After Microsoft's 'Slap In The Face,' Westside Atlanta Leaders Grapple With What Comes Next
Anissa Ferrell saw the clues that Microsoft might not be going forward with its plans to develop a huge office campus in Westside Atlanta as early as August.
Ferrell chairs Atlanta Neighborhood Planning Unit-J, which was engaged by Microsoft to take part in community discussions last spring. Representatives of the technology giant stopped attending its meetings by late summer, she said, even though she kept them on the agenda.
Still, Ferrell was shocked to read about Microsoft’s decision in the news and not hear directly from the company, which had vowed to be transparent with the surrounding community as it designed a campus to bring 15,000 employees to the historically Black community.
“It’s a slap in the face, basically to the community, that they did not come and talk to us and be transparent,” Ferrell said.
Along with its office campus, Microsoft vowed to bring affordable housing as well as a much-needed grocery store and other retail to the area. It promised to work closely with the community to identify its needs.
That is why leaders of neighborhood groups who had been included in the early stages of the planning process said when Bisnow first reported Microsoft’s decision to stop work on the campus, they were disappointed to have been kept out of the loop.
“I understand that Microsoft has to appease their stakeholders, and I’m very aware there’s a lot of layoffs right now. I understand they have to hold it," said Dr. Jasmine Hope, who serves as the chairperson of Westside planning group NPU-K. “But I’m surprised they didn’t reach out to us first … and say, 'We will still work with you all.' I feel like they’re trying to say that now, but why say that to the media first if community engagement is so important? I don’t understand that.”
Ferrell said she is frustrated that Microsoft is delaying now after its announcement impacted property values in the neighborhoods around the Westside, threatening to displace legacy residents from their homes due to increasing property taxes.
The median home sale in the area around Microsoft’s Quarry Yards site was $140K a year before its 2021 announcement. Now it is more than $340K, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, citing data from Adams Realtors. Some new four- or five-bedroom houses in the area are selling for more than $600K.
“Taxes went up from $200 to $2K. We got hit at the beginning, and now we’re getting hit at the back end,” Ferrell said. “We were excited about this opportunity to the community even though it made a major impact on us. We’re basically a community that’s turned back into a desert while [Microsoft officials] figure out what they’re going to do.”
Now city and community leaders are scrambling to ascertain what Microsoft’s next steps will be — and whether the tech giant will uphold the promises it made to the community.
“The 2021 announcement of the campus had economic consequences for the surrounding communities,” a spokesperson for Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said in a statement. "This announcement of a delayed development creates uncertainties, and the Mayor wants to ensure that Microsoft fulfills the commitments it has made to our city."
The company said last week that it has no plans to sell the land and that it would continue to set aside a portion “for community needs.” The company has supported various causes across Atlanta, including training programs, nonprofit support and grants for community endeavors.
Dickens said in a press conference Friday that he spoke with Microsoft leaders “to express his concerns on the recent developments, particularly as they relate to commitments made of hiring Atlantans and the funding of a revitalization study for the Donald Lee Hollowell corridor.”
Atlanta City Council Member Byron Amos, whose district covers portions of Grove Park and areas near the planned campus, said he had previously been in contact with Microsoft’s local representatives and expects to meet with them this week and discuss ways to mitigate the impact of the stoppage.
“How do we find a path forward?” Amos said. “I believe that they will hold to [the original plan]. The biggest question is the time frame. That is one of the things I wish to talk to them about.”
Those plans helped catalyze investment in the surrounding neighborhoods as developers anticipated an influx of highly paid workers to the community.
“Microsoft’s announcement just supercharged everything,” said Allen Morris, the chairman of development firm The Allen Morris Co., which developed the Star Metals District 2 miles east of the land Microsoft bought from Mark Teixeira for $127M.
Microsoft’s economic development strategy stood in stark contrast to the Hunger Games-like contest that Amazon held for its second headquarters location, in which Atlanta was a finalist. Economic development officials at the time hailed Microsoft's approach of working with the community to ensure it can benefit from the economic impact of a 15,000-worker office campus rather than being displaced.
But many remained skeptical. Amos said Microsoft’s decision didn’t come as a huge shock to some area residents who have grown accustomed to the lack of investment in the area.
“It’s mixed emotions," Amos said. “Some of us long-term residents that have been here awhile think it’s business as usual. There are some that never believed the announcement. I don’t know if it was apathy or people just not wanting to believe.”
Percy Edge, a longtime resident of Grove Park who lives on Holly Street, said Tuesday morning that his property taxes have jumped since the Microsoft announcement. According to the Fulton County Board of Assessors, his home’s assessed value has more than tripled since 2018.
Still, Edge said he would rather see Microsoft complete its vision in his community than abandon its plans.
“I wish they would build it,” he said. “It should improve the area.”
Jarryd Jackson, who lives in a condo along Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway, said he was disappointed by the Microsoft news. He purchased his condo a year ago, and while Microsoft's campus wasn't the main reason he bought the unit at Brock Built Homes’ condominium project Ten29 West, it was a factor.
“I hope they do build something, because if they don’t, they’ll just keep [the land] on the balance sheet for 20 or 30 years and nothing will go there,” Jackson said.
The Grove Park Neighborhood Association held a meeting Tuesday evening, which Microsoft was invited to but declined to attend, GPNA President Ashley Pruitt Latimore said. The group’s treasurer, Michael Sanders, said he was concerned about a lengthy delay on the site, which is vacant.
“What happens to those 90 acres during the pause?” Sanders said. “The last thing we need … is more vacant land sitting around to be dumped on and squatted on.”
GPNA member Torrie Redding said she was worried about how Microsoft’s delay would impact pending infrastructure projects, including the planned $50M expansion of the MARTA Bankhead station at the doorstep of the future campus.
“With this development and all of the population that it was going to bring to the neighborhood, I just wonder how it’s all going to affect those things,” Redding said. “And the tax revenues. I mean, let’s be honest.”
Richard Taylor, the zoning chair for NPU-K and a member of the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board, said he is concerned that Microsoft could eventually sell the site to a developer or another company that wouldn’t have the same focus on impacting the surrounding neighborhoods.
“Without them there, I do see a white space for individuals to come in who do not share that same sentiment that Microsoft shares and are not as concerned with how it affects everybody else,” Taylor said.
While Microsoft’s campus plans created excitement among the commercial real estate community about the Westside, redevelopment in the area was already on an upward trajectory, Morris said.
“Atlanta was expanding down Hollowell Parkway before Microsoft was even on the horizon,” said Morris, whose firm has begun construction on the second phase of its Star Metals District. “And I think that’s going to continue just like it was continuing even before Microsoft. You've got the reservoir, you've got the fantastic park, you've got the ongoing expansion of the BeltLine and the ongoing expansion of West Midtown. All that happened and continues to happen without Microsoft.”