By John Schaffner

“I used to begin every Thursday by reading the weather report, and I would literally pray that the forecast was for rain Friday and Saturday nights,” Atlanta City Councilman Howard Shook said June 21 at a forum on the “revitalization of Buckhead.”

“Because, I knew if there was rain, there was a much less chance that someone was not going to get murdered or run over in the Village,” explained the council member who represents much of Buckhead.

“A couple of years later, everyone has forgotten what was there. But I hope we never forget that you couldn’t back out of your driveway or the noise that kept people awake all night long in high rises,” Shook told a group of 50-plus real estate agents and other interested parties at a gathering at The Capital Grille.

“I was sent here (to City Council) to clean up the Buckhead Village, plain and simple,” Shook explained. “I did about four things that frankly people thought were politically impossible: The city cracked down on code and alcohol violators, we rolled back bar closing times, we took away the parking privileges for nightclubs and I got a lot more cops in Buckhead.

“All of that sort of set the stage for the resulting private sector really transforming the Village right in front of us,” Shook stated. “It is so exciting to see this change and be part of this change. Only the private sector can affect the kind of change that is going on here.

“Buckhead Avenues, even in its infancy right now, is really going to remake not just the Village area but will also go a long way to remaking the image of Buckhead as a whole,” said Scott Higley, the new vice president of marketing for Ben Carter Properties that is redeveloping Buckhead Village.

Higley and his cohort from Carter Properties, Elizabeth Farris, also were members of the panel discussing Buckhead revitalization at the forum sponsored by Novare Group and its Gallery condominium project in Buckhead.

Other panel members included Scotty Greene, executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District and the Buckhead Alliance, and Buckhead native State Rep. Edward Lindsey, representing Buckhead’s House District 54. The discussion was moderated by John Long, chief investment officer of the Novare Group.

Higley and Farris announced that the ever-changing date for the start of demolition of the old Buckhead Village is now set for the first week in August, with vertical new construction beginning in September. Initially the demolition was announced to begin in June and then it was changed to September. Projected grand opening is late October, early November of 2009.

Higley said a formal groundbreaking ceremony will be scheduled sometime in early August at which Carter Properties also hopes to be able to announce some of the initial retail and restaurant tenants.

“In terms of the restaurants, we are using the European communities as sort of a model—a combination of white-table-cloth fine dining with sidewalk cafes,” Higley explained. “In the past couple of weeks, a significant class-A office component has been added of 300,000 square feet,” he added. The plan still calls for two luxury hotels, one a larger 200-room hotel and a smaller boutique hotel of about 100 rooms. Along with the hotels there also will be residential units. “It is really about creating something that Atlanta doesn’t presently have,” Higley stated.

Explaining the reaction of potential tenants to the project, Farris told the group, “When we go and talk to the retailers, they all know Atlanta. This is really the first opportunity they have had where they can choose their neighbors. They all sort of fight their way into Madison Avenue and Rodeo Drive. This is a way for them to make it their own.”

“When we are ready to announce retailers you will be excited, you will be hopefully amazed, you will see it as a definite selling tool and it will really illustrate what is going to happen with the former Village area and the direction we are taking it in,” said Higley.

Greene, who came to Atlanta in 1996 and has 20 years experience in government law and neighborhood and economic development, told the group, “One thing we all have in common is that we make our money and pay our rent by what is happening in this sub-market.

“I represent 300 property owners, a quasi-government agency that has taxing power, but I don’t have to run for re-election,” he said. “representing 300 commercial owners with a task of raising $3 to 4 milllion a year and engaging that capital in public space improvement and planning. I have an opportunity and my organization has an opportunity to interface with people in the private sector, brokers, land owners, small business people as well as neighborhoods,” he addded.

“We are at a very interesting intersection. We are in the process of realizing 15 years of planning in Buckhead,” Greene said as he launched into an update of CID projects in the Buckhead market.

“The business community, along with the state and federal governments, is in the process in the last 8 years of investing close to $60 million in the public infrastructure in Buckhead,” Greene explained. “That comes in the form of a $6 million bus system that we have been running. It comes in the form of a $50 million Peachtree Corridor project that we are working on that goes from Maple Street to the bridge (over 400) in its first phase. We are in the middle of doing that and we have raised most of that capital by leveraging tax dollars,” he added.

Greene stated, “We are facilitating a massive planning effort between I-85 and Roswell/Powers Ferry roads—five segments of Piedmont Road, probably one of the workhorse, toughest roads in the city. We are midway in a one-year study there that should produce 10 years and millions of dollars of funding opportunities.”

He announced, “We just finished participating in the mayor’s Peachtree Corridor Task Force, which calls on a 20-year, one billion dollar investment and a new tax, which includes streetscaping and road improvements in parts of Buckhead that are not included in the CID and along 14 miles of Peachtree Road.”

After 15 years of visioning for Buckhead Village and three years of intense visioning, Greene said, “We are about to rezone with public space guidelines for the first time in the Village to require developers to build sidewalks and put trees in and pavers and pedestrian lights and update pedestrian crossings. The CID and the Woodruff Foundation will put up $3.5 million. The public’s face for the first time is happening in the village,” he added.

He explained that the West Village and a part of the village that stretches down to Piedmont and Grandview are not covered in the CID. “The Buckhead CID has applied for and anticipates receiving a grant, which we will match, to do a phase two zoning overlay public participation planning effort, which would include the West Village,” he said. “We anticipate receiving word on that grant in the fall.”

Councilman Shook threw out a note of caution to those attending the meeting. “With the high-rise communities that you are building here, you need to help me and help your future residents get integrated into the dialogue that shapes Buckhead.

“The city has invested a lot influence in the single-family neighborhoods,” he explained. “What is interesting and shocks neighborhood people is when I tell them that 60 percent of the people in my district do not live in single-family homes. But, they are kind of shut out of the power structure. I have asked the people at Neighborhood Planning Unit-B to reach out and start integrating them. If it comes as an invitation, rather than an awakening, it will be a lot better for everybody,” he stated.

Shook gave credit to Rep. Lindsey for spearheading a major legislative action that will be a help to Buckhead in the future.

“As builders know, when you pull a permit, you write a big check for what is called impact fees to the city of Atlanta,” Shook explained. “Under the city’s version of that code, the money that was raised in Buckhead, which was supposed to go to ameliorate the impact of development in Buckhead, went everywhere but here. Because it was such a model Robin Hood program, the chances of City Council voluntarily giving that up were about nil. So, I worked with Rep. Lindsey for two years and he made the change in the enabling law at the state level. Now when you write those big checks, you know that money is going to stay right here,” Shook said.