In Atlanta’s Grove Park, cautious optimism about Microsoft’s big plans

Genia Billingsley and her mother Thelma take a walk near the Quarry Yards development in Atlanta's Grove Park neighborhood. Microsoft plans to bring thousands of jobs to a new campus there. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Genia Billingsley and her mother Thelma take a walk near the Quarry Yards development in Atlanta's Grove Park neighborhood. Microsoft plans to bring thousands of jobs to a new campus there. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

‘It’s a little nerve-wracking, because something this big, you have to get it right.’

Genia Billingsley has always called Grove Park home. She and her family moved to the Westside Atlanta neighborhood when she was 2, and she has memories of walking to school with her siblings and neighbors along Grove Park’s quiet, tree-lined streets. But Billingsley moved out of the neighborhood as a young adult, partly because there was nowhere to work close to home.

“That wasn’t an option for me in my 20s and 30s,” said Billingsley, who is now 55 and moved back to Grove Park a few years ago to be closer to her mother. “It makes a stronger community if you can work and go to school in your neighborhood.”

A wave of new attention and investment in Grove Park — marked most recently by Microsoft’s announcement that it is building a campus there — could broaden opportunities for the next generation of residents. But it also threatens to alter the character of a historic and predominantly Black community already facing the pressures of gentrification.

Microsoft, one of the world’s largest companies, announced last month its plans to bring thousands of tech jobs to 70 acres of land it bought at the stalled Quarry Yards development and an additional 20 acres near the Bankhead MARTA station. It plans to set aside a quarter of the development for affordable housing and other community services.

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Microsoft paid roughly $150 million to purchase the land, and while there’s no timeline or specifics for what the future campus might look like, it is expected to mark a massive investment in a largely low-income area that is now rapidly developing.

Within Grove Park, the Microsoft news was met with optimism, hope and a bit of skepticism from residents like Billingsley. Many are supportive of Microsoft’s promises to build affordable housing and bring much-needed resources like a grocery store or pharmacy to the neighborhood. But they’ll be watching closely to ensure Microsoft follows through on those promises.

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One of Grove Park's tree-lined neighborhood streets. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

One of Grove Park's tree-lined neighborhood streets. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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One of Grove Park's tree-lined neighborhood streets. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“I’m excited for what this could mean for the community, what this could mean for education, what this could mean for jobs,” said Jah Ramsey, who bought a house in Grove Park three years ago and is a member of the local neighborhood association. “At the same time, it’s a little nerve-wracking, because something this big, you have to get it right.”

Microsoft said it plans to work closely with local groups and listen to the residents’ needs to ultimately make a positive impact. The company is also looking into partnering with Atlanta Public Schools to expand its tech skilling programs, and plans to support Atlanta’s historically Black colleges and universities.

“We have to engage the community, and this is step one,” Mike Lawings, Microsoft’s regional director of real estate and facilities in the Americas, told over 100 residents during a virtual Grove Park Neighborhood Association meeting Wednesday night. “It’s a community-first approach that we’re taking.”

Microsoft’s announcement comes ahead of the eventual opening of Atlanta’s Westside Park, located just north of the neighborhood, which will become Atlanta’s largest planned greenspace when it opens this year. Worries that investors would rush to buy up properties and build new luxury homes prompted the city to put a moratorium on new construction permits in areas around the new park.

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Some residents of the modest neighborhood wonder how long they’ll be able to afford being the neighbor of a tech giant and a large new park. New development projects in low-income communities across the city have accelerated the forces of gentrification in recent years, pushing out longtime residents. This is especially common on the Westside, as construction continues on the Beltline and property taxes rise. Less than a mile down the road from Grove Park, where the typical home value is about $220,000, new townhomes are going for more than half a million dollars.

“I do know there are some people who really are worried. They were worried when the Westside Park came in, and this has heightened it. It’s making people uneasy,” Billingsley said of the Microsoft announcement. Personally, she likes the idea, “especially if they honor their commitment to what they said they were going to do.”

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Genia Billingsley and her mother talk as they take a walk on the Proctor Creek Greenway in Grove Park. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Genia Billingsley and her mother talk as they take a walk on the Proctor Creek Greenway in Grove Park. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Genia Billingsley and her mother talk as they take a walk on the Proctor Creek Greenway in Grove Park. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Brandon Pierre-Thomas, the president of the Grove Park Neighborhood Association, said he is encouraged based on what he has heard from Microsoft since the news became public.

“All signs that I have gotten since the announcement, since the cloak of secrecy has come down, is that Microsoft is willing, able and interested in engaging the community before it makes any critical decisions,” Pierre-Thomas said.

So far, Microsoft has provided few specifics on what the 90-acre site could look like. Company leaders said they want to hear what neighbors would like to see before crafting a master plan later this year for what the project will entail.

One especially critical area is affordable housing. The city typically defines affordable housing as homes that are affordable to people making 60% to 80% of the area median income, with an “affordable” one-bedroom apartment costing between $930 and $1,240 in monthly rent. Those rents wouldn’t be feasible for many who currently live in the nearby Westside neighborhoods, said Joan Vernon, former neighborhood association president in English Avenue who has worked as a community advocate to shape several large developments.

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An aerial photograph shows the Grove Park neighborhood and some of the land that is set to become a new Microsoft campus. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

An aerial photograph shows the Grove Park neighborhood and some of the land that is set to become a new Microsoft campus. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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An aerial photograph shows the Grove Park neighborhood and some of the land that is set to become a new Microsoft campus. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Community leaders said they hope Microsoft tailors rent prices for current residents, many of whom make between 30% to 50% of the area median income in metro Atlanta, which is $82,700 for a family of four. Grove Park’s median annual household income is far less, about $24,000.

“There’s a fine line with any development,” Vernon said. “Either you’re going to positively transform the community and maintain a good image, or it will spill over into something that was so transformative the community loses its identity.”

Many hope the Microsoft campus includes a grocery store, something the neighborhood currently lacks. With the new Westside Park and Microsoft on the way, “hopefully we’ll be able to get basic amenities” after decades of underinvestment, Ramsey said.

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Microsoft has begun meeting with stakeholders in Grove Park. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Microsoft has begun meeting with stakeholders in Grove Park. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Microsoft has begun meeting with stakeholders in Grove Park. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“We’re not even talking about fancy things like a dog spa or breweries,” he said. “We’re talking about a post office, banks, a grocery store.”

The Grove Park Foundation, a community revitalization nonprofit, is one of several local groups that Microsoft is talking to while coming up with its plans for the Quarry Yards site. Debra Edelson, the group’s executive director, said there is no playbook for how an investment as big as Microsoft’s could impact a neighborhood like Grove Park.

“We’ve never done this before. And to do this we really have to be partners,” she said. “This is going to be a journey together where everyone’s going to have to be really honest and really listening — from both sides.”


THE STORY SO FAR:

The 70-acre Quarry Yards site is one of the city’s largest, relatively untouched properties. Last fall, an investor group that included former Atlanta Braves slugger Mark Teixeira sold the land to a buyer affiliated with Microsoft for $127 million. Microsoft acquired another roughly 20 acres of land near the Bankhead MARTA station for $22.5 million last December. On Feb. 11, Microsoft publicly announced its plans to build a campus there.