Riches in rail – tapping the value railroad land and passenger trains

By Maria Saporta

Traveling down Windsor Street just south west of downtown, one will discover a railroad wonderland – the actual Terminus in the Walking Dead television series.

Looking through the fences and overgrown kudzu that surrounds the compound of railroad buildings stimulates one’s imagination. This could be a city within a city. This could be a development that takes Atlanta back to its origins. This could be our city’s future.

787 Windsor

787 Windsor St., which is being fixed up by Ric Geyer (Photo by Terry Kearns)

Or it could remain a sealed off, vacant and underused piece of real estate located next to railroad tracks serving only freight trains rather than also being a place for people to live, work and play – and one day reach by passenger rail.

I came across these buildings when I went to visit my friend, Ric Geyer, who has recently bought several adjacent buildings at 787 Windsor St.

He is the one who told me the buildings next to his property are owned by Norfolk Southern. Usually railroads are reluctant to sell or co-develop their land holdings.

As a result, I have seen various plans and proposals sit on shelves – never getting built – partly because it has been difficult to work out a reasonable deal with the railroads.

Mechanicsville

Map of Mechanicsville and Pittsburgh (Special: Terry Kearns)

How many decades have we been waiting for development to occur in the railroad gulch downtown?

Proposals after proposals have been presented to create a new multimodal station – serving commuter trains, inter-city trains, long-haul passenger buses – all linking to MARTA. That would connect two major downtown activity centers – Georgia State University, Underground Atlanta, the Georgia Capital, Atlanta City Hall and Fulton County Courthouse on the east with Philips Arena, CNN Center, Centennial Olympic Park, the Georgia Dome and the Georgia World Congress Center.

Instead a dead zone remains.

Next to the gulch are two of the most attractive buildings downtown – Southern Railroad’s former headquarters now owned by Norfolk Southern. For years, developers have envisioned turning those buildings into downtown residences – connecting Castleberry Hill with the central city.

But nothing happens.

Norfolk Southern buildings

Buildings owned by Norfolk Southern in downtown Atlanta (Photo by Maria Saporta)

So our cities and communities get held back because of the dead zones that separate centers of activity – dividing people rather than uniting them.

There probably is no better example of the value of railroad land than the Atlanta BeltLine along the Eastside Trail – the once a lightly-used rail line has been transformed into the city’s most energetic corridor.

But this column is not about abandoning our rail corridors. Quite the opposite.

Let us improve and leverage our existing rail infrastructure – use them to move people as well as freight. Then let’s revitalize and develop the land around new passenger stations or stops.

Historically, railroads have shunned passenger service – believing that trains carrying people get in the way of their core freight business.

As a result, the general population has quit thinking about trains as a mode of transportation. And railroads have quit taking a multi-dimensional view of how they can contribute to the quality of life of our cities and towns along their rail lines.

Norfolk Southern

A compound of buildings owned by Norfolk Southern off Windsor Street (Photo by Terry Kearns)

Somewhere along the way, railroad companies have misplaced America’s playbook – the interdependent relationship between transportation and development.

More than a century ago, Atlanta developers Joel Hurt and Richard Peters understood that relationship when they privately built streetcars to make their Inman Park and Midtown neighborhoods (respectively) attractive to homebuyers.

Let me put it another way.

Railroads are perfectly positioned to leverage their rail corridors and their existing real estate holdings by becoming a catalyst in the creation of next generation communities.

There’s the rail corridor in Clayton County where MARTA is in negotiations with Norfolk Southern to build a commuter rail line within its corridor. If those negotiations are successful, Norfolk Southern will own valuable real estate at each of the commuter rail stops. It’s called transit oriented development – a concept MARTA is beginning to leverage and one that Norfolk Southern could adopt.

Norfolk Southern building

Norfolk Southern owned compound off Windsor Street (Photo by Terry Kearns)

Then there is Norfolk Southern’s rail line connecting the Doraville MARTA Station with Gwinnett County – could the Clayton County model work in Gwinnett? Of course.But the key is having Norfolk Southern and CSX on board as enthusiastic partners. After all, it’s in the railroads’ own best interests (even if they don’t yet realize it) to encourage deals to happen. Not only will their land holdings become so much more valuable, but railroads will become so much more relevant in people’s lives.

Back along Windsor Street, the buildings are stunning.

Ric Geyer is bringing attention to this section of Mechanicsville by cleaning up the elegant 787 with plans to turn it into an artist colony with several amenities including a food market, a lumber recycling center and other possible retail. He is including people from the community to participate in all aspects of his project.

But one can’t help but look over the fence to the railroad village that sits between 787 and the tracks.

Norfolk Southern rail station

This looks as though it used to be a railroad station on the Norfolk Southern property (Photo by Terry Kearns)

If Norfolk Southern were to entertain selling those buildings or entering into a joint venture with developers, it would transform that part of Atlanta. Unlike Atlantic Station, this would not be a modern adaptation of an urban center. This would be breathing new life into buildings that date back to the early 1900s when Atlanta was truly a railroad town.

Terry Kearns, Atlanta’s own Architecture Tourist, recently toured the area and posted photos on his website. I asked his permission to run some of his photos and link to his post.

“When Ric and I did a lightning tour, I was overwhelmed, didn’t know where to take even one picture while we were in the RR (railroad) shops,” Kearns wrote back in an email giving me permission. “They were colossal and beautiful.”

Now we both want to return and take a more leisure look at this secret treasure in our city. Maybe we could even get our friends at Norfolk Southern to come join us.

Note to readers: This is the second of two columns on the potential of railroads to improve our communities. Here is a link to last week’s column.

Ric Geyer

Ric Geyer talks about his plans for 787 Windsor ({Photo by Maria Saporta)

787 Windsor

A special corner at 787 Windsor Street (Photo by Maria Saporta)

google map

A google map of Windsor Street showing the railroad lines and property next to 787 Windsor

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.

10 replies
  1. Burroughston Broch says:

    “Next to the gulch are two of the most attractive buildings downtown – Southern Railroad’s former headquarters now owned by Norfolk Southern.”

    Maria, the Southern Railway’s headquarters was always in Washington, DC, never in Atlanta. These old Spring St. buildings were originally built for storage, not for office use. I worked in them 1988-2000 and they were a dump then; Norfolk Southern moved out for good reason.Report

    Reply
  2. jtuckeratlanta says:

    Great article Maria ….. the good part about this land development opportunity is that the City of Atlanta cannot go and sell it to someone else for a pittance like they did with Fort McPherson.  The successful development of our past are ingredients to a formula for making our Atlanta a magnificent and unique City to visit and live.  The only other housekeeping item that is missing …… Cleaning up and rehabilitating the transportation gateways into Atlanta …. especially from the Airport.Report

    Reply
  3. maplover2 says:

    I’m with you Maria, i love the rail for multiple purposes. Sure I’d love to see abandoned ones become rail trails in my work with Georgia Trail Summit and stakeholders across Georgia, but i’d also like to ride the rails and passenger rail deserves time on the track. I was just in old town Sacramento visiting Josh Mello, and immediately thought of it when you described revitalizing the gulch as a connective area in our city. Its a cute walkable area of town and a step back in time to a wonderful era. Surely CSX and NS can wax poetic about that era and help bring it back.Report

    Reply
  4. John R Naugle says:

    Inspiring article Maria. Wonderful challenge: “Let us improve and leverage our existing rail infrastructure…”
    YES! Let’s. You’ve reminded me about Cat Stevens old song, ‘The Peace Train.’
    It would be helpful to remind our citizens that Atlanta sets one of the world’s worst examples on Earth in the area of commuter miles driven daily? Over 120 million miles/day which is greater than the distance between the Earth and the Sun… daily.
    For any major city to plan for a brighter future, it must develop every alternative transit option. It is well known and quite sad that some metro-Atlanta leaders still carry old and outdated opinions about the value of Marta. “Bless their hearts” (and I’m sincere when I say that).
    It is also well known that Americans, in general, are addicted to autos and the independence they represent. Our love affair with the car is 100+ years old now. The USA has ‘exported’ that addictive example to the world. India: The World’s Biggest Democracy is being Americanized and their population of 1,267,401,849 want autos too. China, the world’s most populated country, is being Americanized and their population of 1,393,783,836 want autos too.
    Many of the world’s citizens want to have the consumptive power, ‘freedom’ and independence of Americans so they too say: “Where’s my car?” Between road capacity to handle more cars in major cities, mounting clinical-stress from daily log-jam commutes and dwindling oil reserves the future will have its challenges. Imagine the predicament our global family would be in if we did NOT have world-renown peacemakers like Gandhi & King inspiring us to resolve challenges peacefully?
    To your health, your family’s health, Atlanta’s health and our Global Family’s health and to Gandhi & King, plus their great virtues of courage, peace, love and nonviolence…Report

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  5. Chad Carlson says:

    Geez. What would it take to get you to run for mayor? Also, thank you for providing a clear map. So many times references are made to places in Atlanta by the press with no orientation.Report

    Reply
  6. Alice Pickett says:

    Well, I am not going to join a mantra for Maria for Mayor, but  I do like what you say about the potential bound up in some of the undiscovered areas or Atlanta.  

    I live  on the Westside of Atlanta  in Howell Station.  We have some interesting things going on in our neighborhood and would love for you to visit and maybe highlight some of our concerns regarding the westside Beltline and the Quarry Park which is adjacent to our neighborhood. It is slated to be the park to trump Piedmont, yet we have some real concern about the zoning Atlanta refuses to alter.  We are close to all the glitz of the White Provision/ Marietta Artery spread, yet we are totally left out.  It is almost as if the buck stops past Mead-WestVaco.  Call me  if you would like to come out and we can talk with our neighborhood president Jennifer Higgins.  Alice Pickett 404-316-3649Report

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