Welcome to the ‘Upper Westside’: Developers transform industrial buildings under new nickname

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

On the edge of Buckhead and along the Chattahoochee River, northwest Atlanta’s neighborhoods were once defined by sprawling rail yards and industrial warehouses. Now, you’re more likely to stumble upon a brewery or construction for new housing.

It marks a shift happening along Marietta Boulevard, Chattahoochee Avenue and other northwest Atlanta corridors. As developers transform land that was once vacant or industrial into commercial or residential uses, residents in neighborhoods like Blandtown, Bolton and Underwood Hills are beginning to notice the impacts.

The burst in new development has also popularized a new moniker for the area: the “Upper Westside.” The term has been used sporadically by the city and community over the years, but is entering the mainstream now as developers use it to brand new projects. While many agree “Upper Westside” is a good geographic descriptor, some worry the term could erase the identities of the area’s neighborhoods, defining them instead by the new shopping centers and luxury apartments.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“It seems sort of pretentious, and it came about quite recently,” said Jim Martin, who chairs the local Neighborhood Planning Unit, which sees zoning cases before they go to the City Council. “The neighborhoods have their own names. I don’t know if we need a brand name for the area.”

Still, Martin said he and other residents in the racially diverse, middle-class neighborhoods are generally in favor of the new developments, though some have concerns about housing affordability and the rising cost of living. Signs advertising new luxury apartment complexes have become a common sight, while longtime homeowners are finding revitalization can come with a cost — a higher property tax bill.

“Economic development has definitely kicked off,” said Councilman Dustin Hillis, who represents the area, which he described as “rapidly changing.” Off the top of his head, he named several recent zoning cases around Marietta Boulevard that will turn old industrial sites into mixed-use developments, including a proposed “total transformation” of Huff Road in Blandtown.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

‘Filling a void’

Among improvements already there, one of the most significant is known as Moores Mill Center on the north end of Marietta Boulevard, at its intersection with Bolton and Moores Mill roads. The firm Edens redeveloped a run-down shopping center and opened a new Publix there in 2017.

“It was really filling a void for some quality retail in this corridor,” said Herbert Ames, the senior vice president for southeast development for Edens. Next to the Publix, Crescent Communities built over 300 luxury apartments in a complex called “Novel Upper Westside,” which recently welcomed its first residents.

Further south at The Works, which sits near train tracks and across from a Top Golf on Chattahoochee Avenue, developers from Selig Enterprises, which owns 80 acres of land there, are converting old warehouses into a mixed-use district with office space, retail stores, a brewery and a food hall that’s set to open in the next few months.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The land was once used for a variety of industrial purposes, from cardboard manufacturing to pen-making, and included a rail spur that jutted off from the main rail line. After the food hall and more of the businesses open, The Works will be a “game-changer” in the area, said Malloy Peterson, the senior vice president of development at Selig. They plan to start work next year on a high-end apartment complex with 300 units.

Residents are pretty excited about all the new development, especially the new food options, said Heather Sheets, the outgoing president of the Underwood Hills Neighborhood Association, which is where The Works is located. Sheets said the developers have given presentations to neighbors to get feedback on plans for The Works, which residents appreciated. But Sheets has one regret from those meetings.

“We didn’t talk about affordable housing, but we should have,” she said. “We should have asked what their affordable housing plans are.”

Right now, Selig does not have any plans to discount any of the luxury units in the first batch of housing to be more affordable, Peterson said, though that could change in the future. Monthly rents are expected to start at $1,500.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Throughout most of Atlanta, pricing decisions are largely left up to developers.

The city requires companies building apartments within a half-mile of the Beltline to set aside a certain percentage of units as “affordable” for low-income renters: considered about $1,240 per month for a one-bedroom apartment. The Works, along with much of the Upper Westside, is just outside of that boundary, so they are not held to those affordable housing mandates.

At the five-story Novel Upper Westside apartments, located next to the Publix shopping center, studios and one-bedrooms cost about $1,300 monthly, and two-bedrooms are about $2,100. Developers don’t have plans to include any workforce or affordable units. The average rent in Atlanta is more than $1,400, according to RentCafe.

In the nearby residential neighborhoods, single-family home prices are following a similar pattern to the rest of Atlanta: They’re going up. The typical value of a home in Bolton, for example, is nearly $400,000, up from $250,000 just five years ago, according to Zillow.

Martin, the NPU chair, said many residents are “by and large ... happy that their home values are going up" because of the growing popularity of the area. But he and other neighborhood leaders have heard concerns from some seniors who have recently seen a jump in their property taxes.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“I think a lot of people are getting the assessments from the tax assessor, and they’re reacting really negatively to what they’re seeing,” Sheets said. “People are frustrated with the potential increases.”

Rising property taxes have long been a source of frustration for Atlanta residents, and potential solutions to address them are varied. In October, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced the city was creating a $4.6 million Anti-Displacement Program to help legacy residents pay their property taxes.

Old warehouses, new nickname

The neighborhoods that make up the area were founded in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and many residents worked at the large railyards that led into downtown Atlanta. Eventually, the demographic shifted from more blue collar to white collar, as single-family homes filled up the once-rural neighborhoods.

The industrial presence on the larger corridors remained a constant, though. Two train yards are still in operation, as well as several water plants. Now, as more residential and commercial developers have entered the market, the new nickname “Upper Westside” has been branded on the side of apartment buildings and on new murals at shopping centers.

One of the first times the moniker was used publicly was in the mid-2000s, when the city of Atlanta’s planning department did a study on the future of the “Upper Westside.” Four years ago, the Upper Westside Improvement District was formed.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Kyle Brock, one of the developers on the new Novel apartments, said the name was not widely used when they were first planning the complex. But now, he said, it’s more popular and could help people locate the area easier. Collectively, Brock said, it “didn’t really have an identity prior to that branding.”

Critics like Martin worry the term could erase the history and character of the neighborhoods that make up the “Upper Westside” at the expense of marketing, similar to how the term “West Midtown” is often used to refer to parts of Blandtown and Home Park.

"I hate to think that my neighborhood is being defined by developers rather than the people who live here,” said Martin, who lives in Berkeley Park.

For Tari Linnear, who has lived just off Marietta Boulevard since 2001, the mention of the term “Upper Westside” elicits a slight eye roll — “It’s still Atlanta,” she reminds herself. She now lives across from the new “Westside Village” shopping center, which is home to a Ted’s Montana Grill, a juice bar and yoga studio. The revitalization of the area, though, has been “a long time coming,” Linnear said. “We’ve been promised a lot of this for a very long time.”