May 13, 2014 Atlanta - Portrait of Georgia State University President Mark Becker at his office on Tuesday, May 13, 2014. Within the past 16 years, Georgia State University has completed projects equal to more than half the size of the Mall of Georgia, not including student housing and sports fields, turning a commuter school into a residential campus. Now president Mark Becker and a development team want to convert 77 acres of Turner Field and its parking lots into a $300 million project that will extend the university’s reach. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: Hyosub Shin
Photo: Hyosub Shin

Is Georgia State Downtown Atlanta’s savior?

Georgia State University President Mark Becker’s sparse Auburn Avenue office peers out over dorms and classrooms the school stitched together from overgrown lots and aging skyscrapers as law, accounting and other white collar firms fled downtown.

Within the past 16 years, the college has completed projects equal to more than half the size of the Mall of Georgia, not including student housing and sports fields, turning a commuter school into a residential campus.

Now he and a development team want to convert 77 acres of Turner Field and its parking lots into a $300 million project that will extend the university’s reach. If they do, they could create a new downtown neighborhood in a stretch of the city abused by decades of broken promises and indifference.

Becker believes the timing is right.

He swivels in his chair, pointing rapid-fire from window to window in the direction of the future $1.3 billion Falcons stadium, the nearly complete National Center for Civil and Human Rights and other projects either already under construction or well into the planning stages.

A city that once was “at a standstill,” Becker said, “now has its legs back underneath it.”

It’s a far different picture from what Becker saw when he arrived at Georgia State amid a recession that held Atlanta in a chokehold.

“I see a kind of economic activity and vitality that says Atlanta is coming back strong,” he said.

Georgia State’s growth has been so prolific under Becker and his predecessor Carl Patton that when any thorny downtown real estate problem pops up, Georgia State is often the solution.

“I get visited by everybody,” Becker said. “But we’ve turned down much more than we’ve done.”

So when the Braves shocked Atlanta last fall by announcing their move to Cobb, eyes turned instinctively to Becker’s fifth-floor office. In fact, Becker got a call from former Invest Atlanta CEO Brian McGowan the day the Braves said they were leaving.

“They have already proven they can be successful in an urban environment,” said Ken Ashley, an executive director in Atlanta for real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield.

For Becker, the decision to expand the university to the Turner Field communities was years in the making. After becoming president in 2009, he participated in a task force focused on Underground Atlanta, which the city now plans to sell. (Becker said purchasing the property isn’t on his radar.)

Through those meetings, Becker learned downtown residents wanted more retail outlets close to home. Ever since, Becker believed Georgia State could help. But it wasn’t until the Braves decided to move to Cobb, and a team from the Atlanta-based Carter development group came calling, that Becker thought the university could do something so bold.

“The light bulbs just started popping off,” he said.

Georgia State, Carter and Columbia Residential envision revamping the The Ted and its parking lots into a 30,000-seat football, soccer and track-and-field stadium; a baseball field that preserves the Hank Aaron 715th home-run tribute wall; and a mix of shops, restaurants, a grocery store, student housing, apartments and single-family homes.

Georgia State would take up about 30 to 40 percent of the site. The developers would bankroll and oversee much of the stores and homes.

By the numbers

Becker is a straight-shooting statistician who has already overseen one of the university’s largest expansions in its 101-year history.

Almost half of the 1 million square feet of development over the past 16 years has come on Becker’s watch. A new law school building set for completion next summer will add another 200,000 square feet.

He won’t take on every eyesore. The former statistics professor knows how to run the numbers and what properties have the best odds of gelling with his campus. The goal is to make Georgia State a pre-eminent public university in the urban heart of the city, he said.

Block by block, Georgia State’s investment has reshaped downtown. It’s a slow march. But blight and decay have receded along Piedmont Avenue, replaced by dorms, private apartments, shops and small businesses. Along the way Becker has shared some ideas with downtown’s other major development driver, Mayor Kasim Reed. The two have a good relationship, attend some of the same events, but don’t meet and talk on a regular basis, the president said.

Now, the 55-year-old Becker wants to lead the school into what could be its ultimate metamorphosis.

Scott Taylor, president of Carter, called Becker in early January. Taylor was not the only developer to contact Georgia State’s leader. But Taylor is savvy enough to lock down as a partner downtown’s real estate catalyst. In a Jan. 9, meeting, Taylor laid out for Becker a vision similar to what became public last week.

“This plan seemed to resonate with him,” Taylor said.

Carter has built university-oriented student housing at Ole Miss and Michigan and has overseen urban infill across the Southeast. It’s also behind The Banks, an 18-acre mixed-use development on the Ohio River between two pro sports stadiums in Cincinnati.

Becker was intrigued.

The college had been looking for a way to bring its athletic programs from near Decatur closer to the downtown campus. This project, with its large pieces of available land, plays well into that plan. “We know what our goals are. We can anticipate what facilities we will need for the next 10 years,” Becker said. “The trick is matching that with opportunities.”

When it comes to big projects, he has experience. He was part of the team at the University of South Carolina that adopted the Innovista plan in Columbia, S.C., in 2005 in conjunction with the city.

The plan leveraged USC to drive economic development around a $140 million research complex that would remake a downtrodden portion of downtown Columbia into a thriving area with housing, retail and academic components.

Four buildings were planned, including two with private funds and two with public funds, according to South Carolina’s The State newspaper. But plans hit a snag during the recession. The two public academic buildings are just now under construction; the private buildings were never built.

Having that kind of hard-earned knowledge will serve Becker well with the Turner Field project, said Bob Coble, Columbia’s mayor during the Innovista launch.

Becker “will see all the problems, will avoid all the pitfalls that we experienced,” Coble said.

The somewhat stoic Georgia State president is quick to draw distance between the Columbia project and the one he hopes will emerge south of I-20, which could be GSU’s first blank slate.

“The Turner Field opportunity is much more about what I’ve learned in the five-plus years I’ve been at GSU,” he said.

Ashley, the Cushman & Wakefield executive, said an influx of students will do “amazing things” for the Turner Field communities. “When the Braves aren’t playing, the area is a people desert.”

Promises made but not kept

Winning over the stadium neighborhoods might be the biggest challenge for any party who takes over Turner Field.

City leaders have promised for 50 years that stadiums would bring development to neighborhoods such as Summerhill and Peoplestown. But for a host of reasons, the dreams always crumbled.

The original Atlanta Stadium, built in the 1960s, displaced families and brought only menial jobs and investment, not to mention resentment from the largely black communities. In 1996 a stadium for the Summer Olympics was built just south of Atlanta Stadium. And in 1997, when Olympic Stadium became Turner Field and Atlanta Stadium became a pile of rubble destined as a future parking lot, the neighborhoods were promised a vibrant hub of activity. Instead, they got some townhouses and Fanplex, an entertainment zone that became a regional punchline.

State Rep. Margaret Kaiser, D-Atlanta, who lives in Grant Park and represents many of the neighborhoods in The Ted’s shadow, said her constituents are generally skeptical because “they have been dumped on for so long.”

But she called Georgia State “a fantastic neighbor” and said the university and developers’ plans show promise. The neighborhoods want places to eat and shop, and Kaiser said she hopes the city gives residents a seat at the table for any redevelopment talk.

Columbia Residential CEO Noel Khalil said even the best of plans can be a tough sell to residents wary of new pitches. That’s why, he said, he has already met with a handful of neighborhood leaders.

“This is not a slam-dunk to the community,” said Khalil, a longtime developer in that part of town. “But I can tell you their immediate reaction to us was, ‘Wow, you guys came to us. You spoke to us. You showed us respect.’”

Which way forward?

Now Georgia State, like the rest of the Atlanta, must play the waiting game. Atlanta officials are loath to sell Turner Field until the Braves announce they won’t renew their lease when it expires in 2016.

In the meantime, Mayor Reed, who was briefed on the Georgia State plan before it went public last week, is entertaining suitors interested in purchasing the property. Details about Georgia State’s competition emerged last week, revealing that Reed has been approached by an Abu Dhabi-based sovereign wealth fund with ties to the gaming industry, a California-based industrial developer that also has done casinos, and a Nevada firm.

Reed, who has proclaimed he’ll turn Turner Field into “one of the largest developments for middle-class people that the city has ever had,” stopped short of endorsing any of the offers now on the table.

Still, his enthusiasm for Georgia State was clear in a recent interview.

“That’s a pretty significant investment, and hopefully everyone would want that for the city of Atlanta,” he said.

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