) cronyism between Tyler Perry and Hizzoner, and (4) perceived risk of buying a property with Fort Apache, The Bronx neighbors.
    What to do next should be considered by real estate experts outside government. I see no need for a stampede to sell the property since the City has been holding on to two 10,000+ acre parcels for the last 40 years with no development.Report

    Reply
  31. John Ahmann says:

    I certainly respect Maria’s voice and perspective, but on this one just totally disagree.  I wrote a column about it and I still stand by it:  http://saportareport.com/atlanta-a-city-for-dreamers-should-welcome-tyler-perry-studios/.  Rather than banging up Tyler Perry and casting aspersions on him, we should be extending a hand and discussing win-win public/private partnerships.  

    None of us bat a 1,000%, including Maria Saporta.  This reminds a bit when Maria Saporta opposed the new parking deck the Atlanta Botanical Gardens built into a kudzu covered hill.  That was predicted to be transformational for Piedmont Park/Botantical Gardens and it has been.  This will be too if we get behind it.  

    Mr. Perry operates one of the world’s largest independent film studios and the need for creative content is exploding thanks to the plethora of channels now available via broadband.  As the Mayor notes, we will still have left over 100 acres for other uses – how do we leverage that with what Mr. Perry is doing?  How does engage Atlanta Public Students in this exploding opportunity so maybe more of them finish high school? 

    Other communities would likely fall over themselves to recruit Mr. Perry.  I found the diatribe against him frankly stunning but I am also reminded this often happens to the visionaries who can see a future most of us miss and/or are scared to embrace.

    John AhmannReport

    Reply
    • Maria Saporta
      Maria Saporta says:

      @John Ahmann John, I’m so glad to see you comment directly on the site rather than getting others to do it for you and the mayor.

      Again, just to make sure that you understand where I’m coming from, the biggest problem I have and had with the Tyler Perry deal and the Piedmont Park parking garage was the process (or lack thereof) to make the decision.

      For the Tyler Perry deal, we were never given an opportunity to explore what other proposals existed to redevelop the fort. And the community was never given a full seat at the table to make sure the development would enhance the area to its greatest potential. The mayor made sure the community had one option – the Tyler Perry deal, and the Authority made sure that the community had as little input as possible.

      For the parking garage, as you know, 23 out of 24 Neighborhood Planning Units voted against it – including all the NPUs surrounding the park. Community leaders asked for other options to be considered and for there to be a greater consensus on how to address the parking and transportation issues at our signature park.

      Instead of allowing a community process to occur – one where a broad representation of people would be involved in the decision-making, the city – former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin among others – created a blue-ribbon commission to ram through the parking deck without compromises despite strong community opposition.

      We as a city can do better.

      I believe in an Atlanta that welcomes community input, a city that follows a process in making decisions that have long-term impact, and a city where leaders do not attack someone personally who disagrees with them. We should be able to discuss issues of substance without fear of being attacked.

      That is the Atlanta we should aspire to be.

      And John, I truly believe that at one time, you also believed in operating at a higher level than you are today.Report

      Reply
  32. Guest says:

    @John Ahmann
    LOL. And you are supposed to be running for Mayor? You are nothing but a shill for Reed. God help us if we elect Kasim Reed 2.0 as Atlanta’s next Mayor.  Folks, please remember this when the name John Ahmann pops up next year as candidate for Mayor.Report

    Reply
  33. Chad Carlson says:

    There is a stated committment in the agreement. incumbent on the owner, that the State Hisotric Preservation Office must be consulted for changes to any of the buildings. But, as Brian Hooker of the MILRA Board has stated that doesn’t preclude any of the buildings from being moved. We will be keeping a close watch. I suspect that Perry will moth ball the Fort until after the BeltLine is constructed and the intense investment we are now seeing on the SW side comes to full fruition, then he will sell it off making hundreds of millions. (He bought the lion share of the property, 330 acres, including the historic parade ground with all of its buildings, for only $33 million.) He did the same thing with Krog Market. Snowing people that he would bring Hollywood and jobs to Atlanta, but in fact he put up barbed wire, sat on the propety, and then cashed in a few years later.Report

    Reply
  34. scfranklin says:

    And please credit Mayor Maynard Jackson who in his third term used city funds to purchase the old Sears building for $25 million because he had vision and the courage of his conviction that in the future it would be a valuable economic anchor for Atlanta’s long term intown development strategy. Jackson knew, when most of us couldn’t see it, that in town Atlanta would attract thousands of new residents and billions dollars of private investment. He left office for the final time nearly 24 years ago yet we benefit from his incredible, unselfish and fearless leadership and vision. When we celebrate our successes, let’s remember Maynard Holbrook Jackson too.Report

    Reply

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