Torpy at Large: It takes a big shovel — Amazon — to fill Atlanta’s Gulch

Atlanta’s Gulch, that gaping hole downtown next to where Arthur Blank plopped his $1.5 billion football stadium, now needs something to fill it up.

How about 11.5 million square feet of live-work-play? But mostly work, as in 50,000 Amazon workers.

The quest to snag Amazon’s second headquarters, the Great White Whale of Commerce, is focused on the spot where Atlanta first started, the location where railroad lines converged and caused people to flock here to make a buck.

Now convergence is happening again — 11.5 million square feet of construction would be no small thing. It’s like putting four Empire State Buildings onto a landscape that for years has hosted tailgating Falcon fans and offered a place for the homeless to plop their cardboard mattresses.

Atlanta has long been the land of unbridled dreams and ambition: The Olympics, the World's Busiest Airport, Magic City. And now maybe Amazon HQ2.

This project seems to be a significant case of mission creep. A couple of years ago, CIM Group, an L.A. firm owned by Richard Ressler — brother of Tony Ressler, the majority owner of the Atlanta Hawks — was sniffing around to assemble parcels around the Gulch. His aim was to build a nightlife district near Philips Arena, where our local basketball team is beaten with unerring regularity.

Next thing you know, Amazon announces it needs 8 million square feet of office space. And CIM now has a plan to build 9 million square feet of office space, a million square feet of retail and another 1.5 million of residential.

No one will admit this site is being touted for Amazon, because this is a super-secret sweepstakes among 20 cities that are loosening their taxpayers’ purse strings to land this prized tenant. But if Amazon heads to Boston or Austin, or one of the other beauty contestants in the running, then CIM can lop a zero from that 9 million square feet of proposed office space.

The plan is complicated because Atlanta long ago jacked up the streets some 30 feet to stop the endless traffic delays as the trains ran. Think how frustrated you are waiting for a train in an air-conditioned car. Then consider the guys a century ago sitting on a cart behind a stinking horse in August.

The plan has carved the Gulch into 18 parcels with nine buildings at least 225 feet tall and one topping out at 500 feet. The property is bounded by CNN Center on the north, the Richard Russell Federal Courthouse on the south, the Five Points MARTA station to the east and Mercedes-Benz Stadium on the west.

There is something exciting about having Oz’s Emerald City built right here in downtown’s back doorstep.

Chris Sciarrone, the architect who last week presented aspects of the plan to the Downtown Development Review Committee, could barely conceal that enthusiasm. The vision, he said, “is to create a vibrant, urban walkable district.”

My notes from the meeting show the word “vibrant” uttered at least six times. The term, according to the online dictionary, means “full of energy and enthusiasm, as in ‘a vibrant cosmopolitan city.’ ”

It also means “quivering; pulsating,” which makes sense because there are six active rail lines on the property, which indicates future occupants should get used to the white noise of trains rumbling through their lives.

Sciarrone talked about extending streets to connect to MARTA’s nearby Five Points station. “We want to make this thing weave together and really be part of the city,” the architect said.

Sciarrone said the area below the existing elevated streets would be used for parking (about 8,000 spaces) and for deliveries. The new streets that would be built in the interior of the complex would be above grade and would be private, a fact that made development review board members’ faces look like they sucked lemons.

Also, the fact that plans did not entertain the notion of a new central transit terminal being built on the site caused consternation among board members, who make recommendations to the city. The city's Terminal Station was torn down in the 1970s and replaced by the federal courthouse. Plans to replace it have circulated ever since.

Mike Jakob, who owns the Elliott Street Deli and Pub, an 1850-ish structure in the shadow of the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, was at the meeting. He worries about traffic the new center would draw to the area.

I visited his joint — a classic dive (and I mean that in a good way) — after the meeting. He was out front talking with his brother and co-owner, Pete.

“If we want to be a major city, we need a major transportation system that’s state-funded,” Mike said.

The brothers, who were construction contractors, bought a husk of a brick building 14 years ago on the south end of the Gulch. They have a panoramic front-row seat to what will occur.

“I like the skyline, that’s why I bought our building,” said Mike, pointing across the horizon, starting with Philips Arena and moving east toward the federal courthouse, which is functional and ugly.

“You want what they build to be aesthetically pleasing,” he said. “You want them to do it right. You want an array of buildings.”

Whether Amazon comes to Atlanta, the city is in the midst of an epic resurgence. The Beltline has transformed intown neighborhoods. Germans have bought up all sorts of historic old buildings in the South Downtown area to create an old-timey urban experience. Underground is being rebuilt — again.

Kyle Kessler, a review board member and South Downtown resident, said not including commuter rail in the plan is "short-sighted," although his disappointment is more with the political leaders than the developers.

Still, he said, the vision is astounding and the plans have placed a vision of the Gulch in the public’s mind, even if Amazon goes elsewhere.

“The thought of Amazon has raised the level of what might happen here,” Kessler said. “If I said to you a couple years ago that they’d be thinking of building 10 million square feet there you’d think I was crazy. Now that’s in the realm of possibility.”