Vision of airport 'Aerotropolis' gaining focus

Southside leaders have dreamed for years of turning the area around the Atlanta airport into the region’s next thriving district, drawing corporate offices, industry and housing for working professionals.

They look to places like the technology corridor near Washington’s Dulles International and Dallas/Fort Worth International’s Las Colinas area. Overseas, airports in Amsterdam and Frankfurt shine as examples of how an airport can drive higher-end economic development.

The vision of a similar Atlanta "aerotropolis" might be finally coming into view.

Luxury carmaker Porsche recently settled into its new headquarters right next to the airport, and Hartsfield-Jackson is starting the process of developing a hotel and Class A office space next to the terminal.

Porsche’s decision to move its U.S. offices to the site, as well as build an “experience center” with a test track there, triggered creation of the Atlanta Aerotropolis Alliance supported by the Atlanta Regional Commission.

The hope is that Porsche’s arrival will serve to change the mindset of companies used to considering downtown, Midtown, Buckhead, the Perimeter or Gwinnett for their corporate headquarters.

“It’s going to give more confidence to a major corporation to go down there,” said Chip Groome, a partner at Grove Street Partners, developer of the Gateway Center near the airport. He expects Gateway Center hotels to get more guests and meetings due to Porsche.

The selling point behind the vision is that in an increasingly connected world, companies and executives will want to be minutes away from an airport that can get them to New York, London or Tokyo. And many employees want to live closer to work.

Yet in Atlanta the challenges are legion. They include reversing a decades-long migration of wealth, entertainment, housing and corporate headquarters farther north. That has left the airport area, for the most part, with a grab-bag of hotels and distribution facilities, along with some service businesses tied to Delta Air Lines’ main headquarters just north of Hartsfield-Jackson International.

“Atlanta has had relatively little aerotropolis development compared to other airports…. It has not been in the favored quarter of development” with higher-income housing and white collar jobs, said John Kasarda, c0-author of the book “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next” and a professor at the University of North Carolina.

“That is a challenge that the aerotropolis faces. But I’m confident you’ll see more and more development in and around the immediate airport area.”

The Porsche effect

Porsche North America moved from Sandy Springs to the the site of the old Ford plant near Hartsfield-Jackson’s international terminal off I-75 in mid-January, a long-awaited milestone.

The building is “the first really Class A+ headquarters to have been built in the south metro for quite some time,” said Porsche general counsel Joe Folz, adding that a few of the company’s employees have relocated to the southside.

“A lot of people were waiting on Porsche to kind of kickstart the whole [aerotropolis] concept,” said Hapeville Mayor Alan Hallman, whose city sits right next to the Porsche site. “In many ways, I think Porsche is kind of a trailblazer in the aerotropolis movement to say, ‘Don’t be scared of the Southside.’”

While Porsche has planted its flag on the east side of the airport, Hartsfield-Jackson is launching its own effort to build what airport manager Miguel Southwell calls an “airport city” — a high-end four-star 300-room hotel, Class A office space and a travel plaza, all right next to the domestic terminal.

The airport is seeking proposals from companies that want to be pre-qualified to compete for the contract, a process that will give an indication of the viability of the full development.

Gateway Center, opened in 2009 on the west side of the airport, also fits with the aerotropolis concept. Located next to the Georgia International Convention Center, it is connected to the airport via the free SkyTrain people-mover and now includes an office building and Marriott and SpringHill Suites hotels. A third hotel, a Renaissance, is planned to open in 2016.

“What’s happening is companies have discovered that they can fly people in, hop on the little train and be at a meeting” at the hotel, Groome said.

Blueprint coming

Meanwhile, the Atlanta Regional Commission is about to sign a contract with Jacobs Engineering as the lead consultant to develop an Atlanta Aerotropolis Blueprint, a $200,000 ARC-funded strategic plan for the area to be completed by the end of this year.

Another effort is underway to improve the appearance and cohesiveness of the airport area with improvements like better landscaping and signs, through a new Airport West Community Improvement District.

Such efforts aim for better coordination among property owners and local governments, to address what Groome said is one of the key barriers to the aerotropolis idea.

“Why is this area not like DFW? Why is it not like Tampa where there’s tons of offices and hotels around? Why does it not work?” Groome said. In the area around Hartsfield-Jackson, “you’ve got all these different political issues and city issues,” he said. But the aerotropolis alliance “brings more attention, it helps connect people.”

The airport has long spurred industrial development from logistics and customs brokers — also part of an aerotropolis. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed aims to boost the airport’s air cargo capabilities, which can drive jobs and more commerce, and the airport last week hosted an information session for contractors interested in building a new air cargo building at Hartsfield-Jackson.

But with Porsche’s sleek headquarters and upscale clientele “it is a different flavor,” Hallman said.

“The activities that are beginning to happen now are a culmination of decades of dreams and plans,” Hallman said. “I ride by Porsche and I kind of shake my head sometimes and just go, ‘Is this a dream? It’s really there’. It’s one of those things that you never really thought would happen.”

He said building permits are starting to increase and he expects new housing to come in.

While those who can afford it often prefer to live farther away from an airport to avoid the noise of large jets overhead, some newer airport developments such as offices and hotels at the Gateway Center use better soundproofing and thicker windows to muffle the noise.

“It used to be that people avoided airports, but now increasingly, executives and high-income people are dependent on them, and time is a critical factor,” Kasarda said.

Dan Reuter, manager of community development for the ARC, believes the airport area could attract the types of businesses and buildings that are in the Perimeter area, with mid-rise office buildings, parking decks and Class A office space.

But negative associations with airport areas will likely continue to be one of the biggest challenges .

“To some degree it has to do with the noise of the airplanes, to some degree it has to do with historical underpinnings to what we think belongs in the area around an airport,” Reuter said. “What we’re trying to do is change that mindset.”

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