When picturing the rebirth of downtown Atlanta, one of the first images to come to mind is the skyline — the iconic high-rises. Another, often overlooked, part of this picture includes Atlanta’s skywalks. In the early days of redevelopment, these walkways connected luxury buildings above urban neighborhoods that many had abandoned, and effectively furthered the separation of the “haves” from the “have-nots.”
Iconic Atlanta developer Egbert Perry was driven to challenge development that emphasized the separation. From his perspective, perpetuating the separation of community members simply perpetuated the issues of inequity and injustice that plagued the city. Perry was motivated to bring people together in a different way, in neighborhoods that would appeal to everyone.
Where others saw poverty, blight, and dilapidated housing projects, Perry saw potential — and pioneered a new approach to affordable and workforce housing, commercial real estate development, and community development and investment.
The Story Begins at Centennial Place
In 1994, when Perry left H.J. Russell & Company to start The Integral Group, he quickly came upon an opportunity to redevelop the area now home to Centennial Place. The 60-acre property was located in the heart of downtown Atlanta, and was considered to be the most violent neighborhood in what was then America’s most violent city.
At the time, the site was occupied by Techwood Homes, the first public housing project in the United States, and Clark Howell Homes, another public housing project. Atlanta had the highest concentration of public housing in the United States on a per capita basis, and Techwood Homes had an average household income of about $4,300 a year.
“We entered into that space at the time when living in the city was not a desirable option,” Perry says.
Perry and Integral saw something different in the future Centennial Place: a prime location next to Georgia Tech and Coca-Cola, a high level of accessibility and livability, and a community poised to flourish.
A Holistic Approach to Development
When the Atlanta Housing Authority sought a redevelopment partner for the Techwood Homes site, Integral pitched its vision to be implemented in a proposed partnership between Integral, the Atlanta Housing Authority and another private development partner. The team was quickly awarded the project. The groundbreaking idea they presented? Rather than focus on just penthouses or housing projects, why not bring people of all incomes together in a holistic mixed-use community?
“You need a school, early childhood development, some kind of recreational outlet like a YMCA or Boys and Girls Club, mixed-income housing, and all the services that people with means take for granted,” Perry says. “You are basically putting together all of the elements of what someone thinks of when they think of a community.”
The goal was to re-establish dignity in people’s lives, independent of their economic circumstances through environments where they can have nurturing, fulfilling, and healthy lives. Today Centennial Place continues to evolve into a vibrant, thriving community that includes a K-8 STEAM school, an early childhood development center, a family health and wellness facility, and 738 residential units that are home to market-rate renters, cost-burdened residents, and homeowners alike. Other components include 45 fee-simple townhomes, a 739-bed student housing development, a 330-unit market-rate multifamily rental development, and a 120-room hotel.
Importantly, a crucial component of Integral’s revitalization strategy is The Ascent Project Inc., an Integral-sponsored non-profit organized to work with lower income families, seniors and young people in our communities, as they seek to transition into the economic and social mainstreams.
“The fact that we are creating mixed-income communities means that, by definition, we are creating communities for people across a broad range of incomes and that invariably also means across racial lines,” Perry notes.
Catalyzing a Nationwide Movement
Centennial Place laid the foundation for a movement. “When people talk about mixed-income housing these days, they are often referring to housing that is a component of holistic mixed-income communities. Whether they realize it or not, the work we did to create Centennial Place ushered in the legal, regulatory and financial framework that made these mixed-income communities possible,” Perry says. It became the national model for transforming severely distressed housing sites into transformative mixed-income communities.
“What we did with the new vision at Centennial Place helped us see what could be done there and elsewhere. It became clear that, if done properly, the project would not only revitalize the 60-acre site and the surrounding neighborhood, but could also have a transformational impact on this area of the city. Ultimately, it did just that.”
Achieving a Fine Balance
Since Centennial Place, the Integral Group has developed many new communities, senior housing facilities, luxury real estate ventures, large-scale commercial properties, and thousands of affordable and workforce housing units. With five offices nationwide, the company now has more than 50 developments in its portfolio, all aimed at providing meaningful housing for residents.
This balance is what makes the firm’s approach to community development work.
“On one end, we go all the way to luxury and give great returns to our investors. On the other, we address affordable and workforce housing and create communities,” Perry says. “In essence, we operate along the spectrum that runs from high mission, neighborhood transformation work all the way to high margins, market-driven transactions.”
Community-building is a Team Effort
Patience and strong partnerships have been essential as projects like Centennial Place go through their share of twists and turns from concept to completion.
“Whether you’re talking about lenders, investors or other stakeholders, you need partners who understand the vision, understand the end game, and are committed to that end game,” Perry says. “The willingness to stay the course and work through a restructuring of transactions is something that has been invaluable to us.”
In Walker & Dunlop, he says, “You have professionals that are more than open to and willing to help you structure your deals to solve the problems that you’re going to encounter and that you anticipate encountering, in a way that furthers your priorities. As problem solvers and partners, Walker & Dunlop plays an essential role in helping us fulfill our mission: a sense of community everyone can experience.”
— By Jeffrey Lawrence, Managing Director at Walker & Dunlop, and Matt Baptiste, Vice President at Walker & Dunlop. Walker & Dunlop is a content partner of REBusinessOnline. For more articles from and news about Walker & Dunlop, click here.