Doraville hopes to assemble new future at old GM plant site

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It was this or the Great Pyramid made of Coke cans

Kempner’s Unofficial Business

This is a new column by me, Matt Kempner. I’ve been a reporter or editor since gas was about a dollar a gallon and “Hands Across America” was a thing. I’ve spent lots of time covering government, the environment and, for most of my career, business. But I don’t daydream about fiscal policy and corporate earnings. What I love about business is the strategy and the people and the journeys that those people take. I like irony and surprise and nuance. I’ve interviewed soldiers, oystermen, football stars, chicken plant workers, Fortune 500 CEOs, suburban activists and entrepreneurs dreaming big dreams. How cool is that? I’ve teared up in interviews, laughed inappropriately, been yelled at and snookered. I do like an adventure. Let’s see where this one goes.

Here’s what can happen when our best economic engines peter out: They get turned into a coleslaw of metal scrap.

Look at the vaporization of the former GM Doraville assembly plant. After just eight months with a demolition crew, the massive complex is mostly a concrete slab topped by cubed and shredded leftovers.

Just before taking my daily rush-hour catnap — er, I mean, commute, in the “fast” lane of I-285 — I passed the smudge where the GM plant used to be and asked the question metro Atlanta never gets to stop asking: How will it reinvent itself this time?

It turns out, the developer who bought the 165-acre property has the same question.

If that uncertainty seems a bit disconcerting, well, yeah.

Developer Egbert Perry isn't banking on landing one gigantic economic tamale that will take up the whole sprawling site off I-285 between Buford Highway and Peachtree Industrial Boulevard. Guys go broke waiting for such things.

Perry is hoping for a bit of everything.

He wants big corporate headquarters towers, small and clean manufacturers, some creative artist types, companies in financial tech, aerospace, energy, logistics, life sciences and clothing. He also wants homes and stores to serve people nearby. Like everyone else in Georgia these days, he also looked into a movie production studio and got one, with construction slated to begin this summer.

He wants what others have, like the way Midtown draws in R&D offices and how the Perimeter Mall area serves as an in-between place that attracts young intowners and Northside executives. He wants to draw businesses from Gwinnett that want to be closer to mass transit, since he’s adjacent to MARTA’s Doraville station. He’s even pitching his project, called Assembly (you know, cause it was home to an assembly plant), as a natural extension of the so-called Pill Hill hospitals, which, if I’m counting right, are three interstate exits away.

“The market ultimately tell us what will go on the site,” Perry told me.

Call that forced flexibility. It seems like a theme not only for post-recession developers but for the career considerations of lots of Americans these days: Don’t box yourself in. Be open for anything.

All of Perry's plans are knit together into one of those live/work/play/star-in-a-movie developments where everything is in walking distance. It's the kind of concept that several years ago was viewed in some zoning circles as akin to communism.

[CONFLICT WARNING: A long-time friend of mine, Stephen Macauley, is a partner on the Assembly project but not actively involved in its daily management. He was the one who convinced a resistant Perry, chief executive of the Integral Group, to look at the Doraville site, according to Perry.]

Existing spur rail tracks will remain and be incorporated in a linear park. A few minor GM structures have been allowed to survive to give the project what the marketing folks call “authenticity.” So there will be authentic concrete ramps and an authentic pedestrian bridge and, for part of the studio complex, an authentic former GM training center.

Crucially, Perry will add a tunnel and sidewalks under Norfolk-Southern and MARTA tracks to connect to the MARTA’s Doraville station and “downtown” Doraville. There isn’t really what you’d call a downtown to connect yet, but city officials have big hopes to change that, too.

Notice something missing among all those plans?

What might seem like the most obvious use in Doraville – another mammoth heavy industry – is the one thing Perry says won’t be at Assembly.

We’ve lost a quarter of our manufacturing jobs locally in just the last 14 years. These days, big manufacturers that enter metro Atlanta often stick to the fringes – places like Carrollton and Cartersville — where land is cheaper and plentiful. Or they go even farther away. The governor tried to use incentives earlier this year to buy a Volvo plant to be built near Savannah. It didn’t work. South Carolina bought Volvo’s love instead. The car maker apparently never even glanced at Doraville.

Renewal in the little city will take time. While the movie studio is supposed to open by year’s end, some other parts of the site won’t even be ready for construction until spring 2017. And that’s if companies agree to move in.

I got to tour the site recently. Demolition is cool stuff for a guy who played with Tonka trucks as a kid. Who isn’t in awe of metal smushed into big cubes or piles of rusted bars two stories high? I saw scrap prepared to be shipped out on the same rails that once carried new vehicle parts. When a heavy equipment operator told me his machine could cut through inch-thick steel like it was paper, I could have clapped like a second-grader.

Then I poked my head in the few remaining buildings where there are still remnants of work lives forever frozen in time: a crutch laid on an x-ray machine in the medical section. An office sign helpfully reminding workers to turn off the lights when they leave. A note saying how to get hold of Jackie and Junior and Ed. Early on visitors were moved by a lunch box still sitting on a cafeteria table and a locker that had never been cleaned out, even of a family bible. A sign on one office I passed said simply “ADAPT.”

That’s what Doraville has been trying to figure out how to do.

Falcons president Rich McKay once checked out the site post-GM (though Doraville officials suspect he was just looking to let Atlanta officials know he could go somewhere else if they didn’t open their hearts and city vaults.)

Another guy proposed a bio-dome. There was a plan for a racetrack if only the state would allow track-side gambling. One gentleman offered to build the seven wonders of the world with Coke cans, the Great Pyramid of Giza and all.

A development company pitched high-end residential homes, with a teeny caveat: It wanted $36 million from the public to help buy the site plus elimination of $18 million in taxes.

Nearly every Monday morning Doraville Mayor Donna Pittman would call GM to ask about the latest rumor and plead with them to move faster on finding a buyer.

“You are really killing my city,” she’d tell them.

Then she heard Macauley’s mixed-use idea that became the framework for the proposal Perry eventually presented. It seemed like it included a lot of things that make a community. She’s hoping it might someday have a high school and a big grocery where neighbors, many of them from other countries, could meet.

For about 60 years GM was Doraville. It paid much of the taxes and created good-paying jobs, many for people with no college education.

Now, Doraville is no longer betting on a single sugar daddy, unless you consider Perry to be one. He grew up poor on a Caribbean island and now, he’s a big-name developer. The new plan is a less grand vision that relies on lots of little wins.

Hopefully, it’s one likely to last longer.

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