Developer David Marvin bet on downtown Atlanta when others wouldn’t

In the late 90s, after the heady days of the Summer Olympics had faded, downtown Atlanta was perceived by many in the development community as crime-ridden, dirty and overrun with homeless.

While most of the big warehouses that covered the landscape had been demolished to make way for Centennial Olympic Park, other low-slung buildings along Marietta Street remained empty after the Games. The gravel lots that had been temporarily covered with gleaming tents touting big sports brands during the Olympics returned to their original use parking for office workers and the occassional weekend concert.

The founder and president of Legacy Ventures, an Atlanta development company, opened Embassy Suites next to Centennial Olympic Park in 1999, a time when few stuck around downtown after 6 p.m.

He gambled that Centennial Olympic Park, with its acres of landscaped gardens, gushing fountain of rings and cascading waterfalls, would one day be a draw for development and he wanted to get in while land was cheap and available.

Now, nearly two decades later, Centennial is the epicenter of Atlanta’s tourism and convention business through attractions such as the Georgia Aquarium and the 20-story SkyView Atlanta Ferris wheel and many credit the park with downtown’s burgeoning revival.

In a question-and-answer interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Marvin talks about the chance his company took building downtown and the impact the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium could have on the area’s future.

AJC: Why did you choose to build downtown when so many others didn't?

Marvin: We saw an opportunity to purchase land adjacent to what was proposed as Centennial Olympic Park. We were also from out of town. I arrived here from California in 1993, and I think in some measure it helped that we were naive to that everybody else thought downtown Atlanta was no good.

AJC: How were you able to convince Embassy Suites to locate in the area?

Marvin: We thought there were really terrific core demand generators for development downtown, specifically hotels. The park also replaced 21 acres of blight downtown. Our thesis was we would siphon off some of the business that was coming downtown but seeking accommodations in Buckhead.

AJC: Was it tough to find lenders for an area that many perceived as sketchy?

Marvin: As controversial as the Campbell administration was, (former Atlanta Mayor) Bill Campbell thought it was a good idea to support our efforts so the Atlanta Development Authority helped us with enterprise zone status, which abated some real estate taxes over time. We were unsuccessful in finding local lenders, so we actually found our equity partner in China. Our mezzanine lender was out of Kuwait. It was a major effort and it took four years to get it done from when we purchased the property in 1994.

AJC: You also built Centennial Park West condominiums next to Embassy Suites right afterwards. If building a hotel was risky at that time, your colleagues must have thought you were bonkers for building residential?

Marvin: We really emphasized the connection to Embassy Suites, which was next door, and Ruth Chris Steakhouse, which was in the hotel. We emphasized that the services (such as concierge, parking and catering) could be extended to the residents. It was the first upscale multi-family housing project downtown. There was a slice of the population that had strong interest. Most homes we sold as primary residences, including the head of Georgia State Carl Patton, senior executives from CNN and people who wanted easy access to (Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport). But there also buyers who had their primary residence in North Fulton and wanted a place in town. I did the unthinkable, I moved in myself.

AJC: For many Centennial Olympic Park came into its own with the opening of the Georgia Aquarium in 2005. How did that change the area?

Marvin: When the aquarium opened our businesses and occupancy at the Embassy Suites jumped by 15 percent. We went from being a five-day a week hotel to a seven-day a week hotel. The aquarium effectively solidified Centennial Park as a tourist destination and was a catalyst for what followed, including the World of Coca-Cola, SkyView Atlanta and the College Football Hall of Fame.

AJC: You have launched a number of restaurants around Centennial Olympic Park, such as Stats, Der Biergarten and Max's Coal Oven Pizza. What's the idea behind that?

Marvin: We thought perhaps a restaurant row would work because of the anticipated traffic coming from the Georgia Aquarium. We thought they might come here the way people go to Howell Mill or Huff Road, even though at the time they didn't have a lot of residential around them either. That was a somewhat flawed business plan. Downtown is highly variable in its demand. You have strong daytime demand because of downtown workers, but the residential is very slow. It has worked out in the end, but it has taken some time.

AJC: The Mercedes-Benz Stadium isn't adding a new attraction since it's replacing an existing football stadium, the Georgia Dome. So do you think it will have an impact on momentum downtown?

Marvin: The visionary we are looking to now is Arthur Blank (owner of the Atlanta Falcons). I just believe the Blank Familiy Foundation and his vision for the new stadium is so grand and so inclusive that it is going to be a catalyst for a lot of good things for the future.

AJC: What is missing downtown?

Marvin: Downtown has largely been ignored by apartment developers. Apartment development activity has been so fervent in Buckhead and Midtown. But with prices in those areas going up, economics 101 will eventually make more people receptive to looking downtown. I think what Post Properties (which is building a 438-unit apartment complex) is doing downtown will be successful and once the market fundamentals are proven, I think the floodgates will open.

AJC: Do you still own your condo at Centennial Park West?

Marvin: I do. I live there with my three young children and my tolerant wife.


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