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Evolution of a Brownfield

Atlantic Station is a project of a hundred stories. It's a transportation story, a financing story, a regulatory story. It's a story of zoning changes, visionary land-use, infrastructure strategies, and environmental innovation. Its story is both a cautionary tale of sometimes incompatible architecture and street design, and a model for mixed-use success, a study in how to append a new urban center to an existing center and effectively extend a downtown core.

The largest urban brownfield redevelopment in the United States, Atlantic Station sits on 138 acres adjacent to Midtown Atlanta, on land once occupied by the Atlantic Steel company, a steel mill that was active between the 1920s and 1980s. The site was viewed for decades as a redevelopment opportunity, but few developers could figure out how to clean it up. In 1997 the property was contracted to Charlie Brown and Jim Jacoby of Jacoby Development, Inc., who sought and gained redevelopment zoning from Atlanta's then-Mayor Bill Campbell.

Entrepreneurial developers who had met with much success building conventional suburban big-box projects, Brown and Jacoby's original master plan for the site was rather forgettable, says Brian Leary, vice president of design and development for Atlantic Station. "It concentrated on moving people in and out as quickly as possible. It was large-scale, mass-market-oriented, and included gated garden apartments and industrial uses."

Leary, who at the time was finishing up post-graduate work in the architecture program at Georgia Institute of Technology, had been working downtown and polishing his masters thesis: "Atlantic Station: A Place to Live, Work, and Play."

"I was able to get my ideas in front of [Jacoby] and another consultant and ended up getting hired to get the property through zoning and entitlements," says Leary. The master plan began to evolve toward a decidedly more mixed-use, new urbanist approach.

And the real work began.

In July 1999, Atlantic Steel began deconstruction of its steel mill. But in order to transform the site into a livable development, significant environmental reclamation was necessary. Approximately 165,000 tons (9,000 dump truck loads) of contaminated materials were removed from the site. The buildings' concrete foundations were uncovered and broken into smaller pieces to generate 132,000 cubic yards of backfill material. Ditto the 164,000 cubic yards of granite that was removed from the site to create a level building area. The entire site was capped with this and additional clean fill.

In the midst of the early work, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) vetoed Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) spending, based on Atlanta's noncompliance with air quality laws. This move killed attempts by Jacoby and partners to have GDOT build a bridge across Interstates 75 and 85 linking the Atlantic Station project to Midtown Atlanta.

"We brought in the EPA, who had hired Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. (DPZ) to hold a three-day charrette," says Leary. "We worked with the EPA and DPZ to improve walkability, and incorporated DPZ's suggestions into our plan, adding a number of mixed-use buildings, not just single-use blocks. The garden apartments improved; parking got wrapped."

DPZ's land plan broke the EPA deadlock, too, by demonstrating that by getting an estimated 10,000 people working and living in Midtown instead of living out on the edge, Atlantic Station should qualify as a transportation mitigation effort. Their logic worked, and the project continued. In 2001 the Atlanta City Council issued a $75 million Tax Allocation Bond to pay for the first phase of infrastructure development. The 17th Street Bridge was begun in late 2001 and completed in 2004 to the tune of $76 million, providing a much-needed connection to Midtown Atlanta and leading the way for subsequent development that includes mixed-use buildings, apartments, condos and retail.

The Atlantic Station project currently represents $2 billion in new construction and is divided into three areas: The District, The Commons and The Village. At buildout, these three areas will provide:

• Six million square feet of Class A office space
• 3,000 to 5,000 residential units (for-sale and for-rent)
• Two million square feet of retail and entertainment space, including restaurants and movie theaters
• 1,000 hotel rooms
• 11 acres of public parks.

Serving as the heart of the entire community and located along a mile of highly visible interstate frontage, The District demonstrates the live/work/play theme of Atlantic Station. Designed to be a true mixed-use environment, The District will provide opportunities to shop, enjoy a movie, eat, or stroll through a park. A mix of small- and large-scale office space, residential lofts above retail, townhomes and other living options will be found here.

Just west of The District, The Commons will serve as the residential hub, with a minimum of 1,150 dwelling units. Arranged around a 2-acre lake, The Commons will feature green space for picnics, plus an amphitheater to accommodate small outdoor events.

On the far west end of the site, The Village will include 400 to 600 apartments and lofts adjacent to retail offerings. A two-level, 366,000-square-foot IKEA store already resides there.

While Atlantic Station continues to be a work in progress, great strides have been made to realize its vision as a strong example of evolving urbanism. "The master plan has been in evolution from day one," says Leary. "The idea is to create a mixed-use community that responds to the challenge of the site."

That challenge is, in a word, disconnection. Atlantic Station's northern boundary is hemmed in by the main line for Norfolk Southern Railroad. Its south side is cut off from the neighborhood of Home Park, whose residents were so concerned by the scope of the plan that they insisted no through streets be built. The eastern side is severed from Midtown by I-75/I-85; this is solved in part by the 17th Street Bridge -- but the bridge itself is a problem, since it enters the property 40 feet in the air, visually discourages pedestrian traffic (even with its dedicated bike lanes and sidewalks on both sides, the 130-foot-wide traffic-mover crosses 12 lanes of traffic and is a daunting structure for people on foot), and does not yet have buildings along it to encourage a continual streetscape from Midtown to Atlantic Station.

But the developers pressed on, searching for ways to mitigate the inherent site challenges. Surface parking lots were collected into a single, massive, underground garage. They created a central park and flanked it with restaurants. They kept their options open by designing every shop and restaurant with the ability to have loft residential above.

"We started focusing on creating places for people," says Leary. "We traveled all over looking for examples of good urbanism, trying to unravel the DNA of good places -- why they work. We started referring to what we are doing as 're-urbanism.'"

The master plan went from big-box site, to a sort of "macro mixed-use," as Leary calls it, to broken-up superblocks with pedestrian areas. Their first office tower claims the title as the United States' first silver-certified high-rise office building for the core and shell category. Their second office tower is being built and will aim for gold LEED certification. Bike lanes were added to the streets, and wider streets will eventually accommodate a dedicated transit line. Currently, Atlantic Station provides its own free trolley shuttle, which runs every five minutes.

Leary can't stop saying "evolve" when referring to Atlantic Station. "The vision is to create an urban place for people, one that allows for evolution over time," he explains. "More than 3,000 people will live here by the end of summer 2006. We're a long way from being done or even halfway done, though. When we're finished, more than 10,000 people will live here, and more than 12 million will visit each year.

"It's been a challenge from day one, yes. We thought we'd be open in 2001, but the remediation plan, the bridge approvals, the economy, 9/11 -- these delayed us 'til 2005. We intend to improve on a good solid concept, and improve on the execution as we go forward."

Like most new urban projects, Atlantic Station is not without its detractors from within the new urbanist fold. Its high-rise buildings garner scowls from some; its inclusion of the ponderous IKEA gets a thumbs-down from others -- although most temper their critiques with additional words of praise.

Architect and urbanist Andrés Duany of DPZ takes Atlantic Station to task for design missteps, primarily. "The large commercial buildings are very banal architecture, and the townhouses are abysmally designed as they are suburban in nature. Most of the buildings are. The streets and open spaces are too large, and the major roads are too speedy," he says.

"But the way the parking is handled in the massive underground platform is exceedingly clever, as it coincides with the street grid above and thereby retains wayfinding and simplifies the structural systems. It is a great way to handle ultra-high density development as the parking is integral with the infrastructure, as it should be."

"It's a surreal project," says Ellen Dunham-Jones, director of the architecture program at Georgia Tech. "On the eastern side, they dealt with the contaminated land by capping it with a 30-acre, two-story parking garage on top of which they built a new city. On the one hand it's innovative and provides significant amounts of 'underground' parking. On the other hand it's bizarre: You have a walkable, mixed-use, urban place, but it's two stories above the ground on three sides. The edges of the deck have not been closed in, so right now from certain views it appears a bit like a city on an aircraft carrier.

"All of the edges of the project and the interconnections between the parts are still undercooked and I wince at many of the architectural and urban streetscape details. But I'm optimistic because as more and more gets built, the urbanism is getting better.

"I think Atlantic Station is a must-see for new urbanists both as an example of green strategies and because of what happens when you build everything on top of a parking garage instead of having wrapped decks as your model. Perhaps even more importantly, new urbanists should look at its successful integration of high-rise workplaces into mixed-use. I'm hoping the project will incorporate even more office towers. They're emblematic of Atlanta's architectural identity and placemaking. Plus, all new urbanists can benefit from more examples of viable, large-scale office space integrated into projects that support the retail during the day, reduce VMT, and create urban places that functionally contribute to the region's economic sustainability. Atlantic Station is very promising from that perspective."

Michael Dobbins is a visiting professor in architecture and city and regional planning at Georgia Tech, and was the commissioner of planning and community development for Atlanta from 1996 till 2002, during the time when Atlantic Station was being planned and construction was beginning.

Dobbins takes a big-picture view of Atlantic Station and, while conceding that he "would have done some things differently," he thinks Atlantic Station is succeeding with its intent and will continue to improve as it moves toward completion.

"It's an in-progress project," he says. "The holes that are there will be filled. This basic goal was to figure out how to take a behemoth project and stitch it into the fabric of the city in as least disruptive way as possible. On that scale, I think they're succeeding. People seem to like to go there, buy and rent houses there, have office space there. That means something."

Dunham-Jones agrees. "It's being marketed well, and because the apartments and condos are priced at the low end for Midtown, it's selling extremely well."

Atlantic Station certainly seems to be a catalyst for Atlanta's rebirth. Before Atlantic Station was conceived, the Midtown neighborhood, for example, had seen no major transportation improvements for 50 years. "In a short period, Atlanta went from a city that was being written off to a city that is now booming within its limits," says Dobbins.

"When I arrived as commissioner, the mayor told me, 'Whatever we can do to encourage people to stay or move into the city, that's our job.' We did that. "The marketplace has responded very positively to Atlantic Station. They've brought retailers into a core city that, five years ago, people were writing off. That has stunned the retail community across the country.

"The bottom line is, it's certainly met the city's policy goals, and it's kind of a surprise that this has happened as thoroughly and completely as it has. From a regional perspective, it's helped to pave the way for smaller ventures in Atlanta or in other areas with old-style urban growth.

"Atlantic Station believes there should be more than one way to work, live and shop, and certainly more than one way to get there. Which is what we were trying to accomplish from a public policy perspective. In the final analysis, I ask, do the people and forces end up doing more good than harm? I think that happened here.

"If every city was able to leave things better than they found them, we'd be in better shape."

Location: Atlanta, Ga.

Size: 138 acres

Designers: Brian Leary, Jacoby Development, Inc., DPZ

Developer: AIG Global Real Estate Investment Corp., Jacoby Development, Inc.

Groundbreaking: Fall 1999

Percent complete: 40 percent

Population: 3,000

Single-family: Duplexes: start at $385,000; detached homes: start at high $600,000s

Apartments: Park District: start at $700/month; The Flats: start at $675/month; Icon Apartments: start at $1,125/month

Condos: Art Foundry: start at $160,000 (sold out); "element": start at high $100,000s

Hotel/condos: TWELVE: start at $160,000s

Lofts: ATL: start in the 300,000s

Townhouses: Beazer Townhomes: mid-$300,000s (sold out)

Getting there: Atlantic Station lies to the west of the Midtown neighborhood of downtown Atlanta, via the 17th Street bridge.

For more information, go to or call 404.876.2616.