Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Reader email: New BeltLine CEO

I got an email from a reader, and was about to write him back when I figured my response might be worth posting:
They named a new Beltline CEO.  What do you think? If he was teh VP of Atlantic Station, the only thing I can say is I am concerned for the Beltline.  I know Atlantic Station is a major improvement from what it was, but the last word I would use for Atlantic Station is "impressive."

It all comes down to quality and design.  If the CEO doesn't have it, then the project won't have it, simple as that.
I have been ambivalent about Atlantic Station in this space.  At one point I said, "Atlantic Station is in many ways a huge disappointment it also did a lot of things right."  That is still about how I feel, although I've warmed up to the place the more I go there.  I really only end up there once a month or so for a movie, and it is always fairly busy.  It feels more urban as they fill in 17th Street with more high rises, but I also haven't been near some of the ugly multifamily buildings in a while.

I also don't know much about Brian Leary as an individual.  However, from an outsider's perspective, my first instinct is that BeltLine made a pretty good hire.  First, I think the private enterprise experience is important, and Atlantic Station is one of the few mega projects that has actually delivered anything to market.  Allen Plaza is the only other one I can think of, and the BeltLine has had mixed results working with the Barry folks on the Wayne Mason parcel.  Projects of this magnitude are very, very difficult to pull off, and Brian Leary has been a key part of one that can generally be called a success.

I call Atlantic Station a success because they created a lively, almost fully leased retail destination, and a fairly successful residential component.  Sure, the condo sales aren't so hot right now, but that is hardly unique to Atlantic Station.  I think the apartments have good occupancy rates, as well.  Non real estate types often underestimate how difficult it is to build anything, much less something on the scale of Atlantic Station.  All you need to do is look at the vacant or half-built sites out there to see how impressive Atlantic Station actually is, in the grand scheme of things.

It is easy to get snagged on the design aspect - and Atlantic Station leaves a lot to be desired.  It feels too separate from the rest of the city, the buildings on the square look fake and Disney-esque, the parking is a ginormous pain in the ass, the bridge is ugly (thanks DOT), the multifamily buildings are generally pretty ugly (thanks Lane Company), there are tons of chain retail, and there is a giant IKEA big box on the edge of the development.  Some folks will tell you it feels "ghetto" - which is utter b.s., by the way.  I went to APS for 9 years, and Atlantic Station is NOT ghetto - it attracts middle class black shoppers from the 'burbs.  Calling it ghetto says more about you than it does about Atlantic Station.

However, this email was about the BeltLine.  Brian Leary, as CEO of the BeltLine, will not be designing buildings or even particular parcels.  I doubt he'd have anything like the kind of micro-managing ability most developers I know expect to have on their projects.  Most developers care about everything down to sink fixtures and cabinet knobs.  The CEO of the BeltLine will be about making sure the project is advancing forward on time, with financing, and with the appropriate amount of involvement from the community.  Atlantic Station gets close to an A in all three of those categories.  Home Park has had some complaints about Atlantic Station, but they were heavily involved in the planning stages of the development.

So I think someone with Leary's experience should be a good thing for the BeltLine, although I said previously that I don't know anything about him as an individual.  I have no idea what his personal abilities are like, what kind of a leader he is, etc.  I think these things, and fitting with the existing BeltLine culture, are important.  But I'm fairly optimistic about the hire.

UPDATE: I should probably link to Maria Saporta's article on Brian Leary.  

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