The State of Buckhead

Sam MassellEditor’s Note: Buckhead Coalition President Sam Massell gave his annual “state of the community” address this morning during the Buckhead Business Association meeting. Here is the full transcript of Massell’s speech.

By Sam Massell

Although I’ve only lived in Buckhead 57 years, I think it’s safe to say I have a pretty good handle on its condition. During this time, I’ve witnessed more than one real estate cycle. In this annual talk last year, I said “a luxury market like Buckhead would be the last to feel the economic downtrend, but would be the first to recover”. Well, we are in that mode.

We have recently seen some retailers go out of business, and some mortgages foreclosed. Unfortunately, we will see some more of this. However, we are also seeing signs of progress, and we will see more of this.

Our city of Atlanta has its mythical phoenix—the bird that rises from the ashes to fly again—well, we have the buck which is synonymous with money!

Buckhead is undeniably the address of choice for anyone who wants to live, visit, work or play in this state . . . or should I say the Southeastern states? When you look at the sustainability of the amenities we offer, who else can compete?

But let me walk you through ten stages — benchmarks — that cemented our foundation of strength over the years.

We started as a sleepy but sophisticated bedroom community, and then in 1952 the area was annexed into the City of Atlanta. This brought to the table the right to vote for the capital city’s mayor, council and board of education. The result was the obvious of responsive government: better street care, better traffic control, better public safety, and more!

Seven years later the Southeast’s largest mall –Lenox Square – was built, which changed the entire region’s retailing forever. This mall has kept pace with changing trends by being enclosed, adding a food court, providing covered parking, attaching hotel and office space, etc. where it has consistently retained a fresh new feeling, and serves as our ‘town square’.

There are now fourteen-hundred retail outlets in Atlanta’s north side, doing about 1.5-billion dollars in annual sales (of which 40% is by visitors from more than 100 miles away)!

With zoning height restrictions lifted by the power brokers in central downtown, Buckhead’s first real skyscraper, Tower Place, came on board as a thirty-story glass facade office building. When ground was broken in 1973, its developer asked if anyone could “ever top this”. It started the skyline of Buckhead, with buildings in every direction “topping” it, including the fifty-story Sovereign at its Peachtree entrance.

There are now 21,000,000 square feet of office space, with another 2,000,000 just becoming available.

The next historical achievement would be the opening of Pano’s & Paul’s in 1979, the first of eleven different themed fine dining establishments in our community by the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group. There’s no question this was the introduction of quality cuisine for Atlanta, and it happened in Buckhead.

Thus, the community’s quality of life now included the designation as “the dining room of Georgia”! What has followed numbers about three-hundred places offering food and beverage.

Five years after fine dining came fine sleeping. Buckhead became home for the flagship of the Ritz-Carlton international chain of luxury hotels. Rather unusual for overnight accommodations to be built outside of a downtown and not on an incoming U.S. highway. It set the stage for hospitality, and has been followed by twenty-four others, from an eighteen-room bed and breakfast up, with an overall total of 5,300 rooms! What’s more exceptional is the inclusion of seven luxury properties, unequaled in an “outlying” community.

Buckhead is now on the state’s official “Hospitality Highway”, and its hotels even enjoy high week-end occupancy in a shopping destination for surrounding states. With their exquisite public rooms attracting weddings, anniversaries and various benefit balls, this dimension serves as a comfortable extension of our town’s private residences.

At the same time as the Ritz, Buckhead got its first mass transit stop, the MARTA Lindbergh station. Of course, this (along with two other stations and sixteen bus routes) ensured the economic well being for commerce and industry, providing mobility for the labor force for offices and other businesses. It offers a direct $2 ride into Atlanta’s International Airport, and the rest of the world.

Two years after that, Park Place was built, which kicked off the condo craze! With its 240 units in forty floors, it was the nation’s largest single purpose multifamily/condominium building.

There are now 21,000 high-rise residential units here, plus 1,000 more condos just put on the market. This new phenomena served as a buffer between commercial and single family homes, provided housing for the labor market plus retail patrons, and generated a pedestrian atmosphere.

A couple of years later, the Buckhead Coalition was formed – a nonprofit civic group serving like a chamber of commerce, a convention and visitors bureau, and even a mini town hall – what a Washington Post reporter once called a “shadow government”. Structured for strength, its membership is by invitation, limited to 100 chief executive officers of the area’s leading businesses.

With a mission to “nurture the quality of life and help coordinate an orderly growth” in this twenty-eight square mile area of 76,000 residents, it has had a phenomenal success record for its twenty-one-year history. Having a strong supplement to government like this has an impact on everything from density to appearance to standard citizen services.

Five years after that, the limited access highway, GA 400, was dedicated. This routed the northern perimeter interstate, I-285 to I-85, connecting this area to Atlanta’s original Downtown through Midtown.

What followed was prologue to Buckhead’s prosperity personified! There’s no turning back now, as Buckhead booms to become Atlanta’s second downtown, by every index!

And the latest stimulus was in 1999 when the Community Improvement District was created. Called a BID or DID in most places around the country, it’s the self-taxation vehicle whereby this concentrated commercial portion of Buckhead becomes a quasi governmental entity.

Raising over five-million dollars per year and opening federal and state grant avenues, it is funding important changes in the infrastructure.

So there you have the list of ten major events – city annexation, Lenox Square, Towerplace, Pano’s & Paul’s, Ritz-Carlton, MARTA rail, Park Place, Buckhead Coalition, GA 400, and Buckhead CID – that took place between 1952 and 1999 to continuously build this community into the success it enjoys today. Credit all along the way goes to civic pride and organizational leadership.

With forty-one neighborhood organizations, thirty-three church congregations, seventeen parent-teacher associations, six service clubs, and other organized groups many people are working to reconfigure the status quo and increase vitality.

With a foundation like that, I dare anyone to try and knock us off the top of the mountain! Our stars are aligned, and indicator after indicator shows a positive direction. Our population is continuing to grow and during last year did so at a greater percentage increase than the balance of Atlanta.

Business, too, is increasing. Just in the past twelve months, Simon Properties signed leases with twenty-one NEW retailers in Lenox and Phipps Malls!

And, if that’s not impressive enough, let me review with you a sample of news stories that appeared in local media JUST DURING THE LAST THIRTY DAYS: Vipel Patel is bringing his U.S. Café concept to Lindbergh Vista Apartments; Retailer of offbeat labels, Bill Hallman Studio has opened in 3400 Around Lenox; Tomo’s Sushi is opening in the Ritz-Carlton Residences on Peachtree; Sovereign sold a 48th-floor penthouse for a record closing price of $4.2 million, and another one for $2.35 million; Just Loaf’’n has opened at 3173 Roswell Road; Turner Construction has signed a 10-year, 30,000-square foot lease in Two Alliance Center; Regent Partners has leased close to 90 percent of its commercial real estate space at its 3344 Peachtree Building; Fidelity Bank reports 4th quarter profit; CariSoul Cuisine has opened in the Darlington; The law firm of McCurdy & Candler will move its headquarters from Decatur to 39,000 square feet in Piedmont Center;

FranchiseMart of West Palm Beach has opened at 2221 Peachtree; Buckhead is to get a new high school (and second middle school);The Havana Club has opened at 3112 Piedmont Center; Generation Mortgage Co. increased its space in Piedmont Center by over 29,000 square feet; An Athens restaurant operator is opening in old Carbo’s space at 3717 Roswell Road; Global Living furniture store has opened at 3106 Early St.; Investment advisory firm French Wolf & Farr has relocated to the Pinnacle Building in order to double its capacity; Baroni Italian has signed a lease with Selig for the former Wolfgang Puck Express space; Aaron’s reports 4th quarter revenue increased by 6.2%; Cousins Properties reports sales of 50 units in less than three months in 10 Terminus Place, and “Streets of Buckhead” developer Ben Carter reports he is in talks with investors to raise $200 million to resume work on this luxury retail project . . . which, like the cup half full, it’s where I see a building half built.

That’s over 20 positive news stories, and, I repeat, all of that was reported in the last month!

Our amenities didn’t diminish during the economic downturn. We are still noted for very stable neighborhoods, our shady tree canopy, top rated schools, the ultimate in shopping options, exceptional dining variety, abundant orderly nightlife, numerous art galleries, large park lands, Atlanta’s History Museum, excellent health facilities, good highway access, three rail stations, and much, much more! No wonder Buckhead is the address of choice!

We do have a momentary surplus of new office space, condo units, retail stores, and hotel rooms, but absolutely, positively, all of it will be occupied. It will just take a little longer than the boom market to which we’ve become accustomed.

On that I’ll give you a contract, and another guarantee I offer is that if you buy a bit of Buckhead and take care of it now, it will take care of you later.