Massive development with ‘organic, gritty aesthetic’ expands footprint on Westside

Developer: ‘This is the opposite of a perfectly manicured, exclusive space’

Credit: Courtesy/Lincoln Property Company

Credit: Courtesy/Lincoln Property Company

Plans for a massive mixed-use complex in the heart of Atlanta’s Westside are expanding.

Construction is already underway at the Echo Street West project in the historic English Avenue neighborhood. It is expected to encompass an entire city block straddling the Westside Beltline Connector trail, which will connect downtown to the main Westside trail.

“This is where the Westside’s renaissance begins today,” a polished video on the development’s website states.

Across Atlanta, new, upscale development in historically low-income areas like the Westside has accelerated fears of gentrification and the displacement of longtime residents. To counter those worries, developers at Lincoln Property Company, the firm behind Echo Street West, are casting the project as one with a “organic, gritty aesthetic” that doesn’t disturb the character of the neighborhood.

“This is the opposite of a perfectly manicured, exclusive space,” Tony Bartlett, the executive vice president at Lincoln, said in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We will be successful if we create a place that feels approachable to all who want to come here, whether it’s to work, live, shop, dine or just hang out and people watch.”

The first phase of the development will bring 300,000 square feet of office space, 50,000 square feet of stores and restaurants, about 300 apartments and 3.4 acres of outdoor entertainment and greenspace to the area. The developers recently bought an extra acre of land for the project, bringing the total to 19 acres, according to Lincoln.

The project, expected to cost more than $250 million, could be an economic catalyst for the Westside, an area that has historically suffered from a lack of investment and struggled with crime. In August, the Fulton County Development Authority approved a tax break for the project worth $10.3 million over 10 years, the AJC reported.

As home values rise in the area, the Echo Street West development puts a spotlight on the rapidly changing nature of the Westside and the challenges it faces surrounding affordability.

Joan Vernon, the former president of the English Avenue Neighborhood Association, said the project is one of the most significant to come to the neighborhood in years. She welcomes community reinvestment, but is aware of the impacts gentrification can have.

“The community needs reinvestment to thrive. We just don’t want the culture of the community and the people of the community to be washed out with that,” Vernon said. She worked with Lincoln to come up with a Community Benefits Agreement for the project, ensuring the developer will work to help the neighborhood and residents.

The Atlanta Regional Commission named English Avenue among the neighborhoods in the city most vulnerable to gentrification, based on its residents’ income and the number of renters.

Credit: Courtesy/Lincoln Property Company

Credit: Courtesy/Lincoln Property Company

The median household income in English Avenue was about $24,000 in 2018, less than half of the median income for the city as a whole. Over three-quarters of its residents are Black, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

It’s also not far from the new Westside Park, where the city implemented a moratorium on new development designed to prevent real estate speculation and preserve affordable housing.

English Avenue, which is outside the bounds of the moratorium, is one of the neighborhoods targeted by the Westside Future Fund, a nonprofit that promotes and builds new affordable housing in communities facing gentrification.

Vernon said the developers at Lincoln have been open to feedback from neighborhood leaders and lauded them for being “very respectful of the community in a lot of ways,” from the design of the site to creating opportunities for local residents.

Bartlett said the neighborhood has been historically disconnected from Midtown and other neighborhoods, “creating a divide in opportunity, resources and growth.”

Credit: Courtesy/Lincoln Property Company

Credit: Courtesy/Lincoln Property Company

“Echo Street West will spur investment in the area, and we are dedicated to collaborating with the local community to do this in a way that will benefit both existing residents and future generations,” he said.

Developers have said they will exceed the city’s guideline for 15% of units to be affordable. Of the 292 apartment units, 20% of them ― about 60 ― will be priced as “affordable” for people who make less than 80% of the area median income. According to the city’s guidelines, monthly rent for those apartments should cost less than about $1,200 for a one-bedroom unit.

Vernon said she hopes developments like Echo Street West do not change the character of her neighborhood, which is home to many families and legacy residents — “people who have been longtime residents of Atlanta, that know the true Atlanta history and culture,” Vernon said.

“The Westside is the sauce of Atlanta ... The concentration of the coolness of Atlanta,” she said.

This spring, Echo Street West plans to open the Guardian Works event venue and Guardian Studios for artists and makers, plus an open-air bar and dining space. The rest of the project is expected to be developed in phases over the next five to seven years.