MARTA proposal includes high-rise towers on top of Arts Center station

Staff Writer J. Scott Trubey contributed to this story.

MARTA has begun negotiations that could lead to the development of an ambitious mixed-use project, including four high-rise towers, on top of the Arts Center station.

MARTA's board on Thursday agreed to enter into exclusive discussions with Atlanta-based Cousins Properties and Integral Group to develop the project on the 6.2-acre Arts Center site in Midtown. Other transit-oriented developments are in parking lots or land next to stations, while this would be above the station.

The preliminary proposal includes building a podium over the station, and putting some combination of residential, retail, office and hotel buildings above it, said Amanda Rhein, MARTA’s senior director of transit oriented development and real estate.

“Given the size of the site at Arts Center, it’s very ambitious,” she said.

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MARTA and the developers will likely be in negotiations for a year, Rhein said. They could break ground in two years, if all goes as planned.

There are no details about how tall the towers would be, or how large the project might end up. But Rhein said she expects it would cover the site. Discussions will also include how to pay for the public-private partnership.

MARTA has an opportunity “to do something extremely creative,” CEO Keith Parker said. Projects like this, he said, improve neighborhoods as well as bring revenue to MARTA.

“We don’t want this one to look like a cookie-cutter" transit-oriented development, he said.

Under Parker, the transit agency has expanded its efforts to develop underused parking lots and other land near its stations. Projects near existing stations increase ridership, and give people reasons to linger at stations. Such developments already have a built-in customer base, Parker said.

In addition to the plans at Arts Center, Columbia Ventures broke ground last week on a project at the Edgewood/Candler Park station that will have 224 residential units, a performing arts center and a park. The agency also has projects in various stages of planning or development with private development partners on system-owned land at its Chamblee, Brookhaven/Oglethorpe, King Memorial and Avondale stations.

The Arts Center project was the only formal proposal MARTA received after the agency sought “expressions of interest” for projects at the Lenox, Midtown and North Avenue stations, in addition to Arts Center. That station garnered two formal expressions of interest and several informal conversations. But the Cousins-Integral group made the only formal proposal for development.

That’s likely because of the difficulty of the work, Parker said.

“It’s not a project just anyone could take on,” he said.

To develop on top of an existing transit station is complex. The MARTA tunnel goes under a portion of the property and any construction would have to minimize disruption to travel — including to the bus boarding area, which would likely be affected as part of the project. The station’s 30 parking spaces are also likely to beaffected, though some handicapped parking is expected to remain.

The area around the Arts Center station is booming.

In April, Equifax announced plans to move 650 tech workers to the nearby One Atlantic Center high rise.

Related Group and Novare Group, respectively, have separate high-rise apartment projects under construction at the corner of 14th and West Peachtree streets. John Wieland is developing a condo project called One Museum Place across Peachtree Street from the Woodruff Arts Center and North American Properties and Lionstone are in the process of a substantial renovation of the Colony Square complex.

Also in the area, an investment group backed by overseas capital has announced what is arguably the most ambitious tower in the city, a 74-story condo skyscraper on the site once planned for a new symphony hall. Not only would that be one of the city's tallest buildings, the tower would feature the largest number of luxury high-rise condos in any single project in Atlanta since the Great Recession.

Marli Quesinberry, a spokeswoman for Cousins Properties, said her company is “excited to begin the process” with MARTA and the Integral Group. No one from Integral was available for comment Thursday.

Parker, the MARTA CEO, warned that there was still a long way to go before any construction is guaranteed. The board’s approval just allows the negotiations to begin.

“We’re at the very beginning of discussions,” Parker said. “We’ll still go into it with a great deal of caution. If it all works out, fantastic.”