By John Schaffner
It all started when Robin Loudermilk, president and COO of Aaron Rents, Inc., walked from his office in Buckhead Village to his car one evening a few years ago and stepped on a bullet in the nearby parking deck that had not yet been shot.
“I said we have got to do something or someone innocent is going to get hurt,” he told the couple of hundred members and guests at the Buckhead Business Association’s quarterly luncheon meeting Oct. 18.
The “it” that got started that evening was the transformation of what had become the loud, raucous and dangerous bar and club scene of the old Buckhead Village into what is expected to be the stylish, sophisticated, uptown new development of The Streets of Buckhead.
Actually, innocent people had already been hurt in the Village, along with some who may not have been quite so innocent. For instance, during the weekend of the 2000 Super Bowl the city hosted, a man was stabbed to death outside a bar in the Village. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and two other men were charged and later acquitted. It was just one of several incidents during that time period.
So, the bullet he stepped on got Loudermilk to gather “a bunch of guys around a table” and form an alliance to deal with the problem. That was the start, in 2003, of the Buckhead Alliance, a group of 148 business and community leaders which even today Loudermilk remains the head of and which has been committed to cleaning up the Village.
“We were fortunate enough to collect $100,000” from that initial group around the table and “we started out to clean up the area.” Loudermilk told those at the BBA luncheon, “We started working behind the scenes….taking a holistic approach with police officers, land owners, business owners, all the interested parties in the Village came together. We rallied the troops.”
Through this process, Loudermilk said they found out there was an organized gang named the Black Mafia Family that had infiltrated establishments in the Village. “They were laundering about 150 kilos of drugs through the Village and prostitution.”
All of the trouble in the Village was happening “while we were asleep,” he explained. “All the murders happened after hours and mostly after two and three o’clock in the morning…after the bars closed.”
“We got together and decided we needed to position the Village to have someone come in and redevelop the area,” Loudermilk said. “We have the highest per capita income in this part of the country surrounding this area. Fortunately for all of us, Ben Carter came to the table and started purchasing properties.”
With that, Loudermilk offered the perfect lead into one of the other two panelists on the luncheon program, entitled “Buckhead: A Destination Location,” Steven Cadranel, a partner and president of Ben Carter Properties.
Cadranel pointed out that he and his partner, Ben Carter, had long-standing family ties to Buckhead and Carter had first done business in Buckhead in 1985. He said that while his company had not been involved with the Buckhead Community Improvement District (CID) through its formative stage and early years, “we certainly saw the opportunities they created for us.”
He said his company saw the opportunity to bring all of its skills from developing and marketing major malls in the southeast to bear in this project in Buckhead.
“My partners and I probably have 120 years of real estate development experience,” he explained. “We took most of what we know, threw it out the window and decided to do this project anyway. I give all the credit to Ben Carter, because it is truly his vision” that is driving The Streets of Buckhead project.
Carter, founder and chairman of Ben Carter Properties, LLC, began purchasing the 47 parcels of land owned by 18 individuals in 2006. The Buckhead Alliance had jump-started the transition by Loudermilk and others, purchasing a few pieces of land “defensively,” Loudermilk said. “We did it to send a message that we needed to do something.”
Today, most of the old buildings on the 12-acre site, bordered by Peachtree, Pharr and East Paces Ferry roads and North Fulton Drive have been torn down and the $1.2 billion transformation of the area has begun.
The European-style development will include four hotels, up to 1,000 residential units, 500,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, 70,000 square feet of office space and a $3 million public art project. It is all expected to be completed in phases between 2009 and 2010.
“We saw through Robin’s (Loudermilk) efforts and the Buckhead CID’s efforts that Buckhead has turned the corner,” Cadranel said. “We didn’t have to do the heavy lifting, but we wanted to take it to the next level.”
The final member of the panel, Scotty Greene, executive director of the Buckhead CID, talked about that organization’s contributions to the Village area of Buckhead and the remainder of the Buckhead commercial district through major investments of time and money in streetscape projects along Peacchtree Road and working with the changing overlay standards to deal with zoning issues and encourage development.
Greene said the CID is working very closely with the Carter organization to ensure that the streetscapes along Peachtree Road at The Streets of Buckhead work seamlessly into the new “Peachtree Boulevard” streetscapes just completed north of Piedmont Road on Peachtree and those that will continue to be developed between The Streets of Buckhead and Piedmont Road and further north from near Lenox Mall to Brookhaven.
He said the CID also will continue to work on alternative modes of transportation for the area to attempt to reduce the car trips in the area, but realizes most shoppers coming to The Streets of Buckhead will likely do so in their private vehicles.
Asked about the proposed Peachtree corridor trolley, Greene said he does not believe the trolley will be seen along the Peachtree corridor in Buckhead for at least 10 years. He said there are too many issues involved with it, including how to pay for it, suggesting Buckhead residents are not likely to favor an extra tax to support a trolley project.
It was pointed out by all of the panelists that parking will be a key to the success of The Streets of Buckhead, as the lack of parking was a major problem in the old Buckhead Village. The new development will include 4,700 parking spaces in decks within the seven blocks of the new development.
Although the redevelopment of Buckhead Village is a massive project, Loudermilk pointed out it is not overwhelming in density. “The village is going to stay lower and more retail-oriented,” he explained, “utilizing just 48 percent of its maximum allowable usage.”
Asked who is coming to The Streets of Buckhead, Cadranel said the market is boutiques and restaurants that are international in flavor and entering the Atlanta market for the first time. He said his firm has made “tremendous progress in the past 10 months.” He explained that only 70 out of a list of 600 target retailers presently are located in Phipps Plaza or Lenox Mall in Buckhead.
Asked about challenges being faced, Loudermilk said, “It’s all up from here…no real problems.” And, Candranel added, “We’re going to have to put up with a couple of years of dust and construction.”
Loudermilk added he just prays Carter gets it done. “Carter is nimble enough and crazy enough to do it,” he added.