Yesterday, the American Planning Association named Midtown Atlanta as one of only five neighborhoods nationally to receive the honor of 2016’s list of Great Places in America.
This announcement would be enough to make Midtown Alliance President/CEO Kevin Green‘s month. Yet, less than a month ago, NCR Corporation, already committed to relocating its global headquarters from Gwinnett County to a new Midtown tower – and the 3,600 jobs that come along with it – said it would build a second tower to house 1,800 more employees.
The smile barely had time to leave Green’s face when Honeywell, on the very next day, announced it would choose Midtown for both its new Software Development Center and the headquarters for its $10 billion-a-year Home and Building Technologies business. That’s 830 more future jobs, bringing the total to 6,230.
Where does all that good news fit into the 38-year history of Midtown Alliance, a non-profit group of private sector leaders and community-minded individuals with the goal of making a 1.2 square mile section of the city attractive to Fortune 500s, tech startups, and the people who work for them?
“It’s a huge landmark,” Green told Hypepotamus, “considering the fact that NCR doubles down while still in construction with Phase One, and then they announce Phase Two. That’s great validation that they made the right choice.”
Green also argues that the last two years of Midtown announcements make it one of the country’s leading innovation districts, an urban design strategy championed in the early 2000s by Brookings Institution scholar Bruce Katz. Mix anchor institutions like universities and large companies with entrepreneur-friendly resources such as tech incubators and co-working spaces, and then sprinkle them throughout livable, walkable areas, and you have the 21st century recipe for economic vitality.
“Midtown is the poster child for that,” Green said, who added that 25 percent of the city’s tech jobs are now in Midtown, which makes up .8 of one percent of the city’s total land area.
“Tech Square has been on a slow burn, and all of a sudden the fuse has been lit faster, and we’re seeing an explosive growth of jobs and economic activity. I think we’re going to look back on this in 100 years and say this was a pivotal time for the city and the state.”
That innovation district foundation was laid for Midtown in 2000 with the completion of the first Blueprint Atlanta, the Alliance’s community-driven master plan for what all interested parties hoped the district would look like in the future, including office/residential development, transportation and public safety improvements.
Before Blueprint Atlanta, Midtown was a scary area to either avoid or drive through as quickly as legally possible. “There were some beacons of development, but even if you looked down Peachtree Street, you saw boarded up, abandoned retail,” said Green, an Emory University graduate.
Suddenly, Midtown – defined by the Alliance by the Downtown Connector on the west, Piedmont Park to the east, the Savannah College of Art and Design on the north and Emory University Hospital Midtown to the south – found itself the subject of the biggest rezoning initiative in the city’s history. Nearly $5 billion in new investment, along with the zoning regulations, started sparking transformations.
“The good news is, when you build a building, you have to adhere to the special zoning, which means you have to bring the building up to the street,” Green said. “You’ve got to build out the streetscapes to our standards, which means wide sidewalks, active uses of the street level, differentiating your bottom two floor’s facade, planting large caliper trees, all of which lends itself to the walkable district we’ve got today.”
Around the same time that Blueprint Atlanta was approved, Green says Georgia Tech’s leadership provided the other catalyzing moment for Midtown with the establishment of Tech Square, “which at the time was a bunch of weedy vacant lots.” Thanks to that vision, Tech Square became “the urban front door of Georgia Tech, creating an ecosystem focusing on technology and the talent” that has proven to be so attractive to legacy companies and startups.
How attractive? In addition to NCR and Honeywell, here are just some of the company moves to Midtown that have kept Green in a good mood for the past two years:
- Equifax expansion/relocation from OTP, 800-plus jobs.
- GE Digital’s global digital operations center, 400 total jobs.
- Kaiser Permanente tech campus in Pershing Point Plaza, 900 jobs.
- WorldPay’s corporate HQ relocation to Atlantic Station, 1200 total jobs.
- Sage Software’s North American HQ relocation, also Atlantic Station, 400 jobs.
- Keysight Technologies software development center in Tech Square, 250 jobs.
Then there are the corporate innovation centers/accelerators recently founded in or near Tech Square, hoping to fish in the Georgia Tech talent/idea stream: Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Delta, Anthem, AT&T, Worldpay, NCR, Panasonic, Southern Company.
That’s 70,000 jobs, 20,000 residents, 20 high rise construction sites, and another 20 projects in the pipeline, including Georgia Tech’s futuristic, collaborative high performance computing center, Coda, which breaks ground in November.
“It really helps to have an organization whose job it is to wake up every day and say what needs to be done, to have that organization that’s plugged into the Georgia Techs, the residential community, the other NGOs and cultural attractions, and have everyone presenting consensus positions on what needs to happen,” Green said.