Trump’s return to Atlanta a reminder of Midtown misfire

Donald Trump’s return to Atlanta this weekend for a blockbuster political convention is a reminder of an earlier, more fraught expedition to the city that captured a lot of ink and airtime but ended in the foreclosure of one of Atlanta’s prime pieces of real estate.

The Donald, a top-tier GOP presidential candidate, will headline a Saturday evening rally at the RedState Gathering. His scheduled appearance at the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown is a few miles south of the once-planned Trump Towers project at 15th and West Peachtree streets in Midtown.

The $300 million pair of high-rises he pitched with much fanfare near the Woodruff Arts Center fizzled out during the Great Recession, leaving behind a still-undeveloped 2.5-acre tract in the heart of Midtown.

The Trump Towers project was among dozens of high-gloss development dreams dashed by the recession, such as the Atlanta Symphony Center, Fox Plaza and the Streets of Buckhead. Trump’s project wasn’t to be the tallest or the most expensive pitched during that heady era, but they would have left a signature imprint on Midtown’s skyline.

“You can have Donald Trump and his big hair and big hype,” said Summey Orr, a commercial real estate attorney with Hartman Simons. “But big hype and hair can’t overcome (a depressed) market.”

A ‘no-risk’ gamble

The Trump Towers project was hatched in 2006 as metro Atlanta’s condo market was nearing supernova. Atlanta-based Wood Partners, a noted multifamily developer, and Florida-based Dezer Development were the lead developers that bought the site and carried the risk.

The Trump Organization said Trump was not the developer of the project and had no involvement in the ownership of the site. That meant Trump was mostly a flashy name paid to attach his brand to the project to give it an extra oomph.

“Atlanta is a fantastic city and while there are no plans for expansion there currently, should the right opportunity arise, we would certainly explore it,” said Hope Hicks, Trump’s spokeswoman.

After months of speculation, Trump confirmed his involvement in the project in August 2006 — the peak of the region’s housing boom. At the time, condo sales were surging and new high-rises planned years earlier were coming to market.

The two curved and mirrored glass high-rises — one 47-story tower next to a 38-story one — would soar above a lobby emblazoned with a giant Trump logo. An Atlanta-based firm partly owned by music legend Kenny Rogers was hired to design the building’s interior, and there were plans for a high-end restaurant and grocer on the ground levels. More than 560 units, topping out at $1.6 million, would be built.

Trump, never one for understatement, promised his building would add Atlanta’s name to the list of must-see skylines of New York and Chicago.

“It’s a great location in a great city,” he said in an August 2006 interview introducing the project. “I’ve loved Atlanta for years.”

By April 2007, at an event to launch pre-sales of condos in the first tower, Trump and daughter Ivanka were greeted by TV cameras and a flood of media at Rogers’ firm, Kenji Design Studios. The Atlanta real estate market, which had been on fire, was starting to cool.

‘It’s just going to get better’

What began with foreclosures and tightening credit among subprime borrowers was beginning to chill the broader housing market. Thousands of units in new high-rises that were started years earlier were coming to market as condo sales waned.

Trump, who appeared unfazed by Atlanta’s slowing real estate market at a pre-sales event in April 2007, said he was “laying it on the line” by backing the project.

“Atlanta is one of those cities that won’t be suffering the real estate foibles. Atlanta is like New York. New York is as hot as it ever has been,” Trump said at that 2007 event, adding: “It’s just going to get better.”

His bombastic faith in Atlanta’s real estate market, however, was off. Many of the 100 pre-sales fled when the housing market tanked. By the beginning of 2010, the land was in foreclosure. Wood Partners, the lead developer on the project, declined to comment.

Trump’s campaign said his brand is “synonymous with the most prestigious of addresses,” and the candidate has trumpeted his personal wealth — he claims his net worth tops $10 billion — as a sign of his business acumen despite some high-profile missteps.

Todd Rehm, a Republican political consultant, sees a parallel to Atlanta’s rise-from-the-ashes symbolism and Trump’s quixotic campaign for president. The real estate tycoon is at the top of many presidential polls, though few analysts expect his early success to last until November 2016.

“Like a winged monkey flying out of the ashes of the Atlanta condo market boom and bust, Trump Towers would be a symbol of a rising residential market,” Rehm said. “But like a presidential campaign, it has to be built on a solid foundation.”

A new development may yet rise from the tumbledown land. Yet this one will not trumpet the Trump name but rather the brand of another prominent developer: Atlanta-based apartment firm AMLI Residential bought the site in 2013. A company executive said in an email that construction on a 350-unit luxury development there could begin within weeks.