The unusual collection of barn-shaped brick railroad warehouses in the century-old Pullman Yard on the edge of Kirkwood has sat mostly vacant and surrounded by weeds for nearly two decades under state ownership.
Now, just as the sizzling intown housing market has ignited interest from Mindspring founder Charles Brewer and others in redeveloping the historic site into a residential/commercial complex, neighbors are concerned that plans for an electrical substation could derail those hopes.
Earl Williamson, a longtime Kirkwood Neighbors' Organization leader, says he's been approached by several groups with their eyes on the 28-acre property just across the MARTA tracks from DeKalb Avenue. Among those are the Cousins Foundation, the nonprofit foundation funded by überdeveloper Tom Cousins that transformed the former East Lake Meadows housing project into a successful mixed-income golf community.
Williamson, who serves as president of the local Neighborhood Planning Unit-O, says he's also discussed the site with a top executive from Brewer's Green Street Properties, whose widely praised Glenwood Park subdivision near I-20 was named Community of the Year in 2004 by the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association.
But Williamson knows it isn't simply the open acreage of Pullman Yard that's attracted the notice of such prestigious developers.
"Any value that land has for development depends on the preservation of the historic structures," he says. "These are probably the last examples of this kind of iron-framed industrial buildings left in the city."
That's why Williamson and his neighbors became concerned when they heard – by accident, he says – that Georgia Power had been seeking to buy part of the property so it can build an electrical substation.
"They've been negotiating with the state since October, so they're way ahead of us," he says.
State Rep. Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, who lives around the corner, says she's already gotten close to 100 letters on the issue from local homeowners. "They run 99-to-1 opposed," she says. "One gentleman wanted the substation so his power wouldn't go out so often."
Abrams says it's essential that the old "saw-toothed" warehouses – named for their trademark jagged rooflines – be preserved.
"Part of Kirkwood's historic stature is linked to those rail yards," she says, noting that the familiar neighborhood logo features the front of an old locomotive.
The earliest of the buildings dates to 1904, built as a manufacturing plant by Pratt Engineering, an early producer of electric motors that turned the site into a munitions factory during World War I, Williamson says. The Chicago-based Pullman commercial rail company bought the property in 1922, turning it into a repair station for its rail cars.
Following Pullman's bankruptcy in 1969, the land passed through a series of owners until the state bought it for $1.6 million as a maintenance-and-storage facility for the New Georgia Railroad, a short-lived tourist train between downtown Atlanta and Stone Mountain.
The Georgia Building Authority had planned to finally put Pullman Yard up for sale this fall, Abrams says, but potential buyers are unlikely to make a move until the situation with Georgia Power – which wields condemnation power – has been resolved.
Georgia Power spokeswoman Lolita Jackson says the company hasn't made a final decision on whether to locate a new substation on Pullman Yard.
"This property works best for us because it's next to existing transmission lines," she says.
If it does build it there, she says, the company would likely need only 2 acres in the northeast corner of the site, which would not require taking down any of the buildings.
Jackson says having an electrical substation next door should not discourage home-building on the rest of the land. "If you drive around Atlanta, you see substations next to developments all over," she says.
Williamson says that while neighbors oppose a substation on the Pullman Yard site, they realize it will have to go somewhere in Kirkwood. He's planning to meet with a Georgia Power representative in the next few days.
"We've tried not to get ugly over this, because that's counterproductive," he says. "But we suspect this is not the best location."