Main Street’s Retail Resurgence is Well Underway Across Metro Atlanta
Main Street is making a comeback, and this is not news by any means. This growing trend is not only affecting real estate in the greater Atlanta area, but also throughout the United States. Main Street’s demise began with the design of President Eisenhower’s interstate highway system. It allowed travelers to bypass once sustaining rural towns and divided urban cities in their hearts. In Atlanta, it’s easy to notice with the unconscionable prejudice that comes with the interstates that divide our city compounded by the inefficiency of MARTA. The fall of Main Street was further catalyzed by the rise of the service-based economy and exportation of U.S. manufacturing to low cost nations, allowing larger retailers to capitalize and increase their market share by selling low-cost goods.
Increasing affordability, especially for consumer goods, is great for everyone -— no one wants to be digging out of their savings for daily necessities — especially in a time when almost half the country cannot afford a $400 medical bill. However, this increased our fascination with saving on discretionary spending and led to increased demand for the “big-box” store. Large retailers’ capitalization on this trend led to increased foot traffic to their centers. Developers’ investments hence focused on malls and traditional shopping centers. Main Street, along with its real estate, suffered accordingly.
The positive impact of the removal of inner-city interstate highways is perfectly exemplified in one of America’s best cities in which to live — San Francisco. Octavia Boulevard replacing the Central Freeway following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake was a boon for the local population and the real estate industry in the immediate aftermath of its completion. Following its completion, personal income per capita and property values increased well more than the national average, all while reducing density in the city. There are several other success stories across the United States and globe. In a time where populations are still suffering from the effects of the Great Recession, this kind of public investment can provide short-term relief and be a catalyst for long-term private investment.
To alleviate their other big issue, the rise of the big-box, Main Street businesses have been following the trends of the country’s continuously growing (in terms of market share) generations: millennials and Generation Z. Despite the millennials’ more than $1 trillion student loan burden, they are projected to soon be the largest consumer group in the United States.
Generation Y has an unmatched cultural diversity compared to previous generations and preference in experience-driven retail over durable goods. This has given local retailers a leg up over the large, standardized national concepts on consumer demands. Their malleability allows them to adapt to the ever-changing demands of the younger consumers.
Generation Z, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily changing brick-and-mortar retail; they are bringing it back. Gen Z prefers to shop in-store and is more likely to visit shopping malls than other generations. While Amazon has created an “e-tail” arms race among retailers across the globe, there are plenty of opportunities for local businesses to compete with the largest players. Along with the trend of purchasing online and picking up in-store, a newfound symbiotic relationship seems to be forming between big-box and e-tail multinationals and the mom and pops of Main Street.
These trends have reflected in investments throughout the greater Atlanta area. In the urban center, Newport’s bet on south downtown Atlanta could be the template for future Atlanta investments. While some Atlanta developers are creating massive, newly conceptualized mixed-use projects aligning retail, office and residential in one specific area, Newport US is going back to America’s roots. Its $500 million plan to “redevelop” around 750,000 square feet of existing office, retail, and residential space within the community is a prime example. What separates Newport from its peers is its desire to retain the culture, rather than regentrifying the community. Its plans to keep famed local retailers such as the 60-year-old Miller’s Rexall Drugs, which happens to be the inspiration and cover image for Paul McCartney’s 1999 album “Run Devil Run,” shows it is not looking to overhaul the area, rather it seems it is truly bringing back Main Street Atlanta.
The 17th Street Bridge, while controversial at the time, further assisted Main Street in its comeback attempt. Originally constructed to connect Midtown to Atlantic Station, Midtown dwellers finally had a convenient route to West Midtown, and development soon after followed rapidly. Once Westside Provisions opened in 2008, it truly opened the floodgates of additional retail and multifamily development that we continue to see today.
Additionally, Atlanta’s aim to create more parks and public spaces in dense, urban centers will promote walkability and a sense of community, something Atlanta has lacked being the transplant city that it is. Whether it’s the $250 million park over Ga. Highway 400 in Buckhead or the 14-acre Stitch in Midtown, developers and city planners are starting to see the positive effects of parks and greenways. Atlanta has a model in this realm in Klyde Warren Park in Uptown Dallas, which opened five years ago, and immediately eliminated the city’s disjointed feel.
Throughout suburban Atlanta, Main Street continues to appeal to local communities. Downtown Roswell, and Canton Street specifically, has brought the Main Street feel well beyond the Atlanta city limits. Whether it’s the historic, street-level retail buildings, the 800-plus acres of parks and green space, Roswell is attracting not only residents, but developers as well. Atlanta-based S.J. Collins Enterprises’ potential redevelopment of the Southern Skillet Plaza is a microcosm of the popularity of this trend. While the construction will of course be new compared with the more than 100-year-old construction of Canton Street corridor, it is still aiming to have the “boutique” feel that the community has always coveted.
Even East Cobb, Atlanta’s real life example of “Pleasantville,” is considering developing its own Main Street corridor.
The suburban mixed-use development that is exploding throughout the metro area also has a Main Street feel to it. Developers are aiming to create self-sustaining communities with walkability as a prime focus. Halcyon’s Big Creek Greenway gives it an additional feature, bringing real estate development and nature together in a cooperative way.
While Main Street has made a comeback, it seems it has left behind two very large groups — poverty-ridden urban and rural communities. The Main Street renaissance has been at the expense of the local communities as gentrification has run rampant in Atlanta, whether it be Old Fourth Ward, West Midtown, West End or College Park.
Excluding a few select lucky cities, rural areas have been largely ignored. It’s imperative that a resolution is formed on how to bring the revitalization to areas that unfortunately get left behind or left out of the renaissance.
By Kenny Holzer, President, and Josh Wulz, Leasing Associate, at Skyline Seven Real Estate. This article originally appeared in the May issue of Southeast Real Estate Magazine.