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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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SHAQ-SIZED SHOES: Turning his shoe store into a destination for pro athletes has helped Bruce Teilhaber, the owner of Friedman's Shoes on Mitchell Street, stay in business. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • SHAQ-SIZED SHOES: Turning his shoe store into a destination for pro athletes has helped Bruce Teilhaber, the owner of Friedman's Shoes on Mitchell Street, stay in business.

John Sweet, an attorney who converted a former sewing machine factory at the corner of Peachtree Street and Trinity Avenue into his law office nearly 30 years ago, thinks neighboring Castleberry Hill's energy and momentum will eventually span the Gulch and help transform south downtown one building at a time. But when it does, he says, expect government services — more specifically, lobbyists and lawyers — to flock to the area and snatch up the space.

"This is more of a special-use community," Sweet says. "This is about the government, the legal system. This is where all the courts are — the bulk, and I do mean the heavy lifting, of the court systems, is here."

Tim Crimmins, a Georgia State University history professor, however, thinks another downtown property owner, one credited with breathing new life into the area north of the tracks, will play a larger role.

"The catalyst for change is going to be the continued residential expansion of GSU," he says. Since the mid-2000s, the one-time commuter school has expanded its downtown footprint with the purchase of the SunTrust building, two former hotels and dorm construction, among other properties.

Emory Morsberger, the Lawrenceville developer and downtown booster whose plans to build a mixed-use development on Mitchell Street were shelved when the economy choked, agrees — and even thinks Georgia Tech could eventually consider expanding its footprint from Midtown to the south downtown area.

"You got 50,000 students within two to three miles," Morsberger says. "That population is growing. That population attracts other people. It's just a question of time before Georgia Tech and Georgia State bust out of their seams and expand into that area. It's an area that will have no choice — it's going to take off."

Business owners have recently received letters from the Georgia Department of Transportation informing them about the area's Next Big Thing: the long-promised multi-modal terminal, where commuter rail, buses and streetcars would converge. Though designs are nowhere near being finalized, the project could essentially cap the 100-acre-plus Gulch, creating new real estate that could include mixed-use development and park space. CAP has also proposed the Green Line, a series of walkable plazas over the railroad tracks that could connect Castleberry Hill to south downtown — and possibly to areas north of Five Points. Business owners and residents, while supportive, say they'll believe it when they see it.

In the absence of construction, commendable efforts have sprung up to improve south downtown's quality of life. This summer, the city's Office of Cultural Affairs launched Elevate-Art Above Underground, a two-month public-art showcase centered on Underground Atlanta that included murals, public performances and site sculptures. Murals painted during Living Walls have added color at street level. The Nunn Federal Center has held a farmer's market that's open to the public.

There are other possibilities. Mayor Kasim Reed's recent proposal to convert Underground Atlanta into an arts district is, a spokesman says, still in the "ideas" phase. Reddy would love to see a south downtown street closed during the lunch hour for food trucks to serve downtown and federal employees. The surface parking lots are ripe for a multi-day concert festival a la Music Midtown or large-scale arts performance. The long-awaited re-opening of the Mitchell Street bridge could bring back customers. Jerry Miller, chairman of the Capitol Hill Neighborhood Development Corporation, a nonprofit founded by three south downtown churches to pursue projects that could help rebuild the area, says his group is currently working with planners and architects to imagine what the state could do with the old World of Coca-Cola building. Also on its list: to see if the state's Georgia Plaza Park at Central and Mitchell avenues — where a restaurant with outdoor seating served workers decades ago — could be "re-energized."

"We can't say we revitalized downtown when we have a kind of soft underbelly adjacent to it on the southside," says Miller. "We have to have a 360-degree view of downtown."

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