Southside’s ‘aerotropolis’ plan gains speed, slowly

It’s a slow takeoff roll, but Hapeville Mayor Alan Hallman sees the development of an “aerotropolis” gaining momentum.

Porsche stamped its gilded international nameplate on Hapeville’s doorstep last year, putting the area around Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in serious conversation for other headquarters and major logistics firms, Hallman said.

Now the four-star Solis hotel, which broke ground April 5 and is to open next year, adds another dimension.

“It elevates the area greatly. It gives Porsche what they’ve been looking for and it’s another piece in the aerotropolis puzzle as well,” he said. The aerotropolis concept – a citylike hub around Hartsfield-Jackson – “is not going to happen overnight. This further sends the message that the Southside is open for business.”

Despite some business-oriented hotels and Delta Air Lines’ corporate campus, the area around Hartsfield-Jackson has long been known more for grit than gloss.

But since the Hapeville Ford plant closed in 2006, aerotropolis concept promoters have envisioned company headquarters, office space and a more vibrant business district more akin to Buckhead, Cumberland or the Central Perimeter area at Ga. 400 and I-285.

Porsche, which built its sleek North American offices and a test track on the old auto plant site, provided a first big win.

For many, it still seems like a stretch. While Hartsfield-Jackson has helped draw many businesses to metro Atlanta, the noise from thousands of planes taking off daily at the world’s busiest airport is not typically seen as a good neighbor to high-end office workers and luxury hotels.

Even Hallman applauded Porsche’s “courage” in choosing the south Fulton County area and south Atlanta for its headquarters.

But airports like Amsterdam Schiphol and Washington Dulles have managed to attract office towers, hotels, amenities and skilled workers who value the connectivity of being close to an international airport.

The Porsche headquarters and the Solis hotel development aren’t entirely alone in offering evidence it might work here. More is found in the hub of offices and hotels near the Georgia International Convention Center in College Park.

“The whole area is growing,” said Carmenlita Scott, executive director of the Airport Area Chamber of Commerce.

While most metro development has gone north of downtown, “the Northside is getting full,” she said. “The thing the Southside has is lots of land and lots of water rights … You can build a new building or there’s lots of old buildings you can renovate.”

Spurring development

A planned mixed-use development called Aerotropolis Atlanta was first announced in 2008 by Jacoby Development Inc. The project, on the site of the Ford plant, was hailed for its potential as an office, retail and industrial hub.

Plans changed over the years, with the airport buying a portion of the land.

Then, the 2011 announcement that Porsche would build its new North American headquarters and an on-site test track brought more hope and broader ambitions for the aerotropolis concept. A year later the new international terminal opened on Hartsfield-Jackson’s east side.

Those developments fueled creation of the Atlanta Aerotropolis Alliance and Community Improvement Districts in the area, recently consolidated into the Aerotropolis CIDs. Their mission is to put the aerotropolis concept into practice.

Beyond seeking headline-grabbing deals such as Porsche or Solis, CIDs and local governments have partnered to try to improve transportation access — including fixes to the bottleneck at Camp Creek Parkway and I-285, said Steve Berman, founder of OA Development, which owns land and nine buildings near the airport.

Berman, also chairman of the Airport West Community Improvement District, said new MARTA bus service on the Clayton County side of the airport has made the area more attractive to businesses.

“The most exciting thing we are seeing is the area transforming itself and finally getting the horse in front of the cart,” he said.

The area still lacks the higher-end feel of northside development, with the Porsche complex standing as an isolated exception. But Hapeville Development Authority chair Katrina Bradbury said the Solis has already come up in discussions with businesses considering the area and will be more of a factor when the hotel is open.

Another luxury hotel connected to the main terminal – this one an InterContinental – is expected to be built over the next couple of years.

“It definitely will change the image and the perception that we don’t have quality hotels and quality restaurants,” Clayton County chairman Jeff Turner said.

Swiss developer ACRON will own the 214-room, $50 million-plus Solis hotel. The company has additional land for a second hotel. Scott Condra, founder of Condra Group, and Bruce Bradley of Castleton Holdings will develop the Solis.

High-end appeal

The Solis brand, founded by noted Atlanta hotel developer Horst Schulze, will cater to Porsche executives, enthusiasts who will pick up cars or drive the automaker’s test track.

Though Porsche generates about 30,000 hotel room nights, the development team says that’s only a fraction of the expected demand. The Solis will also target wedding business – particularly newlyweds planning to depart for their honeymoons— high-end meetings, local headquarters and Georgia’s movie business.

Movie actors and workers often rent homes or stay in hotels downtown. Solis will be much closer than in-town offerings to the Pinewood Studios campus in Fayette County, Condra said.

The hotel will offer high-end dining and retail as well.

Porsche controls the 29 acres of its campus and 30 adjacent acres within the city of Atlanta. Jacoby still holds land on the site and the airport controls more than 50 acres. The Solis and the future second hotel are in Hapeville and will help draw the campus closer to the city’s downtown.

Hapeville has about 6,600 residents and the area is growing, up a few hundred since 2010. The city is only 2.5 square miles, Hallman said, and leaders hope that development can be infill, particularly along Porsche Avenue to the city’s downtown.

“The Solis project starts to march development toward the rest of Hapeville,” he said.