When The Eastern on Memorial Drive, Atlanta’s newest music hall, opened Sept. 1 with a show by local hero Big Boi, it seemed there was a shout of relief heard from Reynoldstown to Alpharetta.
The Eastern’s patrons had waited a long time for a night out. “I haven’t seen anything since 2020,” said Austin McLendon, 30, of Buckhead, sitting at a table in the Eastern’s rooftop bar, with its green tile and surrealistic grass-covered wall. After a year and a half of a pandemic dry spell, plenty of OutKast and Big Boi fans were ready to unleash.
But the unveiling of the Eastern marks the payoff from an even longer wait that began in 2015 amid the weeds, broken glass and graffiti of the industrial eyesore that was the Atlanta Dairies.
David Cochran, CEO and president of Paces Properties, which turned the empty factories of Krog Street into the pot of gold that is the Krog Street Market, thought on several occasions that his group’s effort to work that same magic at the Atlanta Dairies was going to fail.
Excavation at the site revealed unpleasant surprises of buried junk. Tenants were slow to sign up and lenders weren’t impressed. “Standing there, multiple times, I had to look in the mirror and say ‘I did something wrong,’” said Cochran.
Scott Orvold and Alan Sher, principals at Zero Mile, which built the hulking, metal-clad Eastern, also went through a dark night of the soul. On top of the challenges of building a new $17 million music venue in an era when few new halls are under construction, Zero Mile saw its plans slowed when the COVID-19 pandemic rolled over them like an Indiana Jones-sized boulder.
“We really lost our industry for a year and a half,” said Orvold, president of Zero Mile. “It’s a tough time to be building a club.”
But during the venue’s inaugural show those worries seemed to evaporate as a head-flattening bass line bounced off the polished concrete floor and Big Boi voiced the proud “So Fresh, So Clean.”
A wasteland redeveloped
Atlanta Dairies was a cooperative of dairy farmers established in the 1940s. In 1993 the European dairy giant Parmalat bought the cooperative, and the 11-acre Memorial Drive facility. Parmalat imploded in 2004 with an Enron-level financial meltdown.
The final nail in the coffin occurred in 2008. The March 14 tornado that tore windows out of the Westin Peachtree Plaza and threatened the SEC basketball tournament, moved east and yanked the roofs off the metal buildings on the Atlanta Dairies site, spelling the end of operations there.
Around 2015 Paces Properties purchased the lot and the abandoned buildings. That year Paces announced plans to turn the Dairies property into a mixed-use development with an industrial flair, following the same game plan that created the successful Krog Street Market.
This time, however, Paces would secure a live-music venue as an anchor tenant. “Krog Street was all about food, and this is all about night-life,” said Orvold.
The Masquerade, the North Avenue landmark club famous for punk, metal and harder-edged music, had just lost its lease. Members of the development team at Paces floated the music venue idea at a Reynoldstown community meeting and got a positive reception.
Then Paces began searching for a partner. Encountering the music industry was an eye-opener for Cochran. “It’s an extraordinarily harsh business.”
Among the cut-throat competitors, he said, Zero Mile seemed reliable. “I always thought they were shooting straight.”
From their experience owning the Georgia Theater in Athens, Terminal West in the King Plow development and the Variety Playhouse in Little Five Points, Zero Mile knew well the Eastern’s potential impact.
Music venue as anchor tenant
With 150 shows a year and a 2,200-capacity venue, “we could predict with accuracy how many people we were going to drive through the venue on an annual basis,” said Orvold.
Those visitors would nourish the other businesses at the Dairies. Concert goers might stop for a doppelbock at Three Taverns Imaginarium, or a mushroom empanada at WonderKid. “If that happens on a 10 percent or a 2 percent basis, it’s a win for us,” said Cochran.
Zero Mile partnered with AEG Presents, one of the biggest live-music companies in the U.S., and hired Perkins+Will, the architecture firm that also designed renovations at the other Zero Mile properties.
Though they would be building on a historic site, this would be the first time Zero Mile created a venue from scratch.
Hundreds of decisions would be theirs to make, which is liberating but challenging. “Having a blank canvas can be damn hard,” said Sher, vice president of operations.
Creating a venue that would hold 2,200 on a small, oddly-shaped 15,000-square-foot footprint, and pursuing a construction project in tight quarters, was the biggest challenge said lead architect Chris Loyal.
Zero Mile solved the problem by negotiating additional air space with Paces, allowing the upper floors of the Eastern to expand beyond the footprint and overhang parts of the walkways below.
The nearest comparable mid-sized room is the 2,600-capacity Tabernacle in downtown Atlanta, but Orvold isn’t concerned about the competition. “The way the music scene is growing here, there’s probably enough meat on the bone for us to both exist,” he said.
At the Eastern there are two bars on every level, six in all, and sightlines are good from all six. Patrons of the rooftop bar can see the performers on a large video screen while ordering from a full-service kitchen.
The rooftop is equipped with a small stage where Zero Mile also plans more modest shows under a permanent metal canopy. “This still feels like it’s outdoors, but there’s more protection from the weather,” said Sher.
In addition to serving as an economic engine for the Dairies, the Eastern stands as a buffer between the development and two noisy neighbors to the south: traffic on I-20 and a city maintenance facility.
Upcoming shows include Chapel Hill, North Carolina band the Connells (Sept. 18), latter-day Grateful Dead keyboardist Bruce Hornsby (Sept. 23) and college radio faves Toad the Wet Sprocket (Oct. 9).
While there are 550 parking spots available to Eastern customers in the deck that serves the development, the owners expect to see ride-share and bicycle traffic, and even pedestrian arrivals from the nearby Beltline, “which we’ve never seen (before) in Atlanta,” said Orvold. “We saw it happening for Big Boi and (Athens band) Futurebirds.”
Indeed, David Pruitt, 33, an electrical engineer from Glenwood Park, just south of the Dairies, has made the trek on foot, though not on this particular night.
“I love this rooftop,” said Pruitt, sipping a beverage with fellow engineer Hector Colon, as Big Boi’s opening act played below. “It’s a nice area not to bump into people.”
Both were happy to be out on the town, christening a new venue, and happy about the Eastern’s requirement that patrons be vaccinated or show a negative COVID-19 test.
Said Colon, 34, a computer engineer who lives in the Sweet Auburn area, “I’m ready to get out and experience the world.”