Atlanta was originally called Terminus because the rail lines converged here. Eventually, the interaction of trains and cars became problematic, and streets were built over the railroad tracks. Existing shops were abandoned, and new shops were built on the new streets.
Then, the Omni, Phillips Arena and the Georgia Dome were built, creating a big, empty space that you can look into. That area is The Gulch, a 120-acre site, currently made up of parking lots and rail lines.
The Gulch: Past and Future Visions
For years, the vision was to turn The Gulch into a multi-modal station and then build mixed-use around the station, but that plan has never come to fruition, mostly because of the number of entities that would have to be involved—county, city, state and federal agencies; MARTA; and Norfolk Southern to name a few. However, according to a recent Atlanta Business Chronicle article, “The Gulch…is the ‘primary site’ being pushed by Atlanta in its pitch to land Amazon’s $5 billion HQ2.” This possibility has positioned The Gulch into the limelight once again.
And Los Angelo-based CIM, founded by Richard Ressler, brother of Atlanta Hawks lead owner Tony Ressler, appears to want in. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that CIM recently submitted “a development of regional impact application that asks the state to evaluate its ‘conceptual’ plans.” Those plans include 9 million square feet of office space, 1,000 residences, 1,500 hotel rooms and 1 million square feet of retail. Another AJC article claims, “It’s a project clearly gunning for the attention of Amazon.”
Honestly, I am not convinced that Amazon HQ2 is the answer to The Gulch’s redevelopment.
What Does The Gulch Got?
According to Central Atlanta Progress president A.J. Robinson, “it’s been since World War II that this portion of downtown has thrived.” So, it’s evident The Gulch needs a new vision, but is Amazon HQ2 the right pathway to redevelopment?
The Gulch does have desirable features that are in line with Amazon’s wishes for HQ2. First of all, it has space in an urban environment, which is rare. It is also close to transit, both rail and bus, which is in line with Amazon’s needs. The area is close to talent, with Georgia State, Georgia Tech and Clark Atlanta University nearby. The Gulch is also close to Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, only 10 miles via rail.
The Gulch: A Good Idea?
Some potential problems exist with considering The Gulch for Amazon HQ2. First, you must look at the demographics—The Gulch is in a non-affluent area, which creates concerns about what happens to existing neighborhoods. I reviewed these topics, concerning the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the new Georgia State Football Stadium, in previous blogs.
The current area demographics also beg the question of whether the people who work at Amazon will actually live near HQ2 if located in The Gulch. For example, State Farm recently built its corporate headquarters in Perimeter Center in Dunwoody, on top of the MARTA station adjacent to I-285, right in the center of where it pulls its employees. This was an intentional, smart move.
Also, the “build it and they will come” mentality may not work. A more conservative approach, redeveloping The Gulch area incrementally to create momentum, may be a stronger long-term vision. Plus, we must really question whether all the different agencies involved will come to the table and work collaboratively with Amazon. That’s a tall order.
I’m just not a believer that sticking a huge building with a huge number of people in The Gulch is going to change the area’s existing dynamics and thus spell success. But I do believe in change for The Gulch. I vote for putting in the multi-modal station first, thus creating momentum and starting with a big project before leaping into a HUGE project. (Obviously, Richard Ressler does not agree with my approach.)
I also think the GM-Doraville site would be a perfect fit for Amazon HQ2. This site has many pros: better part of town with better demographics; near a MARTA station; proximity to Perimeter College; conveniently located near I-285 and Peachtree Industrial Blvd; and close to Peachtree Dekalb Airport.
Amazon has made it clear they want to be “transformative,” which they certainly could be at The Gulch. But do they want to be transformative at the risk of being disruptive?
I think the future redevelopment of The Gulch is positive, and action toward that goal is obviously in the works. Is Amazon the catalyst? Possibly. Is that a good or bad thing? The verdict is still out. Should Ressler’s massive mini-city get built regardless? Not sure.
I do support the visionaries who dream big for the City of Atlanta, but I question whether they are being realistic about what can work at The Gulch. At the very least, the Amazon HQ2 buzz, and Ressler’s determination, just may be what triggers The Gulch’s ultimate transformation.