California developer CIM Group is putting the finishing touches on its master plan for downtown Atlanta’s Gulch, an up to $5 billion mix of apartments, offices, retail and hotels that the company is calling Centennial Yards.
In an exclusive interview Tuesday with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News, CIM executive Devon McCorkle unveiled the Centennial Yards branding, a timeline for construction, and some attractions the company is considering for the 40-acre mini-city.
CIM plans to meet major retailers at the International Council of Shopping Centers annual convention in Las Vegas next week. The trade show is among the highest-profile locations for developers to pitch would-be tenants, and many top Atlanta developers will be on hand.
“Now is a really prudent time for us to launch Centennial Yards,” McCorkle said. The name draws upon Centennial Olympic Park and Atlanta’s Olympic legacy, as well as the property’s history as a crucial rail hub where Atlanta was founded as Terminus.
“We wanted a name that was authentic, one that would make clear where the project was located but also honor the history of the site,” McCorkle said.
McCorkle said the first two former Southern Railway/Norfolk Southern buildings currently being remodeled along Ted Turner Drive will open next year, with hundreds of new loft apartments and new retail space. And 2020 also should mark the start of constructing a vital steel and concrete platform that will raise the site to the level of surrounding streets, creating 12 to 15 new downtown blocks.
The Centennial Yards site is among the most challenging in the Southeast. The property is crisscrossed by rail lines and parking lots that sit about 40 feet below surrounding viaducts, which include the bridges for Ted Turner, Martin Luther King Jr. and Centennial Olympic Park drives.
The complicated project will rely on the $500 million platform to span the active freight and MARTA tracks. The platform itself is expected to take two to four years to finish.
A.J. Robinson, president and CEO of downtown business coalition Central Atlanta Progress, said the platform creates new roads, sidewalks, bike paths and other links to neighborhoods and two MARTA stations disconnected by the sunken parking lots.
“It’s critical. You’re creating land,” he said.
CIM has proposed a development that could create office space equivalent to seven Bank of America Plazas, 1,000 residences, 1,500 hotel rooms and a regional mall’s worth of retail space.
Full development of the site is expected to take five to 15 years, McCorkle said. Some development in the site’s interior must wait for the platform, but some of the project could rise as that infrastructure is being developed.
The timeline reflects the complexity of the project.
“Doing it right is more important than doing it quickly,” Robinson said.
The CIM renderings show taller office towers near the Five Points MARTA station. Mid-rise and high-rise residential, hotel and creative office buildings will round out the remaining space and sit atop of street-level retail.
The site also will feature a central pedestrian plaza and green space connecting Mercedes-Benz Stadium and State Farm Arena to Five Points.
McCorkle said CIM is seeking flagship retail stores for major apparel and technology companies, museums and smaller concert halls as potential anchor tenants. CIM also will seek grocers, hair salons and barbershops and other service retail for residents.
Like the Atlanta Braves’ SunTrust Park, retailers, bars and restaurants catering to concertgoers and sports fans will be located near the arenas.
Ultimately, tailgating in the Gulch parking lots will end. But McCorkle said Centennial Yards will offer dining and entertainment that “more than makes up for any disruption in the tailgating experience.”
The CIM project has the potential to revitalize a 40-acre dead zone in the center of downtown. But it isn’t without controversy.
In November after months of debate, the City Council approved an incentive package of up to $1.9 billion in future tax dollars to help fund the project. The first-of-its-kind public financing package allows the developer to recoup 20 years of future property taxes created within the development site and 30 years of future sales taxes on the property to help fund infrastructure and vertical construction.
In return, CIM committed to developing at least 200 workforce housing units, a donation of $28 million toward a citywide affordable housing trust fund, $12 million to a citywide economic development fund, and an additional $12 million to fund a new fire station. CIM also will donate $2 million to a worker training program and agreed to 38 percent minority and women-owned business participation in the construction of the complex.
Critics said the city got too little for so much public support. The financing package also triggered a battle between the city and Atlanta Public Schools over the use of school property taxes to fund development. In January, the two sides came to a compromise that ended the dispute, but APS said the city hasn't fulfilled all its commitments.
But a citizens group known as Redlight the Gulch filed a legal challenge to bonds needed to help fund the Gulch project. The case is pending.
McCorkle declined to comment on the case citing ongoing litigation.
Kyle Kessler, an architect and downtown resident and advocate, said he is looking forward to the opening next year of the two former railroad buildings and learning more about the planned reconstruction of the Nelson Street bridge. CIM committed to rebuilding the bridge as a pedestrian connection to the Castleberry Hill neighborhood.
“The more this blends into the rest of downtown and Castleberry Hill and the rest of the city, the more successful the project will be,” he said. “If it’s seen as something separate from the city, that will be to its detriment.”
Carrie Sagel Burns, who lives in Castleberry Hill and is active in the neighborhood association, said her group wants to know more about the timing of construction and the rebuilding of the Nelson Street bridge.
CIM started some bridge demolition, and reconstruction is expected to start next year.
Burns runs a movie tour company. She and others who do business downtown want to see better connectivity between neighborhoods. They also rely on communication between the city, developers, businesses and neighborhoods to know how construction might affect their lives and livelihoods.
“People live and work here and it’s exciting, but working together is a lot of what Atlanta is about,” she said.