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South downtown must be fixed for Atlanta to thrive

The area south of Five Points was once bustling — what the hell happened?

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FOND MEMORIES: Richard Miller, the owner of Miller's Rexall, started working at the Broad Street pharmacy as a 12-year-old boy in 1965. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • FOND MEMORIES: Richard Miller, the owner of Miller's Rexall, started working at the Broad Street pharmacy as a 12-year-old boy in 1965.

Today, nearly all south downtown — most of the buildings and just as much of the retail energy — has vanished. While the area was humming along, a series of events, some big, others scarcely noticeable at the time, chipped away at its foundation.

Atlanta's streetcar system was dismantled in the '50s. Terminal Station met the wrecking ball in 1972, long after cars and airplanes surpassed trains as the primary means of travel. The creation in the mid-1940s of the metro region's expressway, later to become the interstate system, helped city dwellers leave Atlanta for good. Transportation planners and developers began to cater to motorists rather than pedestrians, by retrofitting in-town streets for volumes of cars along and building high-rise office buildings with parking decks.

The exodus not just of people, but of commercial development, north into Midtown and Buckhead and even out into the suburbs, caused retail centers to pop up in far-flung places. Mom-and-pop stores began to succumb to the chains. The exit of Rich's in April 1991 from its flagship store overlooking Five Points was a crippling blow to south downtown.

Attempts to spark renewed interest in that part of town, including the late-'80s renovation of Underground Atlanta — the subterranean mall that includes original storefronts buried when viaducts were constructed downtown during the late 1800s and early 1900s — never took off. In 2007, the World of Coca-Cola moved to a new location north of Centennial Olympic Park, taking with it many of the tourists that nearby retailers depended on.

"There's plenty of foot traffic," says Frank Kim, owner of Nelly Sports, a men's clothing and shoe store in the Metro Mall on Peachtree Street. "But people aren't spending money."

GOD'S WORK: Pastor Angelina White from Union City's True Faith Ministries spends as much as five hours cooking meals she serves every Friday in parking lots to south downtown’s homeless. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • GOD'S WORK: Pastor Angelina White from Union City's True Faith Ministries spends as much as five hours cooking meals she serves every Friday in parking lots to south downtown’s homeless.

Helping to keep paying customers away, business owners say, is the combination of panhandlers, homeless people and the perception of crime that has cast a pall over some parts of the neighborhood. Out-of-town churches, many of which, area homeless people say, come from as far as Hall County nearly 60 miles away to set up mobile soup kitchens in surface parking lots surrounding the Garnett MARTA station. Neighborhood residents, businesses, CAP leaders and even some homeless outreach centers consider the churches' efforts to be well-meaning but misguided, creating dependence among the homeless and helping to stifle investment in a run-down part of town.

"There are already places where the homeless can get a hot meal every day," says Chuck Bowen, the executive director at the Central Presbyterian Church Outreach and Advocacy Center. "Instead of just feeding them, they should try to find out why they're homeless and whether they can help them recover from homelessness, whether it's something as simple as helping them find an ID to getting into a shelter, or getting a coat. Feeding the homeless one time is not helping them."

One entity that never left south downtown — and actually grew — was government. Large office buildings housing city, county and state bureaucrats and elected officials formed a barrier between south downtown and Five Points. The Sam Nunn Federal Center, which then-Mayor Maynard Jackson said would help revitalize the area south of Five Points despite government studies predicting the massive facility would not generate substantial economic growth, absorbed parts of the old Rich's building, opening in 1996.

According to a 2006 CAP study, more than half of the property in the area is publicly owned. That concentration is convenient for politicians, bureaucrats and judges who've filled up office space surrounding the government buildings. But it hasn't created an ideal environment for a thriving, 24-hour neighborhood.

In fact, some of the south downtown government buildings, like many corporate buildings, have been described as urban fortresses, self-contained monoliths containing cafeterias, fitness centers, day-care centers and other amenities that give workers little incentive to step out on to the street.

"Can you imagine 10,000 employees on the streets for lunch every day?" Miller asks. "Can you imagine thousands of people walking around downtown Atlanta? It'd be fantastic. That'd revitalize this area."

Shyam Reddy, regional administrator of the General Services Administration, the federal agency which oversees the properties, says he hears from tenants that they'd love to have reason to leave their buildings during the day, and that he'd be willing to sit down with elected officials and business leaders to make that happen. But in contrast to Ivan Allen Plaza, where federal employees at Peachtree Summit can walk to different restaurants for lunch or after-work drinks, there are few such options in south downtown.

"I'd love to encourage people to go and frequent and support local business," he says. "But the problem is I don't have any down here."

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