Investment raises stature of Cobb Galleria area

BYLINE: MARIA SAPORTA
Staff

DATE: August 20, 2007
PUBLICATION: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The (GA)
EDITION: Home; The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
SECTION: Metro News
PAGE: D3

Beaming like a new dad, Sam Olens offered me a personal tour of the Cobb Galleria area to show off new investment occurring around I-75 inside the Perimeter.

The last stop: the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, opening in September.

Olens, who plays an important dual role as chairman of the Cobb County Commission and of the Atlanta Regional Commission, sees the new center as evidence his county has reached a new regional plateau.

“When you look at the assets of this theater, this is not Cobb County; this is not a suburban center,” Olens said. “This is a first-class regional arts center.”

The center at I-75 and I-285 symbolizes how Olens perceives modern Cobb County — as an integral part of metro Atlanta’s urban fabric.

“I want the Galleria area to be seen in the same way as Midtown and Buckhead are in the region, as a place that’s embracing live, work and play,” said Olens, a Cobb resident since 1984, when it was an outlying suburb.

To help make his case, Olens invited Bob Voyles, a longtime developer, to join us for lunch at Maggiano’s at Cumberland Mall. They reeled off plans under way in the Cobb Galleria area, spouting them so fast it was hard to keep up.

Voyles’ company, Seven Oaks, is partnering with GE Asset Management to expand the Riverwood complex as part of a $300 million project. Plans call for up to three new office towers adding up to 1 million more square feet. Voyles also plans a high-end residential tower with 370 units, 200 hotel rooms, 40 urban lofts and 90,000 square feet of retail.

“What’s happening in the Cumberland market is really exciting,” Voyles said. “The Galleria market has been a stepchild to the Perimeter market. But that’s changing. The Cumberland market probably has the best traffic infrastructure of any suburban market in Atlanta.”

Grove Street Partners recently was high bidder, at $12.5 million, for the land next to the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Grove Street plans a $150 million development that will include a 15-story office tower and an 18-story hotel and condominium tower with a large plaza for a pedestrian feel.

Another interesting phenomenon in Cobb County is the relationship between key developers and the performing arts center.

For two years, Voyles has chaired the center’s construction committee. The lead investor in Grove Street is developer John Williams, a longtime champion of the $140 million performing arts center. Williams also donated $10 million to the project, and the 2,750-seat theater is being named after him.

“We are hoping there will be a super-duper office building and a nice hotel on that site,” Williams said, adding that he believes $3 billion could be invested in the Galleria-Cumberland area in the next 10 years.

“It’s going to be amazing,” Williams said. “There are two primary drivers of economic success and growth in this area. One is education, and the other is arts and culture. I think those are going to drive a lot of the economic success in the whole northwest corridor.”

Olens agreed. “As a result of the center, we have a couple of billion dollars being invested in this area,” Olens said. He cited Cumberland Mall, whose owners decided to invest up to $70 million for renovation and expansion after the county and the community committed to build the arts center.

Olens identified other developments, including a new phase of Overton. Trammell Crow Residential is developing One Vinings Mountain, a 12-story condominium. At I-285 and Atlanta Road, West Village is going up with shops and up to 10 stories of condos. A residential development also is planned at the office business park Circle 75.

At the Rotary Club of Atlanta, Olens said the Cobb Galleria area is evolving into a “complete community,” a term metro Atlanta leaders picked up during the annual LINK trip to Vancouver, British Columbia, this year. It’s a broader definition of live, work, play because a complete community includes health clinics, schools, drugstores, groceries and anything else an area needs to be self-sustaining.

The Cobb Galleria area certainly seems to be on its way toward that kind of community with one major exception — total reliance on road transportation, with transit access limited to buses.

As the area grows, the argument for rail transit becomes indisputable. Williams, Olens and Voyles, who sits on the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, all say there is stronger support for rail as opposed to bus as the mode of choice along the northwest corridor connecting Atlanta with Cobb.

“I don’t think there’s any question from a longer-term perspective that light rail is the right choice,” said Olens, who also is on the Transit Planning Board, which is set to issue a draft of a new regional plan later this month.

That kind of recognition for rail is one more example of how Cobb is maturing into a cosmopolitan center with a vision toward the future.