ATLANTA — On a warm Saturday night, the most visible part of Atlanta’s exclusive Buckhead district was pockmarked by boarded-up bars, a shadow of its former self.
The tableau in Buckhead’s East Village neighborhood, a retail and commercial center long before it became a hot spot for nightlife, sets the stage for a potential makeover of the 12-block corridor. The effort to turn East Village into a pedestrian-friendly retail hub, led by a business, neighborhood and academic coalition, has the challenge of creating a flourishing “Main Street” environment less than a mile from the upscale Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza malls.
“The East Village has been in a down cycle, while other areas of Buckhead are thriving,” said Terry Grissom, professor of real estate at Atlanta’s Georgia State University, who has worked on a redevelopment and marketing plan. “Like other famous neighborhoods that have been successfully reinvented…it will take time and careful planning.”
Ten miles from downtown Atlanta, East Village gained a reputation as party central during the Eighties and Nineties. To encourage nightlife, zoning laws reduced required parking spaces per establishment and bars proliferated. Crime and alcohol-related disturbances increased, culminating in the fatal stabbings of two men outside a club during Super Bowl week in 2000. Baltimore Ravens star linebacker Ray Lewis was arrested in the case and eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice. He agreed to testify against two men, who were acquitted.
The notoriety helped generate public clamor to clean up the bar scene. Two years later, city officials moved closing times to 2 a.m. from 4 a.m., raised the drinking age to 21 from 18 and increased police patrols. These and other initiatives resulted in the closings of as many as 30 bars, said former Atlanta mayor Sam Massell, president of the Buckhead Coalition, a nonprofit group of chief executive officers of Buckhead businesses.
“The party’s over and the noise, trash and fights with it,” Massell said, who estimated it would take five years to redevelop the district. “The next stage of the East Village has great potential to become a high-end mix” of boutiques, antiques shops, galleries and restaurants.
Buckhead may be Atlanta’s most sought-after address. The area features multimillion dollar mansions, 5,000 hotel rooms and hundreds of stores, restaurants and art galleries in its 28 square miles.
In the East Village area, with about $4 million in private funds set aside to widen sidewalks, add on-street parking, create new intersections and bike lanes and landscape, elected officials envision a commercial zone that is a mini version of Washington’s Georgetown section.
Still, the vision must overcome what independent retailers characterized as a collective hangover of negative perceptions about East Village.
“The village is a small area, but that’s what people think of when they think of Buckhead, and they haven’t forgotten,” said Jan Bilthouse, owner of the Bilthouse, a better-bridge apparel and home specialty store that opened in 1992.
“In 1992, this was the place to go for all ages, drawing from all over the South,” said Bilthouse, an Atlanta native who lived and worked in Buckhead much of her life and has a second store in the northern suburb of Roswell. “The malls still make Buckhead a destination, but…the village isn’t.”
Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza, owned by Simon Properties Group, are across Peachtree Road from each other. Both were built in the Sixties and expanded during the Eighties and Nineties. Once competitors, they were joined in 1998 under the Simon Properties Group umbrella. Together, they rank behind King of Prussia mall in Pennsylvania and Houston’s Galleria, which each brings in more than $1 billion in annual sales, said Tisha Maley, assistant vice president of leasing for Simon.
“With these malls, we’re creating street retail that Atlanta lacks,” Maley said. “Lenox Square, with its high-traffic and flagship brand stores, is like Fifth Avenue. Phipps is more deep pockets and fashion boutiques, like Madison Avenue.”
Lenox Square, featuring Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and Neiman Marcus, has 189 specialty stores, including Polo By Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie & Fitch, Louis Vuitton, Coach and Kate Spade. Neiman Marcus will add 52,000 square feet to reach a total of 153,000 square feet in a project to be completed next year. Phipps Plaza’s tenants include Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue and Parisian, as well as 108 specialty stores.
Lenox Square is attracting stores such as the new Adidas Originals, one of 11 U.S. stores, which opened in December.
In the past two years, Phipps has scored with high-end contemporary boutiques, opening a Barney’s New York, Jimmy Choo, Tory Burch, Intermix, Theory and Tahari.
In addition to mall competition, another obstacle to retail development in the East Village — as well as in the city of Atlanta — is traffic gridlock, unsafe intersections and insufficient parking, which makes strolling and browsing a daunting prospect. Many pedestrians have a deer-in-the-headlights look as they negotiate Peachtree Road.
The $4 million appropriated to help propel East Village’s redevelopment is particularly well timed because of a high-rise construction surge that will add residential, office and retail space in Buckhead and the East Village. Massell said 21 new projects have been announced or are under way, along Peachtree Road. Many feature condominiums for $1 million and more.
Among the most ambitious is the St. Regis Hotel and condominiums, a $120 million project that broke ground this spring near the East Village. The 26-floor structure has 50 condos, starting at $2.5 million for an average 4,100-square-foot unit, and 150 hotel rooms. The property features a spa as well as retail and restaurant space.
Paul Freeman, managing general partner of the St. Regis Group, owned by Starwood Properties, described the St. Regis as an “urban resort” that will appeal to affluent Baby Boomers tired of a suburban lifestyle who want the kind of urban living offered in New York and Chicago.
Novare Group Holdings has opened Eclipse, a 21-story high-rise condominium with retail space in the heart of the East Village. About half of its 10 street-level retail spaces are occupied. Most are independent businesses, among them a nail salon, a music school and a sushi bistro. Moda 101, a Philadelphia men’s wear store, opened in May, and Elements of Style, a women’s specialty store, opened last November.
Elements of Style targets an affluent clientele with one-of-a-kind artistic apparel and accessories from European and U.S. designers, including Kiss of the Wolf, Catherine Bacon and Patricia Von Musulin. Prices start at $300 and go as high as $5,000 for a hand-painted silk and velvet coat; the average price is $750.
So far, national retailers, such as Gap, Victoria’s Secret or Banana Republic, which would turn the East Village into retail destination, have been a hard sell, developers said.
“The first wave will be independent retailers, before bigger brands get interested,” said Jim Borders, president of Novare Group Holdings, developer of Eclipse and other Atlanta high-rises. “The community wants retailers, like the Gap, while building residents want a nice restaurant and retail that’s a convenience for them. Ultimately, the market will dictate the tenant mix.”