On Empty Commission Seats and Empty Condos

horrorThese buildings fill me with existential dread. They are Lovecraftian horror in tasteful glass and stone, vile and perilous Things worthy of a John Carpenter soundtrack, an attack on the essential core of my reason.

This is Panola Slope.

The development on Covington Highway is tasteful and well-maintained, modeled on the live-work-play concepts put to such extraordinary use in places like Suwanee Town Center and Atlantic Station. The first floor contains 12,000 feet of retail space, with 23 luxury townhomes built on the second and third stories. They have brick facing exteriors with parking garages tucked carefully in the back.

And they’ve been completely empty since at least 2008.

Mixed-use development! That’s what economic development folks reach for when exploring ways to cut down on traffic congestion. Live! Work! Play! That’s how to accommodate new attitudes about civic relationships. New Urbanist communities! Mixed use development! Raise the commercial tax base in unincorporated areas, by Jove! Build it and they will come!

I have advocated the merits of mixed-use development for at least 10 years. I am not alone. Better, richer men than I have sunk millions of dollars into live-work-play developments, with mottled successes and some stunning failures. But I’ve held out hope, nonetheless. Until now.

The unincorporated areas of South DeKalb face three major problems. The foreclosure crisis rages on here, depressing property values. The incorporation movement threatens to soak up all the valuable commercial real estate, leaving south DeKalb mired in low-value property with high government service costs. And the transportation options stink. Mixed use development could solve all of that at once.

Then, this.

I should drive Richard Florida out here, hand him a pistol and tell him to do the right thing.  

Panola Slope has been in the news lately because the politically-connected developer wants to fill the empty retail space with the Georgia equivalent of a a pachinko parlor. The developer, Vaughn Irons, plans to put 425 gaming machines on the site. The governor made his objections clear after a WSB story pointed out that he had sold the property to an Indian tribe with extensive gambling operations in Louisiana.

“They’re planning to invest $28 million,” said Chapman Walsh, a business development manager at Irons’ firm APD Solutions. “They needed collateral, that’s all.” The games, Walsh says, would have some “virtual reality” machines like a video arcade. But there’s absolutely nothing describing the ratio of pinball machines and Mortal Kombat booths to the banks of grotty video poker terminals lining the back rooms of gas stations all over metro Atlanta.

I wandered over to the Texaco next door to Panola Slope, where six well-used coin operated amusement machines sit next to the fridge. I asked the proprietor, Muhammad, what one might get for playing. “Groceries, gas, lottery tickets. That’s all,” he told me. They couldn’t possibly be paying off in other ways. Nuh uh.

Not long after the connection between the Louisiana tribe and APD Solutions, county attorneys discovered that the vote to approve zoning for the property wasn’t legal, because at least one commissioner representing the parcel has to approve it. District 5 remains unrepresented while Lee May serves as interim CEO. And the superdistrict commissioner for the area, Stan Watson … is on APD’s payroll, and can’t vote on it.

Perhaps this is why May withdrew his deadlocked nominee George Turner to serve as an interim commissioner on Monday. He has nominated Dr. Kathryn Rice in Turner’s stead, although the intent appears to be to have her purposely voted down to clear a path for the nominee of the commission’s choice. Rice leads the South DeKalb Improvement Association, and has — perversely enough — spearheaded the quixotic movement to incorporate South DeKalb into the new city of Greenhaven.

I assumed at first that the neighbors would have risen up in arms upon hearing of a not-casino springing up across the street. I assumed wrong.

I talked to a dozen people. I found not one person in opposition. Irons plans to open three relatively high-end restaurants on the site. Business owners nearby want the extra traffic a decent restaurant might provide. And residents don’t want to trundle off to Stonecrest or Tucker or Atlanta for fare one step above a wing joint.

“The money is there,” Walsh said. I think he’s right. If the Census data reflects reality, the area around Hidden Hills has held on to middle class incomes even as property values have declined. People nearby have been trapped by negative home equity, but they’re not poor, generally.

And the Greater Hidden Hills Community Development Corporation — the largest homeowner’s group operating in that area — is all for the redevelopment. Jan Costello, head of the group, basically thinks the governor can pound sand if he doesn’t like it. “There’s not been a job out here that he’s created,” she said. Economic development has focused on places like Perimeter, leaving them behind.

Without some kind of change, Panola Slope will descend into an empty blight, she said, one more problem to endure.

9 comments

  1. blakeage80 says:

    Geez. This went from sad to depressing. We have an interesting relationship with mixed use developments in Clarke County as well. They tend to rent most of the apartments (students), but the bottom floors tend to stay ghost towns. I think it’s mainly due to things like awkward or small spaces, building the storefronts right on the road so you have to drive around back and find parking in an apartment complex parking lot, being in spots with virtually zero foot traffic, and there’s just too much elbow room around for folks to want to cram themselves into a small area. I like the idea of mixed use, walk to the grocery store, mass transit lifestyle, but these buildings too often turns into a half empty hulk that are destined to be a slum in 20-30 years.

  2. Ellynn says:

    Richard Florida… That line was worth choking on my coffee.

    I am steeling this for the next urban architecture jury I sit on…

  3. gcp says:

    High end mixed use does not work in a dumpy area like Covington Highway. The original developement could have worked if the condos were moderately priced. Perhaps developement would have followed.

    Suwanee and Atlantic station work because surrounding areas are nice; not so on Covington Highway. As for what to do with the property now? Maybe a Wal-Mart or a couple of chain restaurants.

    • George Chidi says:

      I think Suwanee and Atlantic Station work because of scale. Folks will argue about whether Atlantic Station actually works, of course — the hit those condos took on valuation is surreal, but so was the initial asking price. Suwanee works in part because the school system is unbelievably good.

      But “maybe a Wal-Mart or a couple of chain restaurants?” Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with either of those things, but c’mon, man. Dick comment.

      • gcp says:

        Wal-Mart has a history of locating in depressed areas (Memorial Dr. Gresham Rd) whether other businesses would follow on Covington is the unknown.

        The ongoing problem in Dekalb is the corruption and mess in Decatur. Recently had a zoning board member indicted.

        Partially agree on Atlantic Station. Yes values have fluctuated and some have foreclosed but overall its been a success.

  4. saltycracker says:

    Not too educated on this specific but it doesn’t pass the smell test. The smart lenders in many areas require some level/% of commitment from leasors or buyers prior to funding. Taxpayer involvement significantly transfers risk. Distressed areas and sprawl zoning also increase risk developers are looking to lay off or get in really cheap. Deep pocketed REIT’ s can get a little crazy with shareholder money……lots to pick from in building a ghost town….but someone will make a lot of money….

    • Ellynn says:

      If they used a lender, they most likely had it in 2006/2007. Every one wanted to have a piece of the action. At the time many residental mix use owners had huge cash influx from selling over priced units in the prevous 6 months and skipped lending. Most had ‘city supples the inferstructure at no cost we supple the future property taxes’. Lost of screwy deals before the realestate bubble exploded in the fall of 2008.

    • gcp says:

      The original project would not work post/ pre/ or during the recession. But also because this is Dekalb County who knows what kind of corruption was involved.

  5. benevolus says:

    “Mixed use development” sounds like it’s designed for profit. If we want neighborhoods, we should build neighborhoods. Start with a park, add some different kinds of housing, add some retail/commercial- but keep it all smaller scale.

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