Metro Atlanta Chamber ponders selling its penthouse overlooking the park

By Maria Saporta

First in a two-part series about the future of the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s headquarters building

Back in November 1985, the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce revealed its desire to build and own a home of its own.

Instead of just being a tenant in a downtown office building (at the time, its lease was running out in the Omni International office building). Media mogul Ted Turner was turning the complex into CNN Center and the headquarters for Turner Broadcasting System.

Metro Atlanta Chamber building

Front entrance to the Metro Atlanta Chamber building (Photos: Maria Saporta)

Now 30 years later, the situation has turned upside down. CNN Center is getting emptier by the day. And the Metro Atlanta Chamber is in negotiations to sell its building on the edge of Centennial Olympic Park to the Georgia World Congress Center.

Sometimes living and working in Atlanta can be so disorienting when few developments ever really seem to be planted in the ground.

Back in 1985, the executives who then were heading up the Atlanta Chamber decided it was time for the business association to build its own stand-alone home downtown.

“For a 125-year-old organization, it probably makes sense for us to own our own facility, especially since we plan to be around for another 125 years,” said Gerald Bartels, who in 1985 was the chamber’s top executive. “The increased visibility and accessibility will help us to better serve our members. With the number of visitors that come to Atlanta these days, we need visibility and accessibility to better serve the community.”

So business leaders raised the money and found a site across Marietta Street from the Omni International hotel.

Centennial Olympic Park

Thousands of people come to Centennial Olympic Park on July 4 to enjoy the festivities and fireworks. Metro Atlanta Chamber building is in the background

To truly envision what a pioneering move it was, try to rewind the clock 30 years. At the time, the property between the Omni and the downtown hotel district was a sea of surface parking lots sprinkled with mostly-vacant one-story or two-story industrial buildings.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that this was one of the least attractive spots in downtown Atlanta.

But a couple of years later, the Atlanta Chamber’s building opened for business.

No one knew at the time that in September 1990 Atlanta would be selected to host the 1996 Summer Olympic Games or that in 1994 the city’s visionaries believed the area surrounding the Chamber building would make a wonderful new downtown park – a gathering place during the Games and a magnet for future development in the central city.

In fact, in preparation for the Olympics, the Chamber expanded its building and developed a rooftop terrace overlooking the new Centennial Olympic Park.

Metro Atlanta Chamber building

The entry to the Metro Atlanta Chamber building during the July 4 festivities

In many ways, the building of the Metro Atlanta Chamber literally was in the catbird seat. National television stations broadcast their shows from the building during the Olympics. Daily press conferences gave local, national and international media a run down of how Atlanta was handling the event.

And then, when the world’s eyes focused on the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park during the middle of the Games, the Chamber building again was strategically positioned – in the center of it all. Business leaders a decade earlier certainly had made a fortuitous decision when they decided to locate a stand-alone Chamber building in that location.

It has been exactly 19 years since Atlanta hosted the Summer Olympic Games. Since then, billions of dollars in new development has popped up around Centennial Olympic Park – with few signs that it is slowing down.

Metro Atlanta Chamber rooftop view

The view from the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s rooftop looking northeast

The Georgia Aquarium, the new World of Coca-Cola, the Center for Civil and Human Rights and the College Football Hall of Fame are just some of the new attractions encircling the park.

Add condo towers and apartment buildings with new hotels and restaurants, and the area has been totally transformed from how it was three decades ago.

But all this success could be squeezing the Metro Atlanta Chamber out of its home.

The Georgia World Congress Center has ambitious plans to refurbish Centennial Olympic Park and to create a grand new entrance into the city’s convention center. As part of the refurbishment, the GWCC is proposing acquiring the Chamber building, tearing it down and turning the site into park space. One reason given early on was to provide a clear vista to the College Football of Fame from across the park.

Metro Atlanta Chamber rooftop view

View from the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s rooftop – looking southeast

Officials from the Metro Atlanta Chamber are going along with the plan – thinking they might as well just become tenants in some downtown office building.

Meanwhile, as someone who has seen how the Chamber building has evolved over the decades, I must say that the rooftop terrace is one of the most special places to go in the city.

Back in 2003, the late J.B. Fuqua donated $700,000 so that the Metro Atlanta Chamber could build a roof structure to partially enclose the rooftop terrace. The penthouse perch has become a popular spot to entertain and host special events.

Every 4th of July, the Georgia World Congress Center invites special guests to the rooftop terrace to watch one of the most spectacular fireworks displays in the region.

Metro Atlanta Chamber firewoks

July 4 fireworks display from the rooftop of the Metro Atlanta Chamber

This year’s Independence Day event was especially poignant because I couldn’t help but wonder – will this be the last year that we as a city will be able to enjoy this most special perch?

Oh Atlanta – a city that is constantly in motion – developing, building, demolishing, rebuilding. And as we reach another transient end, I wonder when we will start building a city of permanence.

Next week’s column will explore the pros and cons of the Metro Atlanta Chamber plans to sell its building. Does the Chamber lose part of its brand and visibility if it doesn’t have its own building? And does it make sense to part ways with such a prime piece of real estate – especially now when this part of downtown has become such a wonderful vista for promoting Atlanta?

Metro Atlanta Chamber fireworks

July 4 fireworks display from the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s rooftop

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.

9 replies
  1. scfranklin says:

    The fireworks must be a wonderful sight from the Chamber roof top. How fortunate you to see the city from so many perspectives! Few Atlantans have such privilege. I hope you will write a book about Atlanta on Maria’s watch.Report

    Reply
  2. mariasaporta says:

    scfranklin
    Shirley,
    The book I want to read is your story – how you have witnessed and lived through so many important chapters of Atlanta’s leadership – including your own. The lessons of life that you can share for the up-and-coming leaders in our city and state would be of value for many generations to come.
    MariaReport

    Reply
  3. citybig says:

    Maria:
    You neglected to mention how absurdly ugly the original building was in 1990.  The Chamber had to get some more money to try to disguise the atrocity they had developed.  I thought that the industrial buildings, now long gone, had more character than the original Chamber building.
    As for what the Chamber should do now, I believe they should negotiate with the State of Georgia to occupy the old World of Coca-Cola buildiing that is between Underground and the State Capitol.  They would have visability and immediate access to City, County, and State government offices, along with access to MARTA and the expressway system.  It would also give a use to a multi-story property that is grossly underutilized.
    Jim SchneiderReport

    Reply
  4. Beth Schapiro says:

    You and Madame Mayor make a great mutual admiration society. You each have at least one good book in you, and I look forward to reading them!Report

    Reply
  5. mnst says:

    It seems like a great idea—however wonderful that rooftop terrace may be, it’s a space that most Atlantans will never see. But making the park larger is something we can all enjoy.Report

    Reply
  6. John R Naugle says:

    Greetings from Atlanta: City of Peace. Hello Ms. Saporta, your article was very inspiring. Since you know many key city leaders, particularly Hala Moddelmog – president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, will you please convey the interests from “Atlanta: City of Peace” (our organization) to partner with them in the development of, what could easily become, their new and future headquarters?

    What IF their current site, overlooking Centennial Olympic Park, became the future site of “The Global Peace Tower” (Planet Earth’s Architectural Icon for the Peace Millennium)? [Link listed below]. Also, what IF the Metro Atlanta Chamber became the first official tenant through assisting us with engaging “Captain Planet” (a leading nominee for the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize) to be Developer-of-Record and to provide the name for this new, soon to be internationally heralded, peace project?

    Sadly, our organization is currently without professionals who know about fundraising, so we’re unfunded and without pros who can create compelling proposals to reach globally-respected leaders like Ted Turner. We invite Ms. Moddelmog and the Metro Atlanta Chamber to help us engage “TED” and to have him develop and provide THIS official name for our project:

    “Turner’s Global Peace Tower”

    Tragically, “The TED” Stadium will soon be torn down and replaced! “Turner’s Global Peace Tower” is a GREAT replacement and way for generations of the future to remember and celebrate ‘TED’, one of Atlanta’s most internationally-respected citizens. It would be GREAT if ‘Ted’ became key in amplifying Atlanta’s skyline (see our vision in the image below)! Ted’s peace and service legacy is more than formidable which is why I’m predicting he will be selected as the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (announced in October).

    Additionally, if any city on Earth needs to be providing a dynamic example for the new era of transformation that’s now developing worldwide, then Atlanta does. Dr. King’s birthplace and “Turner’s Global Peace Tower” can blossom to inspire many, Many, MANY citizens, corporations, nonprofits, cities, and states from around the world. “Turner’s Global Peace Tower” can be even be seen as a huge exclamation point for our global family to indirectly proclaim… “WE object to all of the escalating horrible acts of violence being regularly featured through national news. Like Dr. King, WE the citizens of Atlanta, can grow in finding solutions to – what he defined as – The 3-Evils: Poverty, Racism and Violence, and our great city can export those solutions to our entire global family.”

    Ms. Saporta, our organization has always had Dr. King’s “Fierce Urgency of Now” to build inspiring projects like: “Turner’s Global Peace Tower”, but we have unfortunately lacked the funding, staff and wherewithal to scale up. Will you help us to invite Ms. Moddelmog and the Metro Atlanta Chamber to help us engage “TED” so that he will develop “Turner’s Global Peace Tower”?

    From the most published book of human history we are reminded about the importance of creating dynamic solutions, PLUS we are warned of the repercussions of failing. From Proverbs, one may find this passage:

    “Without vision, the people perish!”

    A more direct proclamation by Dr. King, one of the most globally-respected leaders of human history, is this emphatically clear message of why urgency is imperative. He once proclaimed:

    “We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.”

    In closing, here’s the link for the future site of (herein proposed) the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s new headquarters. WE HAVE A DREAM!

    “The Global Peace Tower (GPT)”
    http://www.globalpeacetower.com

    We welcome everyone’s help to engage “TED” so it may be renamed:
    “Turner’s Global Peace Tower”Report

    Reply
  7. kyrands says:

    Many good ideas in your comments.   I remember the old chamber building and the area around GWCC prior to the olympics revitalization.   The old wold of coke is a travesty to be an abandoned building.  Chamber could move there …. or even better, share the chamber with GA Economic development office… what better way to showcase the energy of Atlanta and the power to accomplish the unimaginable than to have that facility and the roof top venue as a showcase  for Atlanta. There is NO other place in that area that can create the same spirit.   Looking out from an office building in the Omni or another building doesn’t come close to capturing the spirit that is felt 3 stories up.    And there are ACRES of centenial park that go under utilized because all the action is around the fountain.   Adding that little corner to the park brings very little value.  The Chamber is across the street, the barracade is across the street on the park side and will likely not go away because of the music events that they hold in that little amphitheatre… they don’t even allow you to enter at the Marietta street entrance by the amphitheatre, you have to enter on the far side and walk across the park to get to another blocked off area…   And doubtful that will change.   We as a city will only LOSE if the Chamber building is torn down to add another garden.   Mr. Naugle’s suggestion is a good one.   Or so much of our economy is based on movies, TV, games and music development, why not showcase that with the GA Economic Development office for Games & Entertainment to be situated in the hottest property for the hottest growth area we have.Report

    Reply

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