OPINION: $500K homes | Going for broke in once-broken swath of Atlanta

Bankhead area, long bedeviled by poverty, crime, now boasts signs of affluence, fears of gentrification
New townhomes have crossed the $500,000 price tag on Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway. And, yes, that's the Fulton County jail in the background. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

New townhomes have crossed the $500,000 price tag on Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway. And, yes, that's the Fulton County jail in the background. Photo by Bill Torpy

It’s one of those moments that sort of stops you in your tracks. A what-in-the-holy-heck?!? point in time.

Townhouses have crossed the half-million-dollar mark on the former Bankhead Highway.

The street was renamed Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway in 1998 for the late civil rights attorney. But a few years later, my AJC colleague Cynthia Tucker wrote, “Poor Donald Hollowell. The distinguished civil rights attorney, who died last year, deserved better than to be memorialized along a street synonymous with desperation, poverty and crime.”

Well, that has changed. Like, dramatically. Hollowell Parkway is now synonymous with confidence, affluence and opportunity. Or gentrification, displacement and vulnerability, if you’re watching from another vantage point.

The new development to which I refer is called Ten29West, a gathering of 61 townhomes currently being framed out.

The developer is Brock Built Homes, a company that has constructed perhaps 2,000 homes and townhouses on the city’s west side, according to its founder, Steve Brock. You could call him Atlanta’s Gentrification King or The Prince of Renaissance — once again, depending on your vantage point.

The Hollowell townhomes started out at $515,000 but are now, as they say in the business, in the “high 500s.” Here’s why: Not only have construction material costs soared, but the thought of high-priced living space on the former Bankhead Highway doesn’t seem as crazy as it once did.

Steve Brock, founder of Brock Built Homes, stands in front of new townhomes that have crossed the $500,000 price tag on Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

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Credit: Bill Torpy

“You want a few successes early on and you price them aggressively; then you can raise prices,” said Brock, who took me on a tour Thursday of several developments he has built on the northwest side since 1997. “You need someone to jump in the pool first.”

Water in the Bankhead “pool” has gotten much more comfortable over the past year.

The Ten29West townhomes are bookended to the west by the 92-acre assemblage recently purchased by Microsoft and to the east by Georgia Tech. And near Tech on Hollowell is a 19-acre project called Echo Street, reported to be a $227 million live-work-play development. Brock said he sold the Echo people 18 of their acres for $38 million but later got an unsolicited offer to buy it for more than twice that. Whoops, already under contract.

Across the street from Brock’s townhomes, at 1060 Hollowell, is a 40-acre project that would, according to Atlanta Development Authority records, comprise as many as 2,000 rental units and a bunch of commercial space. Brock said he sold that developer 17 of their acres for $20 million. Again, a later offer came in for millions more.

To make that land-rush all the more frenetic, Microsoft is adjacent to the 280-acre Bellwood Quarry Park, a MARTA train stop and the Atlanta Beltline.

Brock’s new townhouses will overlook Westside Trail Extension, which is right behind the property and connects to the Beltline. His property also has a great sightline to the Fulton County Jail.

That would be fitting because Brock said his properties are often near waste dumps, industrial sites, sewer plants, railroads and strip clubs. He likes to say he’s an urban pioneer who envisions what might be. His developments — like those built where the huge, now-demolished Perry Homes public housing project used to be — involve massive feats of logistics and working with tricky topography.

Brock said “a lot of people thought we were nuts” when his company started such redevelopments 20 years ago. But he was confident. “I saw it. I knew it would happen.”

On Thursday, while visiting Westside Station, a 28-acre development of homes in northwest Atlanta, Brock said, “This was no man’s land out here.”

Brock lives in a home in his West Town development. Behind his home is Gregor Turk, an artist who refused to sell out. A few days ago, the AJC featured a story about Turk, who papered the nearby area with banners headlined “Blandtown,” which is the longtime neighborhood name that doesn’t fit into the developers’ “West Midtown” vision. (Blandtown was founded by and named after Felix Bland, a former slave whose parents purchased 4 acres in the area in the 1870s.)

Some of these properties have had affordable units involved. Others are market rate. The argument goes that adding new tax base will positively change the fiber of the city.

Not everyone is happy with the juggernaut that is transforming swaths of Atlanta.

Al Bartell, who lives west of the future Microsoft development, has been involved in the local Neighborhood Planning Unit for years and has run for public office. (He has yet to win.)

“Right now there are $500,000 homes on Bankhead Highway when people can’t afford $500 a month rent,” he said, contending that the Microsoft plan is “a catalyst for massive, intractable gentrification” that’ll bring “million-dollar condos along that street.”

“We have a saying here on the Westside: We’ll have a new place to live. It’s called Douglas County,” Bartell said. “It’s West Midtown now, brother. It’s ritzy, white and high-investment. And its unstoppable.”

Karen Rose, who lives in the Grove Park neighborhood to the west of Microsoft, said the speculation and development “represents how quickly the focus can turn to this area. Everyone wants growth. We lost our grocery store, bank and pharmacy. But it’s the speed and intensity of what’s happening. People are getting displaced quickly. That’s why there’s so much angst about it.”

Joe Peters runs a car repair shop across the street from Ten29West. He was dressed in a work shirt and leaning on his front counter when I walked in. He is a rich man, at least on paper. He figured his business, started in 1987 by his father, has 3 acres or more. Much of it is filled by old cars.

Peters laughed at the prospect of affluence. “I’m only 51, I’m still working,” he said.

He has gotten some offers for his land, “but not real offers.” Told that the units across the street will cost half a million dollars and up, he shook his head, “That’s something else, $500,000!” he said. “I’m saying it’s a good thing. I’m not saying $500,000 for an apartment is a good thing. But change is a good thing.”

Joe Peters owns an auto repair shop across Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway from where new townhomes are being built. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

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Credit: Bill Torpy

Especially if you’re sitting on 3 acres in a place where acres are suddenly selling for $1 million a pop.

I called the Rev. Anthony Motley, who has been the pastor at Lindsay Street Baptist Church in the English Avenue neighborhood for 40 years. He witnessed the area’s descent into drugs, despair and poverty. His church is perhaps a quarter-mile from Brock’s townhomes and a quarter-mile from where Kathryn Johnston lived. She’s the 93-year-old Black woman killed in 2006 by a police raid gone bad.

“It’s certainly a whole new day,” the reverend said. “The English Avenue community is going to be transformed. We always knew it was a gold mine, in the shadow of Georgia Tech, Coca-Cola and the World Congress Center,” he said.

“I’m not against gentrification. Change is going to happen. But what you do with the community, with those at the bottom is paramount,” Motley said, adding that he “wasn’t shocked” by the pricey new townhomes. “It was something we anticipated for a while. It has arrived.”