Doraville eager for 'second chance' with GM site

The northern DeKalb County city had no control when I-285 split off its northern neighborhoods more than 40 years ago, or when a MARTA rail line destroyed its downtown in the '90s. The view of the city from the freeway and elevated train station: the sprawling GM plant and petroleum tank farms.

But with news that the now-closed mammoth factory is under contract to become a mix of shops, homes and businesses – in part because of that great, but divisive transportation network – optimism abounds.

“This is Doraville’s second chance to get it right the first time,” said Chris Avers, the treasurer of the Northwoods Neighborhood Association. “This entire city wants to partner on whatever comes in there.”

The city of 11,000 is ready to shed the blue-collar past anchored by the 60-year-old plant and embrace a future that could include nice restaurants, fancy homes and gleaming offices create a new downtown.

Just what New Broad Street is proposing with its purchase of the 165-acre factory is unclear but it is known for "live,work, play" developments. A press release from the Orlando developer called it remaking the site into some mix of residential, commercial and retail.

George Roberts, who walked through the gates of the GM factory for 42 years, said if there are high-end condos in the mix, he wants back in.

“We’ve already been considering a condo, because it’s a lot of work to keep up a house,” he said of his impeccable home in the Oakcliff neighborhood, complete with white-picket fence.

“If it was nice and upscale and within our means, we would love it,” added his wife, Doris. “It’s convenient to everything.”

The city has laid some of the groundwork, hoping that convenience would make its dream of a mixed-use development come true. A complex of city buildings, civic center and library huddle on the Park Avenue hill near the MARTA station.

Mayor Ray Jenkins said the city hopes to extend the road over or under the train tracks, right into the back of the GM property. That would tie the new development to the existing city, in effect creating a new town center.

“It would create jobs, greenspace, schools and houses,” Jenkins said. “It will really unify our city.”

That prospect alone draws hope. In addition to the transportation veins running through it, there are other forces dividing it into essentially two Doravilles.

On one side are the majority of voters, black and white,  often retirees who remember the city’s glory days of decades past and young professionals hoping the city will gentrify.

In the other camp are Latin and Asian immigrants and their families, who make up more than half the city’s population. Some own the taco joints, noodle houses and Korean bakeries that give the city its international vibe.

But long-time residents often fret that the new arrivals made it impossible for mainstream groceries and chain eateries to draw big numbers, forcing them out of town.

Some say tony new housing and office space could help lure back some of what was lost, while also emphasizing the city’s culturally diverse flair.

“As much as it would be nice to have an Outback Steakhouse, it should be home to the local tacquerias and Korean BBQs,” said Peter Pociask, a computer programmer who has lived in the city for five years. “I would hope they’d go out of their way to preserve the feeling of our community and just make it even better.”

There should be time to plan for what that means. New Broad Street isn’t expected to close on the property until this summer. And the city is just now applying for a new Livable Centers Initiative study, to help plot how the redevelopment will fit into the city and nearby community.

For instance, city leaders want some of the new offices to focus on health and biotechnology, to take advantage of needs of the nearby Centers for Disease Control and Prevention campus. There are also plans to incorporate a school, a reaction to community concerns that Doraville does not have its own high school while neighboring Chamblee and Dunwoody have highly ranked ones.

"There is a lot more planning that needs to be done,” said Luke Howe, an assistant to the mayor who has drafted the LCI request.

The magnitude of the project has tempered some hopes. Councilman Bob Roche has been calling since November for the city to hire a development director to work only on the site. The city has a one-man planning office, headed by its first planning director who was hired two years ago.

Planning is critical to make sure the new development can replace the 3,000 jobs that were lost when the factory closed in 2008, said Stephe Koontz, herself a retired auto worker, though not at the Doraville site.

Koontz said it is as important to include high-end housing in the mix, noting thaty homes in Doraville often sell for $175,000 or less.

“All of Doraville is affordable housing,” Koontz said. “But where do the rich people live? We have to add that diversity to our ethnic diversity if we want this to work.”

The city has plenty of incentive to make it work. It projects it loses about $1 million a year in property taxes and franchise fees with the factory closed. That translates into almost 8 percent of its $13 million budget.

But money is tight all over right now, including for developers. Still, if New Broad Street can find financing, experts said that now is the ideal time to start such a massive project because of the length of time it will take to do.

The total build-out time, of course, will depend on what is ultimately built on the site, said Will Yowell, vice chairman with commercial real estate firm CB Richard Ellis, adviser to GM on the deal.

“It’s not a project that gets done in a couple of years. It’s probably six or seven years or a little longer,” Yowell said Friday. “The current economy is very challenging. But the reality is… by the time they’re in position to start vertical development, the economy will be in better shape.”

After demolition, then cleaning up and building infrastructure at the site, it will take at least 18-30 months before the first units are on the market, experts said.

“If they start as soon as they can, they will be ahead of a lot of projects that will be coming on the market as the economy improves,” said Alan Wexler, president of Databank Atlanta, which tracks real estate data. “If their units aren’t priced to reflect economic realities, they will have a hard time, but they will still be ahead of the competition.”

For residents tired of seeing the empty cavernous auto plant – which produced more than 6 million vehicles in its first 40 years – moving ahead is the next big challenge.

“GM is what put Doraville on the map,” George Roberts said. “I say, let’s get moving on something out there that will help the city again.”

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