I woke up this morning as I usually do–rolling over, picking up my phone, and reading my Twitter feed before I get out of bed. About halfway through, I came across an article posted by the AJC that had me out of bed, ranting to my boyfriend before I could even finish reading it:
Residents of Atlantic Station want simple things: Better security. More locally owned shops. Improved home prices. Peace of mind.
Potential visitors and shoppers want something too, and for many it isn’t what Atlantic Station is offering now. Many who live intown drive right by to shop and eat elsewhere.
These are the challenges facing Mark Toro, who is tasked with energizing Atlanta’s most famous mixed-use project. He is a partner at North American Properties of Cincinnati, one of the “live-work-play” complex’s new owners.
Go ahead. Read the whole article. I’ll wait. It’s a good, interesting read.
Done? Ok. Interesting, right? But if you’re at all familiar with the area or have lived there in the past couple of years, you probably found yourself ranting (if only just to your computer screen) halfway through as well. There are a lot of good points in this article. But nearly all of them are followed up with comments and ideas that partly, if not entirely, miss the point. I don’t mean for this post to be a point-by-point rebuttal of the article or even the ideas presented in the article. However, this story did bring back to the surface a number of rants and irritations I’ve had with Midtown’s redevelopment.
First, some background
I’m not exactly an expert in city planning, development or marketing, but I did live in Midtown for seven and a half years as a student and a young professional–precisely the demographic Atlantic Station is trying to target. I moved to Atlanta when Tech Square was brand new, and Atlantic Station was still a nasty, there-be-dragons brownfield area that many locals at the time saw as a hinderence to the redevelopment of Midtown that was being sparked by Tech Square. In short, the Midtown I left was a completely different place than the Midtown I moved into. (As a further aside, the reason I left Midtown had nothing to do with Midtown itself, and I want to move back the first chance I get.) However, it still has a lot of growing up to do both culturally and commercially to reach its full potential.
Georgia Tech, a.k.a The Elephant in the Room
During my time in Atlanta, I saw dozens of businesses appear and almost promptly disappear due to their failure to capture the 20,000-strong Georgia Tech market. These failures usually came in one of two flavors:
- The business ignored Georgia Tech altogether. Either they didn’t realize the potential in marketing to the GT community, they actively didn’t want to market to “a bunch of college students,” and thought they could “live” without that part of the market, or they were businesses that, by their very nature, could never capture a college market, and their choice of location was a serious miscalculation. (Examples of this include White House/Black Market in Atlantic Station and all of the former occupants of what is now Cypress Street Pint and Plate.)
- The business realized they were next to a college campus, but instead of attempting to understand the unique culture of Georgia Tech, they marketed to a generic 18-24 demographic and failed spectacularly at impressing the GT community. (The most glaring example of this is the American Apparel store that was in Tech Square.)
Some businesses actually succeeded at failing in both flavors by being simultaneously trendy enough to appeal to a typical college student and too expensive for a typical college student to afford. For specific examples of this, examine every single restaurant that has occupied the parcel at 75 5th Street in Tech Square.
Mark Toro seems to be aware that Atlantic Station is missing the mark in this regard, as well. “There are 25,000 students at Georgia Tech. They are the smartest people in the world,” he said in the AJC article. “Why are they not shopping here? We’re going to fix that.”
Of course, there are some stores and restaurants with either enough brand recognition or broad enough general appeal that they have survived and been successful even without specifically targeting Georgia Tech students. Yet Toro’s remarks make it clear that many of these businesses have been scratching their heads, pulling out their hair and doing backflips in an attempt to capture the attention, loyalty and expendable income of the GT community, but with little success. I have to wonder what his plans are for this. The article offers some clues–bringing in local businesses and creating an “anti-mall” atmosphere are some of the ideas mentioned–but developers must walk a very fine line between creating a trendy atmosphere and creating an atmosphere that won’t alienate a community of very smart individuals, many of whom have spent their lives being ridiculed by “trendy” people.
When I shared this article with some friends (most of whom are Georgia Tech students, staff and alumni), most appreciated that Atlantic Station developers have begun to recognize that Georgia Tech is just blocks away. However, most took a dim view of plans to attempt to market to the Tech community. “Sure, they’ll try for a bit but soon they’ll realize that not only are they not on the same page as us, they’re in the wrong bookstore,” was the fairly apt encapsulation of my thoughts on the matter made by my friend (and GT alumna), Ginger.
Dress your business in white and gold
From my perspective, the solution is simple: don’t just market to a bunch of faceless college kids down the street; pander to the culture of the school and the sensibilities of the students. Read up on the school’s history and traditions. Keep track of the sports teams, when they’re playing and how they’re doing. Advertise in the campus newspaper. Offer student discounts. Create menu items that are a nominal, visual or culinary homage to Georgia Tech. (The Piedmont Ru San’s Yellow Jacket Roll warms both my heart and my tastebuds.) Dress your store in white and gold.
When the Target in Atlantic Station opened, it boggled my mind that they carried Georgia Bulldogs merchandise, but there was absolutely no indication that the store was less than a mile from Georgia Tech. It took them nearly two years to realize and correct this–a display of Georgia Tech merchandise is one of the first things you see upon entering the store–but simply carrying a few items or putting them in a prominent place should be the beginning rather than the entirety of marketing to a community. The ultimate goal should be to make your business as much of a part of the school’s culture as any place that is actually on the campus.
When I moved to Fort Worth, TX, the most initially striking thing about the businesses around here compared to those in Atlanta is that you can walk into almost any store or restaurant here and know almost immediately that TCU is just a couple of miles away. One of the first places I went upon arriving here was a Kroger that is down the street from TCU, and upon entering the store I was immediately floored by two things: the humongous produce department and the purple-and-white color scheme. Kroger had departed from it’s regular corporate color scheme in almost every way to incorporate TCU’s school colors into everything from displays to employees’ uniforms. And this wasn’t just some temporary thing for a special occasion or a big event at the school–it’s like that every day. For big occasions, like football season or the beginning of the school year, the effect is even more overwhelming–I have never seen so many white and purple cupcakes in a single display in my life. Andrew and I both had the same reaction: “Why don’t the stores around Tech do things like this?”
As it turns out, businesses around Georgia Tech did do things like this…about 50 years ago. In the course of doing some research for some Tech-related articles on Wikipedia, I spent a lot of time looking through old issues of the Technique and the Atlanta Journal. In those pages, I found advertisements for dozens of businesses either named for their proximity to Georgia Tech (something that is still seen in Fort Worth with businesses near TCU) or that advertised specifically to the GT community around major events like football games and graduation. I realize that Midtown has seen cycles of decline and resurgence since then, but I really have to wonder: what happened to all of that? Georgia Tech’s brand management policies have probably had an effect on some of it, particularly the business names, but targeted advertising and co-branding are still very viable options for Midtown businesses looking to better capture the Georgia Tech market.
Okay, enough about Georgia Tech. Let’s talk real estate and security.
I recognize that the ability to market to the Georgia Tech community is not the be-all and end-all of a business’s ability to be successful in Midtown, nor is it going to help much with some of Atlantic Station’s other issues, like real estate prices or security. However, residents of Atlantic Station in particular could stand a bit of a reality check when it comes to these issues.
I moved into a house in north Home Park, the neighborhood that borders Atlantic Station to the south, just as many of the townhomes and condos in Atlantic Station were being completed and put up for sale. The development even encroached a bit into the northernmost parts of Home Park, where million-dollar McMansions were being built on quarter-acre lots on streets where the median home price was somewhere around $300,000 at the height of the housing boom. Many of those homes now set unfinished, and lots that were purchased with the intent of building more remain vacant, years after the adorable old homes that once occupied them were demolished. The townhouse that was at the end of my street sat vacant and for sale, with an asking price of $550,000, for two and a half years before it sold at a reduced price just before the economy collapsed. The ‘for sale’ sign was almost immediately replaced with a ‘for rent’ sign.
Before I even saw the recession coming, I knew that the home prices in Atlantic Station were not sustainable at what they were. That those $500k townhomes are now selling for closer to $300k does not surprise me one little bit. Had the housing bubble not collapsed the way that it did, it still would not have surprised me if the values of those properties dropped like a stone. The housing market in Midtown was already reaching saturation for the pre-collapse demand, and buyers in Atlantic Station were being sold on some idealized version of Midtown that was just never going to happen. The security situation for residents of Atlantic Station is a perfect storm of residents’ expectations being incongruent with both the reality of living in an urban setting and with the behaviors that are necessary to keep one’s person and property safe in such a setting.
Many residents were sold on a neighborhood that’s nearly as safe as an East Cobb subdivision but without the hour-long commute that goes with it. The nature of many of the crimes around the new housing developments make it abundantly clear that many residents of Atlantic Station were not adequately prepared for the vigilance and responsibility that comes with living not only in a city center but in a place that was considered entirely unsafe less than 10 years ago. I touched on this somewhat in a post I made in 2009. I’m not meaning to “blame the victim,” here, but residents of Atlantic Station can’t demand improved security for their neighborhood without taking some ownership of and responsibility for the problem themselves. APD has been overburdened for years, and there’s only so much a private security firm can really do, especially if residents keep leaving valuables in their cars and fail to secure their homes and persons in a way that doesn’t scream “I have things worth stealing.” The strongest police force in the world is still no substitute for a little common sense.
Takeaways (or tl;dr for the lazy among you)
Atlantic Station’s “new management” wants to better integrate the development into Midtown and create a more local atmosphere that caters more to Midtown residents and Georgia Tech students. They have some ideas, and their goal of catering more to Midtown locals will probably be met. However, it is my opinion as well as the opinion of several Georgia Tech students and alumni that their goal of catering to the Georgia Tech community will probably fall flat.
Marketing to the Georgia Tech community is a unique challenge, one that very few (if any) Midtown businesses have gotten completely right. My advice on this is to avoid marketing to the generic college student and instead focus on learning the culture and personality of the campus and community and then market very specifically by practically pandering to students and other parts of the school’s community.
Atlantic Station has also struggled with flagging real estate prices and concerns over safety and security. The “new management” hopes to improve this as well, but everyone involved probably needs a reality check in order to prevent hurt feelings, bruised egos and broken promises. I’ll eat my hat if real estate prices in Atlantic Station recover to 2007 levels anytime soon, if ever. And while there are certainly improvements to security that could be made at the administrative level, residents need to be quite clear on the fact that they do live in a city, and there are certain additional responsibilities that go along with keeping person and property safe in that environment.