Big Bethel plans multi-use project for Auburn Avenue

Big Bethel AME Church plans to expand its footprint in the historic Auburn Avenue corridor with additional housing, parking, retail and restaurants.

The church, founded in 1847 and one of oldest AME churches in Georgia, has teamed up with two development teams — the Benoit Group and Russell New Urban Development — for the Big Bethel AME Campus Project. The three entities will sign a memorandum of understanding during a news conference Tuesday at the corner of Auburn Avenue and Jesse Hill Jr. Drive in downtown Atlanta.

The $130 million-plus project would target university students and people who wish to live downtown.

“This positions us very well to be in the driver’s seat as to how we move forward to provide for our ministry,” said the Rev. John Foster, senior pastor of Big Bethel, which already owns the land. “People think of the ministry as what goes on at 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. Sunday morning, but our ministry is also what we can do the rest of the week. From that standpoint, what we can do Monday through Saturday is just as important as what we do on Sunday morning.”

That means providing housing options, he said, as well as creating jobs and commercial development. And that’ s where Big Bethel comes in. The urban church, he said, can play a key role in helping develop the surrounding community.

Foster said the idea for further development goes back about a decade and two pastors ago. But plans were sidetracked when the economy tanked. When he became pastor in 2013, the church’s leadership proposed “getting this back on track.”

Auburn Avenue, long known as “Sweet Auburn,” and Edgewood Avenue have seen a resurgence of sorts with the streetcar project that linked a 1.3-mile trek between Centennial Olympic Park and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, plus additional retail and restaurants and a major investment by Georgia State University.

For decades, Auburn was a prominent thoroughfare for black professionals and businesses, but it experienced a steep decline as businesses and people moved to the suburbs. Development there has seen fits and starts but never quite gained momentum until recently.

“Overall, they are doing something that we encourage all of our faith-based institutions downtown to do,” said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress. “Most have been there a long time and most have very strategic pieces of property that are becoming more and more valuable in today’s urban market.”

Jerome Russell of Russell New Urban Development sees the project as fitting cohesively with what is already taking place intown, from new offices to a booming restaurant and retail environment and entertainment.

“We’re in the midst of an urban renaissance in Atlanta that is like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” he said. “It’s unprecedented. There’s been a shift. Millennials, young people, want to be in an urban environment where they can live, work and play. It’s energy feeding off of energy and that’s positive.”

The plan calls for the project to be done in four phases.

The first phase is the renovation of Bethel Towers, a 182-unit high-rise housing development at 210 Auburn Ave., next to the church. The tower of one- and two-bedroom apartments was built in 1971, and occupancy was based on income.

The interior of the building will be renovated, with new appliances, electrical, plumbing and phone and communications systems. Residents will get a year’s notice and receive help with relocations. Those who currently live there will get first priority when the project is completed, Foster said.

Additional phases will include construction of a multi-level shared parking deck that will have about 800 spaces on one acre of land located on the southwestern corner of the intersection of Jesse Hill Jr. Drive and John Wesley Dobbs Avenue.

Constructed adjacent to the parking lot will be student housing and ground-floor retail space, with about 321 units accommodating 1,000 beds.

The final phase will cover new construction and rehabilitation of existing church facilities and business space located on Auburn Avenue that includes a vacant lot and more than 12,500 square feet of existing commercial space.

Eddy Benoit, president of the Atlanta-based Benoit Group, said the project will fill a big gap.

“Downtown is really begging for more economic development,” he said, adding that students and those who want to live intown are looking for a lifestyle along with the development.

“At the end of the day, they want to get out of the building and are looking for places to eat and entertain themselves.”

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