Swedish developer G. Lars Gullstedt revisits Atlanta — the land of his unrealized dreams
An older and more subdued G. Lars Gullstedt returned to Atlanta last month to visit the place where his dreams were never fully realized.
Back in the early 1990s, Gullstedt, a Swedish developer who had turned his sights towards Atlanta, was on top of the world.
He had built a real estate empire in Sweden, and he was well on his way to transform Midtown Atlanta.
One Gullstedt monument was built in Atlanta — the 51-story building that is the home of the Four Seasons Hotel. When it opened in 1992, the building was a one-of-a-kind development known as the GLG Grand.
The multi-layered building, which sits on 14th Street between the Peachtrees, includes an underground parking garage, a hotel with a conference area, offices, apartments, townhomes, condominiums, an athletic club and penthouses.
Gullstedt and his wife returned as hotel guests at the Four Seasons three weeks ago, the first time he had been back to Atlanta in more than a decade. We met for breakfast along with Joe Rabun, the architect of the GLG Grand and a key planning partner in Gullstedt’s other Atlanta ventures.
During our visit, Gullstedt said he was particularly touched when the general manager of the hotel told him: “Your vision built a castle for us. Thank you.”
But it’s the castles that he was unable to build that still haunts Gullstedt.
In one of the most extraordinary real estate plays in Atlanta history, Gullstedt managed to buy 51 parcels from 39 different owners to assemble 11 prime acres in Midtown along Fifth Street — stretching from Peachtree Street to the Interstate.
Much of the property belonged to the First Baptist Church of Atlanta, which wanted to sell its extensive land holdings so it could move to a larger site in the suburbs.
And Gullstedt, cloaked in the mystery of being a secretive Swede, then began buying other parcels around Atlanta’s historic Biltmore Hotel.
Then, in July, 1991, Gullstedt went public with his vision for a grandiose GLG Park Plaza development with two 65-story towers and several other high-rise towers bordering a new city park with a restored Biltmore as an anchor.
The multibillion dollar project was expected to take about 15 years to be fully realized.
The development was announced with great fanfare at City Hall with Gullstedt and Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson holding court. Gullstedt remembered Jackson announcing that this would be the best development in Atlanta, better than New York’s Rockefeller Center.
To fully appreciate the vision, one must remember that in the early 1990s Midtown Atlanta had far ‘more surface parking lots and under-used low-rise buildings — especially in the area south of 10th Street — than it had high-rises.
Gullstedt immediately became one of the most intriguing characters to enter the local scene — an outsider who saw potential in an area that had been overlooked by Atlantans.
But on June 30th, 1993, Gullstedt’s world entered a black hole. A credit crunch in Sweden led to Swedish banks calling in the loans they had made to Gullstedt. Because so much of his money was tied up in real estate, Gullstedt was unable to pay off the loans.
So the managing director of one the banks told Gullstedt that they were declaring him to be bankrupt, which led to them taking ownership of all the Atlanta land that had been assembled.
Worst than that, the Swedish government then began an investigation on Gullstedt’s operations and accused him of insurance fraud. He was arrested in 1997.
The sordid details of his rise and rapid fall are outlined in a book that he wrote in Swedish three years ago: “When the Bank Helped Itself.”
A condensed English version has just been published, and Gullstedt brought copies to Atlanta on his recent trip to set the record straight.
According to the book, he was cleared of all wrongdoing, but by that time it was too late. He had lost his real estate empire and his reputation. Also, in Sweden, once you’ve entered into bankruptcy, you can’t go back in business.
The book recounts how he started as a kid living and working on a farm in Finland; built a construction company and later a development firm, becoming a billionaire and one of the richest men in Sweden who dined with kings and queens (literally). And then his fall from grace.
“The banks took everything,” said Gullstedt, who is now 74. “It’s very difficult to start again.”
Gullstedt’s visit to Atlanta was bittersweet. He was impressed to see the amount of development that’s occurred in Midtown since he was last here. In many ways, his vision for Atlanta was realized despite his disappearance from the scene.
“It’s fantastic,” Gullstedt said while pointing to all the new buildings around the Four Seasons. In fact, his son, Michael, had warned him that it was now hard to see the former GLG Grand on the skyline. “There are so many nice buildings.”
As to his former land holdings, Georgia Tech has built its eastern campus on some of the blocks Gullstedt used to own. And several developers have been able to buy and develop the land that Gullstedt had assembled along Peachtree more than 15 years ago.
Although Gullstedt was unable to participate in Midtown Atlanta’s rebirth, he found comfort in seeing a transformed Midtown during his recent visit.
Rabun said that Gullstedt believed in Atlanta’s potential. In the early 1990s, Gullstedt understood that Atlanta was destined for growth as a key aviation hub in the United States. And he had wanted to be part of that growth.
“When I was here in 1993, there were 2 million people. Now there are 5 to 6 million people,” Gullstedt said. “It’s amazing.”
Great story! As we enter the second decade of the twenty first century, it is fascinating to look back on the recent history of this wondeful city and be able to appreciate the depth and degree of the changes in the landscape over the last 25 years.It is an even greater thrill to hear from one of the individuals who was a significant part of those changes.Report
I agree. Thanks for the memories, Maria and reminding us how quickly Midtown really has transformed. It takes a perceptive writer with your extensive history here to put the pieces in perspective.Report
Wow, what an interesting story! It’s fascinating to learn how bankruptcy works in another country. Clearly Swedish businesspeople cannot use it casually the way some businesses here do. It’s also interesting to see Atlanta through an outsider’s perspective.
I had no idea the Four Seasons was more than a hotel. I’ve been there but I guess I didn’t fully understand the complex.
Interesting story. The Four Seasons building is truly an excellent addition to the city.
However, I think Midtown is better off, in the long run, that most of Gullstedt’s plan was not built. It was too reliant on 65 story towers. Midtown is better off with more mid-rise buildings, so that we don’t concentrate too many people on a single block. Medium density is better than either high or low density. (If you question that, just spend a day walking around any good European city.)Report
great story..we need more the same….Report
Facinating insight into how real world history works out its own visions. I am reminded that a local developer with grand ambitions, Jim Cushman, long ago had a similarly expansive vision for Midtown that he actualized in the form of Colony Squre. Like Mr. Gullstedt, he also lost his prize to the banks—another visionary way ahead of his time. Maria–you should unearth other stories in this quixotic category.Report
Nice article! I met and became a friend of Mr. Gullstedt after his retirement from business. In my opinion, he is definitely one of those very rare people who have truly made a positive impact in his life. He is a truly self-made man, who used his skills, smarts and positive energy to make a difference in this world. Most telling about his true character, is the fact he graciously accepted his fate after the failing of his business, while he continues to conduct himself with honor and dignity. Lars is a brave man who knows to appreciate and enjoy Life. He dearly loves his family and friends, and his business achievements and their impacts on society in various locations in the world, will always stand as testimonials to his vision as a businessman and to his “greatness” as a man. Best of health and best of luck to you Lars.Report
I wish all of that got built! 🙁Report
I thought that guy’s name was Gudenstedt? Pronounced like gooooooooooooood. Like oh baby it is so gooood. Course this may be a false memory. I was living back behind the GLG on West Peachtree at Liaglon as a tenant at will. There was no lease. We expected the old LiAglon to be torned down any day to start one of those new skyscrapers but it never happened. I came back to the area across from the IBM tower which was at the time a liquor store but became an Einstein’s Bagel and found the then mayor of Atlanta there with an aide.Report
Gullstedt was convicted of accounting fraud in 1999 and paid fines in lieu of prison time.Report
His name did not bring to mind sea gulls or the coast. It was GOOOOD! GOOOOO, I think. I did not come to the grand opening but I did fall up those stairs and caused quite a scene in their black tie tail affair. I was a wee bit to intoxicated and there was indeed a grand piano…an enormous, magnifcent crystal chandelier. I caused a little bit of a stir and the party kind of stopped. Even that guy playing the grand stopped playing and peered over at me. Two extremely large black men in tuxedos helped me up and wisked me back down the steps and out the door. They were extremely nice and polite. I do remember. At the time I was working for United Family Life as a records control specialist. Information which must be kept by the company was housed upstairs in the penthouse. I remember they changed my phone out when I began calling the mayor to ask that he might come and give a talk about all the discrimination going on. UFL was being sued by the black funeral homes and several black employees had had been wronged in some way? The parent company was called Fortis. The guy who owned the microfilm company whose name escapes me was also a South Georgia peanut farmer and said it was the Dutch who owned almost all of Atlanta and they speak better English than ME.Report