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The 10 Biggest Atlanta CRE Stories Of 2019

Atlanta

As the second decade of the 21st century draws to a close, Atlanta was ground zero for major commercial real estate news, some of which will continue to reverberate into the next decade.

The Atlanta skyline

When 2010 started, the Metro Atlanta region was suffering the full brunt of the Great Recession. There were years where it may even have appeared that Atlanta's best times were in the past; one former CRE executive said his firm was looking for investment opportunities outside of Atlanta back in 2012.

Then, Metro Atlanta got its mojo back thanks to a string of major economic development wins and a healthy dose of population and job growth. These trends have created entire new dynamics in the Atlanta CRE market — from the boom in leasing and development in the city to the erection of major distribution centers as companies rejigger their distribution networks.

This year appears to have encapsulated the optimism in the marketplace, with few seeing any signs that 2020 will be worse for the region.

Still, there were some news stories that could presage how the next decade will shape up for CRE, from the city's usual tax giveaway largesse to major shifts in local firms' C-suites and strategies. Here, Bisnow has compiled the top 10 commercial real estate stories from this past year.

North American Properties Makes Major Turn In Development Strategy

Mark Toro at Avalon grand opening

North American Properties — one of the most prolific mixed-use developers in Metro Atlanta — pulled out of $3B in major developments over the last month or so. Beyond that abrupt development, the developer behind some of the area's most high-profile projects signaled it would be getting out of the mixed-use development business entirely.

Longtime NAP Managing Partner Mark Toro, the visionary behind mixed-use project Avalon in Alpharetta and the redevelopments of Atlantic Station and Colony Square in Midtown, was named chairmanship of the company's local operations. But in that role, Toro ceded the day-to-day operations to two lieutenants.

That corporate shake-up also had North American Properties declare that under co-leaders Tim Perry and Richard Munger, the developer would no longer pursue ground-up mixed-use projects. Instead, it would build new apartments and buy and restructure existing mixed-use projects.

That could mean bad news for two proposed megaprojects in Atlanta: Revel in Duluth and High Street in Dunwoody.

Some experts say North American's move could be a sign that the momentum of large-scale mixed-use projects — especially those that rely on a significant amount of retail space — may be diminishing as lenders get more cautious this late in the economic cycle.

Backlash Against Developer Incentives Gains Momentum

A CSX coal train travels underneath CNN Center's parking deck in the Gulch in this 2013 photo

It looks like the flame that was sparked over the Gulch's tax incentive package may be harder for officials to put out than they thought.

It started out as a collective gasp from many Atlanta residents to the city's proposal to shell out the largest tax incentive package for any single development in its history when CIM Group proposed to buy and redevelop the Gulch. The plan is complicated and came with the caveat that if the deal went through, Norfolk Southern — which owned a portion of the undeveloped Downtown parcel — would move its headquarters to Atlanta from Virginia.

Ultimately, the $1.9B package was approved, but the grassroots collective that sprang up to fight it — led by former Invest Atlanta board member Julian Bene — is still fighting it in court. Now that same skepticism over city largesse has targeted other developers asking for property tax breaks in recent weeks, including New City Properties' proposal to redevelop the former Georgia Power site in the Old Fourth Ward and Loudermilk Cos.' plan for a new Buckhead mixed-use development.

As Bene himself put it to Bisnow in December, “The backlash is real.”

Finally, Some Movement At Gwinnett Place Mall

Gwinnett Place Mall in suburban Atlanta was one of the sites where Stranger Things' third season was filmed.

Gwinnett Place Mall has been many things in recent years: the scene of a homicide that took two weeks before anyone discovered the body stashed in a shuttered food court space, the overflow lot for nearby automotive dealerships and the main setting for the third season of the Netflix show Stranger Things.

For a brief period, it was the site of a planned cricket stadium.

What is hasn't been for some time is a successful shopping mall.

In October, Gwinnett Place owner Moonbeam Capital Investments tapped Colliers International to sell its portion of the 1.2M SF mall. The listing comes months after Northwood Ravin purchased a shuttered Sears store connected to the mall with plans to redevelop it. Colliers officials said the sale could happen in 2020.

Last year, Moonbeam founder Steven Maksin partnered with a fast-food franchise owner and former Global Sports Ventures Chairman Jignesh “Jay” Pandya and formed CricRealtyCo. Pandya pitched USA Cricket to get the right to establish professional T20 cricket teams in the U.S. In turn, CricRealtyCo. planned to redevelop properties, including Gwinnett Place Mall, into stadiums.

That effort suffered a possibly fatal blow in May when USA Cricket instead awarded those rights to an organization backed by principals of The Times of India group. Pandya has since sued USA Cricket after losing the bid, according to Forbes.

Moonbeam ceding ownership to someone else would be met with cheers from county officials whose frustration with the Las Vegas-based group for failing to move on long-promised redevelopment plans has spilled over into the media in past years.

Instead, Moonbeam has let Gwinnett Place Mall's main shopping area deteriorate as storefronts went dark. Some sections of the mall are devoid of life. Locals hope a new owner can breathe it back into the once-bustling shopping center.

Sherwin-Williams Considers Atlanta For New HQ

The Atlanta office market got some waves after a Fortune 500 company dropped a boulder in a lake all the way in Cleveland.

Sherwin-Williams announced earlier this year that it was looking for a potential new headquarters location, one that could bequeath the winning city thousands of new jobs. Specifically, the corporate giant that makes paints and industrial coatings is looking to move out of its current headquarters, housed in a 1930s-era office building in Downtown Cleveland.

While the company never disclosed what other cities it was eyeing, sources told Bisnow that Atlanta was among the contenders. Piedmont Office Realty Trust CEO Brent Smith told stock analysts in October that Sherwin officials were considering Piedmont's Galleria office park site in Cobb County. Sherwin-Williams already operates out of 48K SF at 2800 Century Parkway in Atlanta with its Southeast division.

“Even within Atlanta, there are multiple locations they could go. It is still very early,” Smith said at the time. “We believe the [Galleria] site is among the best in Atlanta, and we are well-positioned to attract some of the large corporate tenants looking to relocate to the Atlanta market.”

Sherwin-Williams officials could announce a decision on its headquarters by the end of the year or early 2020.

Jamestown Buys Buckhead Atlanta From OliverMcMillan, Explores Major Shift In Its Image

One of the sidewalks in Buckhead Atlanta around lunchtime recently

Jamestown was able to transform a former Sears warehouse into the premier mixed-use destination inside the city with Ponce City Market. But can it reposition a Buckhead luxury enclave into something that will drive more foot traffic?

The Atlanta-based real estate developer and investor purchased the 365K SF Shops Buckhead Atlanta retail district from OliverMcMillan earlier in July for a price north of $175M. The six-block project was the vision of OliverMcMillan, which bought the already-in-development project from another developer that fell on hard times during the Great Recession.

Since opening in late 2014, OliverMcMillan has positioned The Shops Buckhead Atlanta as the destination in the city for ultra-luxury retail, with brands like Brunello Cucinelli, Cacao, Dior, Etro, Hermès, Jimmy Choo and Robert Talbott. The mixed-use project made headlines when it lured the headquarters for Spanx to the site.

But as Bisnow previously reported, its retail district never generated mass appeal in Atlanta.

Since its purchase, Jamestown has held a series of town hall meetings to gauge local residents' views on what the project needed for more appeal. Still, the developer has been mum, to date, on what it plans to do to turn the project around.

“It's not so much about the luxury than it is about the absence of other things," Jamestown President Michael Phillips previously told Bisnow. "I think luxury requires less foot traffic. So I think there's an opportunity to increase foot traffic. There's Shake Shack, but not everybody wants to go to Shake Shack. There's Warby Parker, which is great … but there's not 10 of those. Our goal is to thoughtfully add some texture … to what is otherwise kind of a flat experience.”

Fort McPherson's Redevelopment Plan Falls Apart

Former Fort McPherson LRA Executive Director Brian Hooker

Two U.S. Army bases were decommissioned in Metro Atlanta in 2005. One, Fort Gillem, became a successful public-private partnership that turned the former military base into a massive distribution center complex with the help of a renowned Atlanta developer as the master planner.

Fort McPherson, on the other hand, has yet to begin redevelopment work.

This summer, after years of planning, officials with the Fort Mac redevelopment board and the city of Atlanta called into question the ability of the approved master developer, Macauley Investments, to pull off a complex, mixed-use project.

Around the same time, Fort Mac's most famous neighbor, movie producer and actor Tyler Perry, reportedly made inquiries about buying the LRA's portion of the former base — he already controls some 300 acres of the old base for his sprawling movie studio — and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration struck a deal with the city to buy a building for a laboratory.

By the fall, the strife came to a head when Brian Hooker resigned at Fort Mac LRA's executive director and Macauley departed as the project's master developer.

Georgia's Restrictive Abortion Bill Gives Studio Owners Heartburn

Blackhall Studios CEO Ryan Millsap

When Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill that banned most abortions from being performed in the state — referred to as the “heartbeat bill” — it kicked off real drama from the source of the world's best fake ones: Hollywood.

The law was set to take effect Jan. 1, 2020, preventing any abortions from taking place once a fetus' heartbeat was detected. It was among a number of such bills passed in various states that critics said were aimed at dismantling the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, Roe v. Wade.

When the heartbeat bill first passed, multiple film and television studios threatened to pull productions from Georgia despite the state's lucrative tax credit. One prominent Georgia studio owner, Blackhall Studios CEO Ryan Millsap, even told Bisnow that production companies were already shying away from the state due to the law.

In October, a federal judge blocked the bill from becoming law in January while the measure is battled in court. Since then, at least one major studio system has expanded its filming presence in Georgia: Warner Bros. leased some 600K SF west of Atlanta for streaming productions, Bisnow was first to report.

Stuck In The Dirt: No2 Opus Place's Travails

The $3M sales center operated by Berkshire Hathaway and Olympia Heights.

In June, Bisnow investigated how a New York developer has sat on one of Atlanta's most prime development sites, despite years of promises and a multimillion-dollar sales office.

While long discussed in real estate circles, few knew the entire saga of New York-based developer Olympia Heights Management and its quest — still unrealized — for its No2 Opus Place luxury condominium tower in Midtown, planned to be the tallest of its kind in the Southeast, outside Miami.

Bisnow's story laid out the shifting start dates and frequently changed plans, which have engendered an atmosphere of skepticism as to whether the proposed 53-story tower at 98 14th St. would ever rise above its dirt parcel.

Olympia Heights' past prior to even securing the site — formerly slated for an expanded performance space for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra — included one of Olympia Heights' main executives being banned by New York City in 2016 from selling condominiums for two years.

Olympia Heights officials insist they are still pursuing the project, and the broker marketing the units told Bisnow in June she would have "really positive" news to share if the story were to hold another week. Olympia Heights executive Roni Avraham said in the spring that in "June, July, we're going to start with the foundation."

Construction has still not begun.

Changing Of The C-Suite Guard In Atlanta CRE

Larry Gellerstedt at a recent Bisnow event

This year saw changes among the executive roster at some Atlanta real estate firms. After ceding control of Cousins Properties to Colin Connolly late last year, Executive Chairman Larry Gellerstedt announced this week that he was not planning to seek re-election to the board of directors next year. He will retire instead.

Gellerstedt became Cousins' CEO in 2009 and navigated the developer through the toughest recession the industry experienced in generations.

But Gellerstedt was not the only leader to cede control as many in the C-suite enter retirement age and pass the leadership baton to a younger generation.

Piedmont Office Realty Trust installed 43-year-oold Brent Smith to replace Don Miller as CEO. Pattillo Industrial Real Estate CEO Larry Callahan plans to retire by year's end, handing the reins to 47-year-old President Joshua Harrison. And Newmark Knight Frank named 48-year-old Vice President Sean Moynihan as leader of the Atlanta office, replacing Brett Hunsaker.

Midtown Activity Booms Even More

View from a balcony at The Four Seasons in Midtown Atlanta.

When it comes to office leasing, Midtown Atlanta is the cause of envy for the rest of the metro area.

The tony submarket has become the poster child for Atlanta's flight back to the city center by both companies and residents. The submarket remained king of office absorption, luring new companies like Google, Norfolk Southern, McKinsey & Co. and BlackRock to anchor a host of new office tower developments. Other key corporate names remain scouting the submarket for opportunities as well.

So far this year, Midtown tenants have absorbed more than 170K SF of prime office space, the most of any Atlanta office submarket, according to Colliers International Atlanta.

Midtown also has become the nexus of many technology companies' office attention because of the ripe talent pool.

“Tech companies want to be in Midtown because of Georgia Tech,” Transwestern Director of Research Keith Pierce told Bisnow.

The submarket continues to experience a residential renaissance as well, commanding the highest average monthly rents of any other part of the city at more than $2K/month, according to Haddow & Co. While more than 1,500 new apartment units were delivered in the past 12 months, another 2,300 are in the pipeline, Haddow & Co. reported.

CORRECTION, Dec. 13, 1 p.m. ET: A previous version of the story incorrectly reported that GID was seeking a new development partner for its High Street Project. The story has been updated.