The rebirth of Fort McPherson

Moderated by Rick Badie

Some say redevelopment of the Fort McPherson Army complex, which closed in 2005, could be Atlanta’s Next Big Thing. An official with a state authority charged to oversee the rebirth of the 486-acre complex offers an update on what’s transpired so far. Meanwhile, a real estate executive questions the snail’s pace of progress in comparison to a tech-focused project in New York City.

Base to become a vibrant community

By Jack C. Sprott

Atlanta was 50 years young when Fort McPherson was established in 1885 on five tracts of land several miles south of town. The location was rural and disconnected from the economic activities of the railroad hub to the north.

Over the past 129 years, the city of Atlanta has expanded its boundaries. Expressways and heavy rail now serve the local transportation needs of our citizens. Fort McPherson is no longer isolated. This historic 486-acre property is completely within the city limits, on a MARTA line and just four miles from the world’s busiest airport.

Those who have been involved in our community engagement subcommittee, public outreach or monthly board meetings understand that the closure and transfer of a military facility under the Base Realignment and Closure Act is a lengthy, complicated process. Federal law mandates a “grassroots” planning process. Under the direction of the McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority, local communities drive the planning, zoning and re-use of the property. Our approved plan calls for a re-development that is sustainable economically, environmentally and socially.

Our vision is to transform Fort McPherson and its surrounding neighborhoods into a nationally acclaimed, world-class, walkable community where people live, work and play in a regional commerce center designed to attract industries such as advanced logistics, bio-science, health information technology or film and television.

The Forces Command Building is ideal to house health data, film studio technology or a bio-medical company. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has invested $40 million to create an outpatient clinic and expansive medical complex to include primary medical care and mental health, dental, lab and radiology services. Other areas will be developed as mixed-use residential, single-family residential, neighborhood commercial and light manufacturing, with a focus on Georgia’s burgeoning film and film-technology industry.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Fort McPherson’s Historic Village was a walkable place, wholly. We intend to build on the character of the stately homes along Staff Row. We expect the Historic Village will attract the creative community and entrepreneurs who will open cafes, studios, art galleries and bed-and-breakfast lodging to complement the homes and parade ground.

We acknowledge the challenges ahead. Having only been known as a military facility, Fort McPherson lacks a “development identity.” The surrounding area is economically depressed. Retail structures are in disrepair. There is little investment along the Campbellton Road and Lee Street corridors. That said, we believe positive, incremental change is possible. We have the full support of Atlanta and Georgia and their economic development agencies. The entire campus lies within the Campbellton Road Tax Allocation District, which will provide much-needed infrastructure funding.

This summer, ownership of Fort McPherson will transfer from the U.S. Army to the McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority. We stand ready to transform a shuttered base into a vibrant community.

Jack C. Sprott is executive director of the McPherson Implementing Redevelopment Authority.

Create an enduring project

By Steve Berman

Recent news of one of the Fort McPherson master developers dropping out of the project raises a question: Why is that redevelopment proceeding so slowly?

New York’s approach to redevelopment may be instructive, as construction gets underway for the joint Cornell-Technion university campus on Roosevelt Island.

Since Fort McPherson was first included in a 2005 Pentagon base closure plan, the redevelopment strategy has progressed little beyond saying it will become a mixed-use property with residential areas, private businesses and some government buildings and programs. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced plans to spend about $40 million to create a health care campus on part of the property.

Leading with real estate development falls far short of offering real hope of creating an enduring project. Asking taxpayers to invest — with few details about how our money will be spent — in a project that has yet to attract capital from the private sector is simply irresponsible.

It isn’t too late to invite Emory, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, the University of Georgia, the Atlanta University Center schools, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others to help formulate a vision of how to develop the more-than 480 acre site to generate the greatest long-term gain for Atlanta and Georgia. Consider how effective New York has been with its higher education — rather than real estate development — strategy for redevelopment.

Three years ago, New York City announced a new, high-tech graduate school developed by Cornell University in partnership with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. The city committed to providing land and up to $100 million in infrastructure improvements. Cornell competed with other universities for the opportunity to create this campus.

The $2 billion plan includes a $150 million venture capital fund for start-up companies that grow out of the new campus and agree to remain in New York for three years. It also includes math and science education support for 10,000 city children. Just building the campus will create 20,000 construction jobs. It is anticipated to spin off 600 new businesses over the next generation, creating 30,000 more jobs and as much as $1.4 billion in tax revenue. The vision has already attracted commitments of more than $750 million from private donors.

In one swoop, Gotham moved to the center of the high-tech universe, competing with the likes of Silicon Valley, the Research Triangle, Boston and Austin. The employment spurred by this vision will include some of the best-paying jobs in the country. New York’s economy will benefit for generations.

Leading with real estate development tends to create empty buildings. We have enough of those in Atlanta to last a generation, and the state owns more than its fair share of them. What we need is inspired leadership. We shouldn’t invest our tax dollars in the meantime.

Steve Berman is a partner at Norcross-based OA Development, a commercial real estate brokerage firm.

2 comments Add your comment

Chip

March 19th, 2014
8:06 am

“Livable community”????

What sane person (with the means to do better) wants to live by a huge airport?

Duh…..

Gerald

March 18th, 2014
8:55 pm

Steve Berman’s plan sounds great in theory – better than the notion of pretending as if Fort McPherson is in Midtown or north Atlanta or some other place where people with the means would choose to live such as what Jack Sprott is proposing – but the reality is that Emory, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, the AU Center etc. may not have the resources to develop that area into a technology park. Those institutions put together do not have the deep pockets of Cornell. Also, with that project Cornell was attempting to solve a problem – the remote location of their main campus – that Georgia Tech, Georgia State and Emory do not have. Where Cornell (and Technion) built the facility to access the capital and talent in New York City, Tech, GSU and Emory are there already. Further, Tech is committing much of their research activity downtown, where a lot of corporate firms have their research operations. Emory is primarily concerned with their relationship with the CDC as well as managing the various hospitals in Atlanta. And GSU is a liberal arts school that has a long way to go before it becomes a significant player in research, especially with having to compete with Emory and Georgia Tech in its own city.

Universities that currently do not have an urban presence would be far more likely to be interested in such a venture perhaps, i.e. Mercer (though they have an Atlanta campus already) or more compellingly the University of Georgia, which now has engineering and medical programs and is aspiring to AAU status, and would benefit from being a lot closer to the research action than they are now.

But in reality, the best strategy for this area would be to leverage its proximity to Hartsfield and MARTA to become a hub for shipping, warehousing, logistics etc. Perhaps the Savannah port expansion with the potential of additional rail capacity plus Hartsfield’s new emphasis on freight traffic is something that could be leveraged. That plus an affordable housing initiative with an emphasis on youth and recreation activities (i.e. soccer, lots of soccer) to accommodate the families of those that would work in the warehouse/freight/shipping jobs would be a far more realistic endeavor than competing with downtown (and the suburbs) for IT and biotech jobs.