How GSU finally bought key downtown site

By Maria Saporta
Friday, February 11, 2011

Georgia State University’s recent purchase of a key downtown block came down to a 35-year friendship between two men — property owner Peter Blum and businessman J. Mack Robinson.

Blum first started assembling the land at John Wesley Dobbs Avenue and Park Place, between Georgia-Pacific Center and Robert W. Woodruff Park, in 1966.

Nearly a decade ago, GSU leaders began inquiring whether Blum would sell the 2.45-acre site so the university could expand its downtown campus. He ended up selling the property to GSU late last year for $17.8 million in a “partial gift, partial cash” transaction.

“I never really wanted to sell the property,” Blum said. “I had had multiple offers in the 1990s for double what I sold it for.”

The reason he finally sold? To honor the legacy of Robinson, one of Blum’s closest friends and the namesake of GSU’s business college, thanks to a $10 million gift Robinson made to the school in 1998.

In fact, GSU leaders approached Robinson to see if he could convince Blum to sell the property.

“I didn’t interfere,” Robinson said during a two-hour visit in his home with Blum and H. Fenwick Huss, GSU’s business dean. “I just felt like it should not disturb the friendship.”

Once Blum realized that the block likely would house GSU’s law and business schools, and after he got to know Huss, he decided it finally was the right time to sell.

“I’m honored to know this is where the business school is going to go,” Blum said. “I feel like I want to be part of Georgia State. There’s nothing I’ve ever done that’s been more meaningful to me — to know I was a small part in the future of the College of Business and in the future of thousands of students.”

GSU has just selected the architectural design team for the law school, which will be located on the Blum block. The national firm SmithGroup will be the design architect, and it has teamed up with Atlanta-based Stevens & Wilkinson Inc. on the $62 million law school project, according to Ron Stang, principal of Stevens & Wilkinson.

The team of Robert A.M. Stern Architects LLP and Rule, Joy, Trammell + Rubio LLC already has been working on the conceptual plans for the business school building, but funding to design and build that structure hasn’t yet been secured.

“The Blum property gives us the opportunity to have our professional schools on one block and do it in a coherent fashion so the university fits together and [has] a sense of campus,” said GSU President Mark Becker. “The property is big enough to locate three free-standing buildings. It’s a great location.”

A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, agreed.

“It’s a great location for Georgia State’s law school and business school,” CAP’s Robinson said. (He has no relation to J. Mack Robinson). “We’ve had a renaissance in the area, and this continues to solidify that nexus.”

For Blum, what’s most important is that the block will eventually have a new business school building imprinted with the name of J. Mack Robinson.

“It’s very humbling for Mack to have his name on one of the most important buildings downtown,” said his wife, Nita. “I think Mack is prouder of [his involvement with the GSU business school] than anything he’s ever done.”

“It’s a wonderful school,” her husband chimed in.

More importantly, Huss said the history of Robinson’s incredible career will continue to serve as a beacon for GSU’s business students.

“It’s a story of hard work, of being entrepreneurial, and also of a life well lived,” Huss said.

Robinson’s first job was delivering newspapers for The Atlanta Journal, and he became a district circulation manager. During that time he began selling used cars through the paper’s classified ads, and soon he had a couple of used car lots downtown.

Then he realized that the real money was in the financing of car sales. He founded finance companies, then insurance companies and later ventured into the banking and media business.

But one of his most interesting business partnerships began in 1962 when he became the financial backer of a young French designer — Yves Saint Laurent. He owned the design house until 1966, when he sold 80 percent of his interest in the business.

Somewhere along the way, Robinson became an investor in championship horse racing, and that’s how he and Blum met.

“We have been friends, and we have been business partners in real estate and horses,” Blum said. “He is a unique friend, and he’s led a life that’s truly remarkable. Mack is the most humble person I’ve ever met. He has great integrity. Mack is the consummate Southern gentleman.”

Robinson, who will turn 88 in May, said he is “delighted” that GSU purchased the block, and that he can’t think of a better location for the business school than the Blum block.

In fact, for Robinson, the block is a bit of coming full circle from his early business days.

“My office used to be in the Candler building,” Robinson said, referring to another nearby building. “I would go to work on Saturdays and Sundays, and I would look out my window from the fourth floor and see that property, looking straight at the small hotels.”

As the years have gone by, Robinson said, he has continued to see the potential in that block.

“I don’t think you could have a better location than near the Candler building,” Robinson said. “I thought I would love it to become part of Georgia State.”

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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