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Sweet Auburn Rebirth

By the late 1990s, Atlanta's Sweet Auburn district had soured. The area, named a National Historical Landmark in 1976 for its role and significance in the civil rights movement and African-American history, suffered from decades of urban decay and neglect.

Now, Sweet Auburn stands poised for a $400 million renaissance of mixed-use development that will breathe new life and residents into the district. Atlanta-based Integral Group, which has tackled urban redevelopment in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Denver, will deliver the first piece, Renaissance Walk, in November.

Integral has three additional projects slated for the area, and plans to break ground this summer on Auburn Pointe, a $135 million, mixed-use development.

Renaissance Walk is a $50 million mixed-use development that includes 136 one- and two-bedroom condominiums ranging from $209,000 to $800,000. The development also includes 32 units of workforce housing under $160,000.

The site of construction cranes in the neighborhood is a stark contrast to the recent past. By 2000, many Sweet Auburn residents and businesses had long since fled, giving a once-prosperous, welcoming boulevard the aura of an urban ghost town split by the Interstate 75/85 connector and cut off from Atlanta's CBD.

Amidst Sweet Auburn's decline, area churches acquired blighted parcels, banking on a brighter future and redevelopment. In 2003, Big Bethel AME Church made the first move, teaming up with Integral Group to initiate the vision for the area.

By late June, 58% of the residential units were under contract. Integral has half of the 27,000 sq. ft. of retail under signed letters of intent.

“When you get rid of whatever that blighting influence is, you're almost always guaranteed a successful development,” says Valerie Edwards, executive vice president of Integral's commercial development division. “As soon as there's an urban pioneer who assumes the risk and is successful, others see that and the neighborhood tips.”

Financing urban redevelopment can be a risky, complicated affair. Integral provided about $3.7 million from one of its funds and additional private equity, while Bank of America supplied $34 million in construction financing.

Additionally, Renaissance Walk's financing includes a $6.6 million mezzanine loan from a U.S. Treasury New Market Tax Credit program and $4 million from Fulton County's East Side Tax Allocation District (TAD). Both New Market and TAD funds assist developers in bringing new projects to blighted communities. Ultimately, the Sweet Auburn redevelopment and similar projects such as Georgia State University's 2,000-student residential complex, will help reconnect a disjointed submarket.

“What Integral's doing on Auburn Avenue is another critical step in the successful evolution of downtown Atlanta,” says Tom Bell, chairman and CEO of Atlanta-based Cousins Properties. Bell serves as vice chair of Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin's Peachtree Corridor task force with Integral CEO Egbert Perry.

Cousins has placed a firm bet on downtown as well with last year's bargain buy — $127 per sq. ft. — of the nearly empty 191 Peachtree Class-A office tower, a few blocks from Sweet Auburn.

“Making downtown a better place to live makes it a better place to work, a better place to shop and dine,” says Bell, “and ultimately a better place to invest.”

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