The result, developers and city officials say, could be the reinvention of a part of town that currently lacks many housing, retail and entertainment options. Outside of the traditional work day, concerts, big conventions or Atlanta Hawks, Falcons and United game days, the area adjacent to Mercedes-Benz Stadium is often devoid of activity.
But downtown boosters say that’s about to change.
“I think it’s transforming so quickly that there are pieces of this neighborhood that no one is going to be able to remember or recognize,” said April Stammel, senior vice president at Newport, which is renovating Mitchell Street to feature office space for artists, restaurants and street-accessible shops as part of the South Downtown project.
The largest project in the pipeline, and the one closest to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, is Centennial Yards, the “mini-city” of hotels, offices, retail and apartments set to be built across 50 acres at the Gulch, which is currently a sea of parking lots and rail lines below street level.
Part of developer CIM Group’s plans is to build a new street grid at the level of existing downtown viaducts. That platform, once said to cost $700 million, will “be expanded and improved as the project builds up,” a company spokesperson said. The company’s goal is to complete about 30% of the street grid by 2026.
CIM Group aims to complete its first phase of construction by 2026, including a hotel, a residential building, adaptive office space, restaurants and bars, a music venue, a gathering plaza and “The Canyon,” a brewery- and restaurant-anchored retail row near a pedestrian bridge to the stadium.
“It definitely gave us something to focus on,” Centennial Yards leader Brian McGowan said of the World Cup. Four buildings are expected to break ground later this year.
‘People on the street’
Atlanta’s South Downtown area was once home to busy train stations, popular department stores, and a bustling corridor known as Hotel Row.
But other parts of Atlanta have usurped downtown’s reputation as a hangout and entertainment corridor, leaving an impression the city’s center is a place to travel to on occasion — not to live.
“We tore down so much of our history downtown. We tore so much of it down to build parking lots,” said Councilman Jason Dozier, who lives in nearby Mechanicsville and represents much of downtown. “We’re looking at a future that is vibrant, that is people-centric.”
He said residential development has been sorely missed downtown for decades.
Rents are lower downtown than in the city’s other urban cores, namely Buckhead and Midtown. According to Atlanta real estate services firm Berkadia, the average rent downtown is about $1,800, while it’s more than $2,000 in those other dense areas despite all three places having similar occupancy rates. Some suburbs also have higher average rents than downtown, including Alpharetta, Decatur, Dunwoody and Vinings.
The same trend is reflected in downtown office rents. According to real estate data firm CoStar, the average office rate downtown in the second quarter of 2022 was less than $31 per square foot, about $10 cheaper than Midtown and $5 cheaper than Buckhead. Six office towers at Peachtree Center, an iconic fixture of Atlanta’s skyline, recently underwent foreclosure as the complex’s occupancy dipped to 55%.
“I just think that especially as Midtown gets fully redeveloped… those opportunities (in downtown) have unfortunately been fewer and farther between,” Dozier said.
Many of the ongoing projects focus on getting more people to live downtown. The Lofts at Centennial Yards opened last year with 162 apartments. A second residential building in Centennial Yards will break ground later this year. Lalani said a residential project at Underground will also begin construction before 2023.
As housing costs have gone up metro-wide and the stock of affordable housing has shrunk, housing advocates see the new development downtown as a chance to offer more housing for low-income Atlantans. As part of its deal with the city, Centennial Yards is required to price 20% of its units at affordable rates for people making 80% of the area median income, which is currently $96,400 for a family of four in metro Atlanta. The pricing details for the future housing at Underground Atlanta have not been released.
Newport announced its first residential project Sept. 19 and plans to deliver 650 new apartments along South Broad Street by 2025. Seventy of those units will be reserved for people making 80% of the area median income.
Stammel said it’s vital for people to see downtown as an attractive place to live for these revitalization projects to thrive. The World Cup gives a new deadline to accomplish that.
“There’s no reason why right near (Five Points MARTA station) there should not be thousands upon thousands of apartments,” she said. “Between us and CIM Group and Underground, I think we’re doing just that.”
Visitors will also have new places to stay, including the long-planned Signia by Hilton Atlanta hotel at the Georgia World Congress Center. By January 2024, the hotel should be open with nearly 1,000 guests rooms.
William Pate, president and CEO of Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, said downtown needs to “put on its best face” for the World Cup. He said there are multiple events where people flock to downtown, but he said the area needs to feel bustling and populated at all times — not just when conventions and sports events come to town.
“We’re going to have more of that Midtown feeling where you’ve got people on the street day and night,” he said.
When beloved music venue The Masquerade relocated from its Old Fourth Ward location to a new spot in Underground Atlanta in 2016, it was meant to be a temporary move. People were dubious of the decision, general manager Greg Green admitted, to move to South Downtown.
Six years later, the Masquerade is staying in Underground, and investing in renovations to its “Hell” and “Purgatory” stages, as developers work on redevelopment plans elsewhere throughout the 12-acre site.
“It proved to be a wonderful location for us,” Green said. “I think people are seeing that it’s worked for us and so thinking that it can work for them as well.”
Lalani, a development newcomer to Atlanta, has yet to release his grand vision for Underground’s revitalization. He said a master plan is close to finalization and should be announced publicly soon.
He said the Masquerade and Atlanta Brewing Company, which recently announced it would relocate to Underground Atlanta, help set the tone for the destination he wants the area to become. Lalani said he aims to have the first phase of the project completed and nearly 100% leased by the time the World Cup comes to town.
“Everyone is looking at downtown,” Lalani said. “It’s a blessing, and the timing is really perfect right now for everybody to kickstart this process.”
Adjacent to Underground, MARTA is planning a major renovation of the Five Points MARTA station, the system’s central hub that will prove crucial during the World Cup. The agency will begin rehabilitating its train platforms in September and beginning in 2024, will begin improving the bus bays and removing the concrete canopy that covers the outdoor plaza. MARTA officials have said that work on the canopy and plaza will still be underway when the World Cup starts, but work on the train platforms will be completed.
Other parts of Centennial Yards — which got the green light from the city with a controversial incentive package that could equal about $1.9 billion in bonds and reimbursements — will also be under construction by 2026. When complete, developers envision a bustling sports entertainment district with new city blocks, offices, retail and thousands of apartments.
The Canyon, which will include Wild Leap Brewery, Jinya Ramen Bar and other tenants, is beginning to take form. The century-old cobblestone streets have been preserved in patches as decoration, and string lights are already in place to illuminate late night gatherings.
Playing host to World Cup matches will be a massive undertaking for state and local leaders, and the city’s larger tourism economy, with a likely mix of public and private investment going into the event.
“We’re going to see, I think, the most significant transformational period in the city in over a decade,” Pate said. “The city is really going to get a fantastic refresh right before the World Cup.”
– This is a $5 billion redevelopment project by developer CIM Group of “The Gulch” downtown near Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The 50-acre site will include roughly 4 million square feet of residences and 4 million square feet of commercial spaces in addition to retail, offices, restaurants and a hotel.
– A master plan is still in the works by developer Lalani Ventures for the shopping mall, which spans Pryor, Central, Wall and Alabama streets. The 12-acre site is expected to undergo a $150 million renovation project, which Lalani has said will likely include housing, restaurants, retail, office space and a hotel.
– Developer Newport’s South Downtown project aims to transform dozens of historic buildings along Mitchell Street, including the historically protected Hotel Row and 222 Mitchell Street. More than four dozen buildings in the district will be redeveloped into offices, restaurants, retail and entertainment concepts, and hundreds of new apartments will be built on two blocks of South Broad Street.
Five Points MARTA Station
– The train station will undergo a $200 million renovation project, which will improve bus bays, revitalize the station plaza and lay the groundwork for future transit-oriented development. The project will begin work in 2024 and is expected to be completed by 2028.