Microsoft made official on Thursday what anyone who follows Atlanta development has known since last summer: The tech titan is brewing something really big for the city’s Westside.
As part of its mission to build Atlanta into a major U.S. hub of datacenters and tech jobs, Microsoft announced plans to develop 90 acres it’s purchased in recent months near Grove Park—described by the company as “one of Atlanta’s most economically distressed neighborhoods.”
Microsoft’s future intown Atlanta home base is planned for Quarry Yards, a formerly industrial area that’s home to dilapidated buildings, sites where residential development faltered in decades past, and the PATH Foundation’s scenic Proctor Creek Trail, which opened in 2018.
It’s located about three miles due west of the Fox Theatre, with enough acreage to fit more than four Centennial Olympic Parks.
What exactly will be there, eventually, remains to be seen.
The deal was transformative enough that Microsoft heads were joined at Thursday’s announcement by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who has pledged to commit $1 billion to create affordable housing in the city and thwart gentrification’s tendencies to push longtime residents out.
To that end, Microsoft stressed that 25 percent of its 90 acres will be dedicated to affordable housing and “other key community initiatives.” Company leaders are vowing to listen to input from local communities, invest in STEM education, and value the “talent pipeline” from public schools in the area, the Westside’s HBCUs, and Georgia Tech, a proven magnet for tech employers.
The area’s affordability (like that of Atlanta at large, relative to Microsoft’s hubs in West Coast cities) was a key factor in the company’s investment decisions, as one official told WSB-TV.
An announcement narrative compiled by Microsoft quotes Atlanta City Councilmember Dustin Hillis as saying he’s “cautiously excited” about the company’s plans, as his district covers both Grove Park and Quarry Yards. The skepticism (sort of) continued with Debra Edelson, Grove Park Foundation executive director and a veteran of affordable housing initiatives, who says in the piece: “I have a million questions, because I know how hard it is to truly deliver a permanently affordable unit at a price people can pay.”
Some other key points and background of note:
Microsoft isn’t saying how many jobs could ultimately be located on the Westside, or what facilities the site might feature. One official did tell WSB-TV that a groundbreaking isn’t expected for another two years.
Microsoft paid $127 million for the 70 acres where the early Quarry Yards concept had sputtered, the AJC reported when the company’s plans emerged in September. Two months ago, the company added another 20 acres to its portfolio near MARTA’s Bankhead station next door, paying $22.5 million, according to the newspaper.
All told, the Westside land Microsoft controls now is roughly half the size of Piedmont Park—a huge palette as intown developable sites go. And it’s surrounded by city-altering economic drivers, including the 280-acre Westside Park at Bellwood Quarry and Atlanta BeltLine.
In nearby neighborhoods such as Grove Park, Knight Park/Howell Station, and Rockdale, Bottoms has enacted a moratorium on new building permits and rezoning that will last until at least next month, citing “rapid gentrification” concerns.
The development firm Urban Creek Partners, led by former Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees star player Mark Teixeira, had grandiose plans for the $400 million Quarry Yards.
In addition to hundreds of apartments and a hotel, more than a half-million square feet of offices and 75,000 square feet of retail were said to be in the works. In the summer of 2019, that project’s marketing campaign calling for a “new Atlanta”—with images of blissful, professional yuppies in abundance—irritated many longtime neighbors already fretting the impact of gentrification in the area.
In addition to Westside and Atlantic Station plans, Microsoft is building two datacenters in the metro—one in East Point, the other in Douglasville. Those will join a similar south Fulton County facility that spans 250,000 square feet now. Regarding data centers, however, the AJC made this observation: “While such projects can cost a lot of money and bring many construction jobs, they typically don’t produce a lot of fulltime jobs.”
Microsoft is already building a workforce—approximately 1,500 new hires and transfers—that will operate in Hine’s new Atlantic Yards, a two-building project at Atlantic Station. Its lease of 523,000 square feet in Midtown was reportedly the largest commercial real estate transaction inked anywhere in the country between the pandemic’s onset and last summer.
When the company made that announcement in July, it credited Atlanta’s robust talent pool, Midtown’s business-friendly track record, and proximity to other tech players such as NCR Corp.
Is the Quarry Yards site destined to be a pint-sized Midtown, with a conscience for lifting up local communities? Is Microsoft for real, or just saying the right things early? Time will tell, and it’s going to be fascinating to watch.
• Sneak peek: Westside BeltLine Connector, how downtown links to the loop (Urbanize Atlanta)
• Grove Park news (Urbanize Atlanta)