Friday, May 30, 2008

Weekend round-up

A collection of links from the past week that I haven't had a chance to comment much on:
  • Thomas Wheatley reports on the BeltLine's financial situation. Steller reporting, as always. Thomas is about the only reason worth reading the Loaf these days - the rest of the stuff is pretty much old hat. "So, let me get this right - Democrats and Republicans both suck? My, what a courageous little paper! How alternative!"
  • Some political leadership on high-speed rails from the DLC. An example of how high gas prices are good for us. Take your medicine... h/t: Yglesias
  • A nice graph showing how demand for driving has stalled out because of high gas prices.
  • I discovered Google SketchUp this week and wasted a few hours drawing up 3D plans for first floor of the house. It is way too addictive for this real estate junkie.
  • A week and a half ago Maria Saporta highlighted some Midtown buildings in need of historic preservation. While I'm sometimes conflicted about what should qualify as historic, the Crum & Foster Building strikes me as obviously worth saving.
I'm in Ann Arbor, MI for a wedding as we speak - today's posts were written yesterday for future publishing. I'm taking the camera, and have left Sunday free to reminisce and take pictures of town. This is the first time back since I graduated, and on the to-do list so far:
  • Blimpy Burger. Quad, American cheese, grilled onions, grilled banana peppers, kaiser roll. Coronary. Worth it.
  • I plan on studying in the Graduate Library reading room, which became my favorite place to study during my final semester. It's the kind of place that makes you feel smarter just being there. I need to take some better pictures to send in to bookporn. The Law Library also qualifies.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Development Tracker

Following up on the last post regarding Tribute Lofts, this is a good time to mention a few other developments in the Old Fourth Ward. I took a small detour on my way home from class this morning to snap some pictures for today's Development Tracker. I took these with my phone, and I have found that the picture quality varies massively depending on how sunny it is. Today was overcast, so these pics are only so-so.
  • The old Atlanta Overlook site, where Trammel Crow Residential is building Alexan 360, a 592-unit apartment complex. It looks like the rents will range from $1.61 to $1.41 per sf. The pics show some of the great views the units will have, as well as some of the massive parking deck that is already there.

  • Demolition photos from the U-Rescue Villa site. Not terribly exciting, frankly.

Condo fallout continuing

Tribute Lofts is holding an auction for 40 units, with bids starting as much as 50% off. Tribute was 70% sold last summer, but saw about 35 contracts walk away when the credit crisis hit. Now, I heard about these broken contracts probably in the fall. It sounds like they haven't written ANY contracts since last summer. The developers' explanation for the auction:
"This is not a distress or foreclosure sale — it's simply a new way to market our homes," said Greg Wohl, who with his brother, Brian, developed Tribute Lofts. "The market is in a sort of paralysis. Our goal is to get the buyers off the fence."
Riiiiight.... the article notes that the auction proceeds will go to pay off the construction loan. I'm sure that the bank isn't putting any pressure on the Wohls... Nope. Nothing to see here.

This is a disappointing situation all around. I think Tribute was a good development. Awesome views, mixed-use, close to a lot of fun neighborhoods, and I like the tunnel-form concrete construction aesthetic. It was built as part of the Eastside TAD program, which means it had some affordable components. The market price point wasn't terribly high, either, and the fact that they hit 70% sales while still under construction indicates that buyers thought it was a good deal. Personally, I thought there were better values around, but I liked the project.

Those folks are who already bought at Tribute are screwed. They are going to eat it on the chin the most. The TAD can't be terribly happy, either - these home prices aren't going to meet the projections used to underwrite the TAD bonds, so it should hurt the ADA's finances.

Overall, its the kind of development that Atlanta needs to see succeed. If this project had started just a year earlier, I think it'd be sold out. As things stand, I just don't think there are enough buyers for even this auction to help much. The AJC article mentions that Atlanta has about a four year supply of condos, so expect more situations like this.

UPDATE: If you are looking for the Tribute Lofts auction site, try their web page.
h/t: jeherv

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

I respectfully disagree...

The AJC's Jim Galloway reports that in anticipation of upcoming City Council theatrics, Lisa Borders is asking City Council members to play nice during budget hearings. She specifically reminds Council members:
The City Council sits as the representatives of our constituents, and we do them no service when we replace thoughtful inquiry with hostility or probing analysis with ad hominem attack. We owe our citizens more.
I don't know that I agree with that line of thought - as my representative, I want my Councilwoman to be hostile. I've defended the City and the Mayor on numerous occasions, and frankly I'm pretty pissed about a whole host of issues. I feel betrayed - after all, this was the administration that was supposed to at least be competent. Instead, I'm stuck with the, "Well, she's better than Campbell" line - and I still generally like the Mayor. There just isn't a whole lot to work with right now from her administration.

I'm think getting a little hostile is a good way for my Councilwoman to make sure the administration knows just how pissed off their constituents are. Of course, ad hominem attacks don't serve anyone, and a public dressing down does not require insults. In fact, I think the best part about public shaming of this sort is the opportunity to show how much smarter you are by being extra polite and courteous. That way the person you are dressing down may not realize you called them an idiot until much later, and it'll sting that much more.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Price index envy

Big surprise, home prices dropping in Atlanta. One of the few cities with home prices that aren't dropping? Charlotte, that fallen lady up I-85 that stole all our banks. Not that I'm bitter.

Charlotte gets on my nerves. As Atlanta chokes on congestion and mismanagement, Charlotte keeps nipping at our heels. They already surpassed us as the Southeast banking capital, and they've done a much better job with transportation infrastructure in recent years. Even though I thought the NASCAR Hall of Fame was stupid, and even though Charlotte got it because of its hometown status, it still pissed me off.

What is in the water there that makes them the only major metropolitan region in the entire country not to drop in home prices over the last year? A quick review of the historical prices suggests that Charlotte and Atlanta partook about equally in the housing boom - neither got ridiculously inflated like most other cities. You typically see the 20%+ drops in cities that had equally outrageous increase, unlike Atlanta and Charlotte. You can see this on the graph to the right, showing both Atlanta and Charlotte against the composite indexes for other major metropolitan area since 2000. Both cities peaked at about the same place. I would need to know more about the Charlotte market to really say more.

Overall, Atlanta's drop of 6.5% is about half the nationwide average of 14.1%. I would also love to see a breakdown of home prices to compare urban/intown prices and suburb/ex-urb prices.

Five Points plaza

While I didn't make it to Tech or the AUC like I intended, I did walk down to the Fulton county Courthouse Friday morning. I decided to cut through Five Points plaza.

Five Points plaza struck me as being in better condition than last year. It is always worse in the summers, but last year I remember being awestruck at the transformation from winter/spring to summer. What was a basically a dirty, run-down plaza became a regional epicenter for the homeless and for drug addicts. Anyway, Five Points wasn't awful Friday, but that is a relative statement. I would have been horrified probably if I didn't know what to expect.

There is something about Five Points ... there are plenty of homeless folks at Woodruff Park next door, but it doesn't get to me there like it does at Five Points. Maybe just the existence of greenspace makes a difference, it doesn't make everything feel as dirty. I think the "chess court" tables help a lot, although when I walked by last week there were a bunch of tables free and several groups of folks playing cards on the low walls next to them.

Realistically, I think Five Points plaza will be the last place in Downtown to turn around. All the positive movement is happening on the peripherals - Castleberry Hill, the Allen Plaza and 12 Centennial stuff at the north side of downtown, Integral Group's stuff on Auburn and even Capitol Gateway. That is a lot of housing to absorb, but if it can happen, then it will start bleeding into the real core of downtown, which has always been Five Points. I don't think GSU will build their dorms at Underground any time soon, so these areas are going to have to be the driving forces that eventually squeeze Five Points and put enough pressure on things to force changes.

Students' impact on Atlanta - Georgia Tech

Well, I didn’t get out and drive around. But I have definitely been thinking about Home Park and Georgia Tech since my post on GSU and downtown. I mentioned in that post that the Technology Square development at Fifth and Spring Streets was an important piece of Midtown's emergence. It certainly made residential developments like MidCity Lofts and later Plaza Midtown more viable. Today I'm going to look on the other side of the highway at Tech's impact on the Home Park neighborhood.

In my previous post, I advocated for greater amounts of student housing downtown. But it would be intellectually dishonest to ignore some of the negative externalities of having a large, concentrated student population in a city. Home Park is one example of what I affectionately referred to in undergrad as a student ghetto. These are areas where students pack into old houses near campus, trash the yards, and generally piss off the neighbors with noise and depreciated home values. The Home Park Community Improvement Association describes how Tech's expanding student population affected the neighborhood:
The increasing student population was difficult to house entirely within the campus borders so many houses were purchased by investors whose sole purpose was renting them to students. The result was subdivided houses, absentee landlords, declining housing conditions and increased crime. By 1991, the owner-occupancy rate was down to 35% ...
I can't tell you what that number is now, but I'm sure it is considerably higher. Home Park benefited from the same real estate boom that pulled up East Atlanta, Grant Park, Kirkwood, etc. Plus, it's location is even better. Atlantic Station being built next door also gave Home park a boost in property values. Like these other neighborhoods, Home Park is also seeing a decent amount of tear-downs, and Atlantic Station also accelerated this trend. My rant on tear-downs and neighborhood character will have to wait for another day; besides, it's not that original.

I wonder about Tech's impact on the revitalization of Home Park. Several scattered thoughts:
  • There is still a sizable student population, which may be preventing a complete turn-around for the neighborhood.
  • While student ghettos aren't particularly good things, I would categorize them as better than actual ghettos. Did having an existing student population allow Home Park to attract gentrifying buyers easier than other west side neighborhoods?
  • As a corollary, how much of the "ghetto-ization" of Home Park was a result of large forces affecting the inner city, and can the high levels of rentals in the 80's and 90's be seen as simply filling a void, rather than pushing anyone out?
  • Georgia Tech itself has built multi-family housing in Home Park, specifically 10th & Home. I think these type of developments probably bring most of the positives of students (pedestrian activity, disposable income, youth/vitality) without many of the negatives (dilapidated housing, house parties, break-ins).
There have also been some private student housing near tech that is not in the Home Park area, but that will have to be another post. I'm thinking about the MetroPointe Lofts, but also about traditional apartments with significant student populations along Howell Mill and Marietta Street.

Overall, I lament what Home Park was, and could have been if it weren't for Tech and Atlantic Station. The city desperately needs decent affordable housing close to the city, and Home Park at one point offered that. It was in many ways analogous to Cabbagetown, without the Appalachian character and ginger-bread architecture. They both served as housing for Atlanta's blue collar families, with Home Park serving
the workers of the Atlantic Steel Mill.

That being said, I also think that Home Park has a lot of great things going for it, and I'm sure that the legions of Tech students who have lived there over the years have very fond memories of it, just as I do of Ann Arbor. It's revival is generally a success story, and I do think that students have played a positive, if mixed, role in that story.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Stupid Ideas - New library

A new library on Centennial Olympic Park is stupid. All those tourists at the park aren't going to go to a library. What a waste of prime real estate - let's take an area of the city with massive potential for private development, and spend taxpayer money to build something that won't attract any other development or economic impact. And let's take it off the tax rolls, too.

Centennial Park is a gold mine for the city in terms of property taxes and economic development potential. I think the NASCAR Hall of Fame and the College Hall of Fame were stupid ideas, too. If and when downtown ever becomes a truly vibrant part of Atlanta again, the biggest and best stuff will be around Centennial Park. It should be reserved for mixed-use, high rise developments, not a politician's attempt to get attention for his next mayoral run.

Obnoxious Architecture - Vista Realty Partners

I keep driving by the large new development on Piedmont Avenue at Ralph McGill, Vista Realty Partners' 225 unit apartment complex called Marquis Vista. If the image to the right is any indication of how it will look, I will summarize my opinion with a single acronym: WTF?

Vista Realty Partners has done this before with Lindbergh Vista, although its not really as bad there. Lindbergh Vista is more of a missed opportunity, where as this rendering actually is quite annoying.

Generally, I would describe the problem with this style of architecture as an issue of proportion and quality. These architects try and mimic coherent styles, but they often use over-sized or cheap versions of the real thing. So you end up with the giant crown molding and on Lindbergh Vista, and this odd glass/cage tower thing on the front of Marquis Vista. And really, all they are trying to do is cover up the cheap stucco siding they've used on the rest of the building. Also, the colors - really? This isn't Miami, thats all I'm saying.

In the big picture, I don't mind that much. I am very happy to see mixed-use and/or pedestrian friendly developments in the city. And I have sometimes come around and started liking buildings that I used to hate. This definitely happened with the Westin downtown, which used to completely offend my sensibilities because of its street presence (or rather, its lack thereof). The Spring St side and the International Blvd side don't suck any less, but I have found I appreciate the overall effect much more than I used to.

For now, Vista Realty Partners gets the ignominious honor of being the subject of the first Obnoxious Architecture post. I went ahead and made this a category, since I know there will be lots more.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Development Tracker

I'm not sure if this will continue, but I like the idea of using this blog to track various development projects around town. Over time it would be neat to build a repository of information. Typically, something will catch my eye, and I'll later go back and do more research - ask around to see what folks know, look into public records for sales, zoning, etc. I'm going to try and keep track of these efforts, of which a decent amount will simply be logging news articles.

So, today I have three projects on my docket:
  • I have noticed that the townhouse portion of the U-Rescue Villa public housing project next to Crosby Spears Tower on North Avenue is being demolished. The only information I can find are a number of articles about the demolition. Lane Company manages the property, and a call over to the leasing office didn't glean any more information than I already had. No idea what Lane or the city plans to replace the townhouses with, or even if Lane will be involved in the development. This one might require some digging.

  • Habitat for Humanity is doing its first townhouse project, in two phases on a site in Sylvan Hills. I will need to do a little research to find the site, and will post an update when I do. I have an odd compulsion to know these things...

  • GM has teamed up with CB Richard Ellis to market the Doraville plant it will soon close. CBRE has set up a website to help market the site to developers, which the ABC suggests will include the usual suspects ("Cousins, Jacoby, Carter, and possibly Duke Realty Corp."). The website has a host of resource links, including a link to the Georgia Tech planning studio conducted a year-and-a-half ago that I have yet to read through.
The reality is that I am not going to have time to go back and research everything I want to. I am too busy with my real life. But hopefully I can use this blog as an inspiration to keep up to date on things. I should probably start a Google map tracker, too... I have a sneaky suspicion that this blog will quickly develop a hefty list of to-do items.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Preview of the next week

I am going to plan on writing a snapshot of the impact that Georgia Tech, Emory, and the Atlanta University Center have had on their respective neighborhoods, in much the way that I did with Georgia State and downtown Atlanta. I will probably drive around a little bit Friday and Saturday to solidify my impressions and snap pictures. It may or may not be as off-the-cuff as the last post. Like I said in the introduction, I'm feeling this out as I go along. I make no pretense of quality!

Students' impact on Atlanta

The AJC reports that Atlanta is seventh among major metropolitan areas in college student population. This, in my opinion, is pretty good news, especially the growth rate:
That is up seven spots from 1989, and Atlanta's enrollment rate is growing faster than that of any other major metro area with more than 100,000 students
Now, the study referenced includes UGA, so we should take note of that when using this study to talk about how all these students impact the city. From a larger perspective, I'm sure there are good reasons to include UGA in the study because having UGA right down the road certainly has a major impact on Atlanta's economy.

But my interests in the story are more about the impact that students have on a city's culture and vitality. These UGA students aren't renting housing, eating out, or partying in Atlanta - they are keeping all that "college culture" in Athens. Sure, folks come into town for concerts and the like, but they aren't really adding to the vitality of the city.

Georgia State University and Georgia Tech have certainly had major impacts on the city, and the growth of GSU in particular is one of the best things to happen to downtown in ages. For all the publicity that the aquarium and whatever new convention destination the chamber is pursuing (think NASCAR or the College Football Hall of Fame), GSU has done boat loads more for downtown. Just walk down Broad Street and see how the Aderhold Center has helped turn Fairlie-Poplar into an awesome urban neighborhood. Tech's expansion across the interstate was an important part of Midtown's emergence over the last ten years as an urban, pedestrian neighborhood.

The challenge for Atlanta is to find a way to capitalize on this large student population to continue to turn areas like downtown around. The new dorm that opened up recently is a good start, and GSU has an ambitious plan to build greek housing near campus as well. GSU says they want 20% of students living on campus by 2015, which is a great goal.

There theoretically should be ample opportunities for private developers to build student housing, but I think the reality of land and construction prices may make this difficult. Most properties in the area with conversion potential also have outrageous asking prices. At first blush, it is just too hard to make the numbers work.

I suspect there is some latent demand for quality, affordable, student housing downtown. Empirical evidence suggests otherwise, though - rents at places like Muse's Lofts look decent, about the same as a student would pay going through GSU. In addition, I have heard mixed results about the success of University Place at Underground, a private adaptive-reuse project that opened up a few years ago. I don't think they have exactly made a killing.

Until someone goes out on a limb, builds a quality product, and finds financial success, I don't think there will be much private development for student housing. Given the number of students living in town, there should be more opportunities, though. Perhaps what is missing is a definable college culture. Hopefully, these new GSU dorms can be the seed for that and create a unique driver for students to want to live downtown.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Introductions are in order

I'm starting this blog to bitch and moan mostly about Atlanta, real estate, and politics. I will invariably be unable to resist talking about music and sports, as well. It'll likely be just like a million other blogs. If you like any of these things, you might like this blog. Or you may just find me obnoxious.

For now, a little about me: twenty-something native of Atlanta proper and a life-long resident, save for a few years sojourn to go to school up north. I actually enjoyed my time among the yanks, but the simply truth is that its too darn cold up there and I like things too darn much down here.

I am presently a full-time MBA student in town, focusing on real estate. I am sure that my classes will flavor posts. Right now, there are no ground rules. I'm not going to make any promises about what subjects are germane or not, the frequency of posts, etc. I'm going to try and let this develop, and see what happens.