Historic Nabisco factory site’s future could be a sweet case of preservation
By John Ruch
There’s nothing stopping the new owner of Southwest Atlanta’s historic Nabisco snack-making factory from bulldozing it the ground as part of a $50 million warehouse development – unless goodwill and local pride count. And it seems Prologis is bringing those to the table for historic preservation and MARTA connectivity that could mean a future as sweet as an Oreo.
The cookie may crumble differently for the local community’s hope for a mixed-use redevelopment, including housing, on the 32-acre site at 1400 Murphy Ave. But talks continue with such groups as Neighborhood Planning Unit X and the Atlanta Preservation Center (APC), who say that local Prologis market manager Kent Mason appears to have a genuine enthusiasm for doing more than just throwing up another warehouse complex.
Mason would speak on the record only in terms of the company’s general intentions to “being good neighbors and partners in the communities we serve.” But the APC says he’s in talks on a plan to save at least the factory’s facade and huge Art Deco lobby, which remains virtually untouched since its 1938 construction. The lobby could become a mini-museum of Nabisco history – which includes not only millions of delicious cookies but also such labor union activism as a 1972 wildcat strike by Black workers that changed some racist and sexist factory policies.
“It’s going to be a distribution warehouse. That’s gonna happen,” said APC Executive Director David Yoakley Mitchell. But, he added, “I don’t think the preservation component’s gonna be a huge overreach.” And Prologis’s interest in preservation, Mitchell said, has become the “gateway” to talking about other issues, like better connectivity to the Oakland City MARTA Station across the street.
NPU-X chair Zachary Adriaenssens says Mason “appears to be on the up-and-up” and has been meeting with his group as it leads a coalition of other community organizations affected by the redevelopment. Those include NPUs S and V, and resident associations from Capitol View, Oakland City and Sylvan Hills.
Those groups signed onto a Feb. 14 letter to Prologis that called for historic preservation, mixed-use redevelopment, better pedestrian connectivity, and a rejection of warehouse and logistics tenants that might pollute the area. The letter made it clear that that community wants to work with the company and take on even bigger changes.
“Whatever density may have originally been planned, we welcome more!” the letter says. “Whatever singular land-use may have been expected, we welcome more! Whatever connections and environmentally sustainable practices that have been planned — again — we welcome more!”
The massive, 500,000-square-foot factory is an informal landmark of Southwest Atlanta with a long history of local impact, including its employment of up to 1,000 people at its height. But it lacks any formal historic designation or protection.
Nabisco is a snack company known for such iconic products as Oreo cookies and Ritz crackers. Then called the National Biscuit Company, it built the Murphy Avenue factory in 1938 and opened it in 1941 as one of its cutting-edge “Bakeries of Tomorrow.” The company had been in Atlanta well before then, operating another plant Downtown since 1927.
Nabisco is now a subsidiary of Mondelez International, which shuttered the factory early last year in a high-profile move that eliminated 400 jobs. Prologis bought the property late last year for around $22.5 million.
Prologis is a California-based company that specializes in operating logistics and warehouse centers for a wide variety of companies. It’s an industrial sector that is booming in today’s online purchasing economy but includes many other kinds of businesses. The company owns approximately 170 industrial properties around metro Atlanta. Specifics of the Nabisco site plan remain private, but the property is currently being used to store American Red Cross disaster-response trailers.
Prologis appears to have been unaware of the historic and local significance of the property until community outcry in January following SaportaReport’s coverage of the company’s acquisition and filing for a demolition permit. But NPU-X and the APC say the company was quickly responsive to meeting requests.
The recent letter from community groups outlined four main concerns and suggestions for the property:
- “Recognition and preservation of its history.”
- “The importance of density and a mix of land uses in the proposed development.”
- “The successful integration and connection of the site to its adjoining public facilities, and respect for the safety of its vehicle-less neighbors.”
- “Responsible environmental stewardship of the site.”
The mixed-use idea is specifically focused on more housing and transit-oriented development taking advantage of the MARTA station. Better and safer pedestrian access and transit connectivity is specifically tied to such nearby sites as Sylvan Middle School and the Gateway Capitol View senior residences.
MARTA officials have spoken with NPU-X about the redevelopment. MARTA spokesperson Stephany Fisher said the transit agency is “happy to work with the NPU and the Nabisco building owner. MARTA is supportive of efforts to make stronger connections from our stations to the community.”
Nearby schools and residences also factor into the concern that the future might bring a less savory type of factory or an especially vehicle-heavy program.
“For 82 years, the Nabisco factory located at the planned development site filled our communities with the smell of freshly baked cookies,” the letter said. “It would be a tragedy for the planned development of the area to replace that smell with excess automobile or factory emissions that are detrimental to the long-term health of area residents.”
Of course, the Nabisco factory also had a parade of trucks. But Prologis draws special concern as the landlord of the Smyrna location of Sterigenics, a medical sterilization company that is in the midst of enormous political controversy and lawsuits over emissions of a gas that can cause cancer. Sterigenics was already the tenant when Prologis bought that building, but a court recently ruled that it can be sued as well in the gas controversy.
Prologis has not divulged its possible tenant mix and does not appear to be jumping to totally remake or rezone the site, though talks are continuing. Historic preservation, on the other hand, appears to have generated some enthusiasm, with the company reportedly even considering moving the entire facade and lobby to elsewhere on the site if necessary to save it.
Mitchell at the APC said that would be a win, as the marble-floored lobby looks like “something out of an old film” and is a rare case where “nobody ever screwed it up” with alterations.
And it could be a way to showcase that labor activism history, which NPU-X cited in the letter. According to documents and newspapers in the Georgia State University Libraries collections, the 1972 strike drew significant attention as resistance to racism in the workplace. It began with the firing of a Black worker named Fred White when he stood up to a foreman who yelled at him for taking a restroom break without permission. More than 200 Black workers – but only a few white co-workers – went on strike and won a list of concessions, including rehiring White, a ban on “discrimination against race or sex,” and in a stomach-churning sign of those times, a pledge that “supervisors will not call employees ‘boy’ or ‘girl.’” They continued to work on other issues, including better medical benefits and equal pay for women.
As for the latest chapter in the site’s history, time and talks will tell.
“As part of the site’s redevelopment process, we’re meeting with community groups and public officials to discuss shared goals and interests for the site and surrounding community,” said Mason in a written statement provided through a Prologis spokesperson. “We plan to invest more than $50 million in this property’s redevelopment, creating a type of high-quality logistics real estate that helps attract employers and can create good jobs. As both a community partner and an employer, our focus remains on bringing new jobs and making a positive impact.”