Gwinnett developer to purchase biggest building in Georgia

LAWRENCEVILLE - A local developer neck deep in revitalization efforts across Gwinnett County is purchasing the largest building in Georgia.

Emory Morsberger and his business partners will pay $35 million for Atlanta City Hall East - a former Sears & Roebuck warehouse on Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta.

The 2 million-square-foot structure is owned by the city of Atlanta, and Atlanta City Council members approved its sell earlier this week.

Ponce Partners will turn the fortress-like building into 1,580 lofts accompanied by roughly 300,000 square feet of retail and office space.

Morsberger, of Lilburn, said the transaction should be finalized in coming days.

Construction of the project's first phase - 400 residential units and 20,000 square feet of retail - will start in the spring.

"We're going to take a historic building and turn it into something the surrounding neighborhoods are proud of and can use," Morsberger said. "We're creating an environmentally friendly project."

Besides donating 2 acres to the city for use as a park, Morsberger said the lofts will also have a fleet of cars that residents can check out. That way they can rely on public transit for day-to-day trips and not be forced to own an automobile and pay its associated costs, Morsberger said.

Also, the developers are partnering with the Shepherd Spinal Center so patients rebounding from spinal injuries can live in the building. From there they will be able to travel by wheelchair across flat ground to nearby Piedmont Park.

Built in several stages beginning in 1926, the cavernous structure once served as a regional distribution center for Sears & Roebuck Co. It now houses a handful of city departments, including the Atlanta Police Department, but much of the facility is empty.

Three teams of developers asked the city to let them bid on the building, but the group organized by Morsberger was the only one selected last summer to enter serious negotiations for its purchase. Those talks ended this fall and the Atlanta council approved the sell on Tuesday.

The City Hall East project will cost about $350 million and will take about seven years to complete, said Morsberger, who is leading the development team.

The team consists of Lane Investment and Development Corp., Integral Properties LLC, the Morsberger Group, Adams & Co. Real Estate Inc. and the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership. All are based in metro Atlanta.

Sears & Roebuck built 12 regional distribution centers around the United States in the 1920s, and nine are still standing with the largest one in Atlanta, Morsberger said.

Most of the warehouses have already evolved into mixed-use developments that blend residences, offices and shops, including ones in Boston, Dallas and Los Angeles. Another in Minneapolis will have its grand opening Dec. 1, said Morsberger, who visited many of them.

To date, Morsberger has concentrated his revitalization efforts in Gwinnett County, where he chaired a revitalization task force appointed by county commissioners.

He has bought and renovated numerous properties in downtown Lawrenceville, where his actions coincide with a push by city officials to rejuvenate the city center and bring in more shops, restaurants and residences.

He also spearheaded the creation of the Highway 78 Community Improvement District - a self-taxing group of commercial property owners that uses its revenues to improve the corridor between Snellville and Stone Mountain.

He is presently helping start another community improvement district in the Norcross area, which has been targeted for revitalization by county officials.

And he is working on a mixed-use village that will occupy almost 50 acres on U.S. 78 near the Snellville city limits. It was approved by county commissioners last year because of its potential to help rejuvenate the U.S. 78 strip.

Morsberger isn't the only Gwinnett developer to try their hand in Atlanta.

Wayne Mason, a former county official who cut his teeth during the first suburban building boom in Gwinnett, has positioned himself as a key player in a redevelopment project that could transform the city.

Dubbed the Beltline, the ambitious project backed by city officials would convert old railroad tracks into a 22-mile transit loop accompanied by new parks and walking trails - all linking 40-plus neighborhoods and numerous schools, parks and job sites.

Private developers would be able to work along the Beltline and erect high-density projects that could tap into the transit and trails.

Foreseeing that, Mason snapped up a strategic stretch of the rail corridor. Right next to it is Atlanta City Hall East.

Morsberger credited Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin with attracting developers who are interested in revitalization - not to mention a growing demand for in-town housing.

"The people that are coming into Atlanta and doing projects like (City Hall East) would not be doing it if Shirley Franklin was not the mayor," Morsberger said.

"She has been phenomenal. Her vision and integrity makes it worth being here.

"I can't emphasize that enough. I never would have touched this thing if it wasn't for her being in charge."

Another Gwinnett developer agreed. Christopher Harris, with Lawrenceville-based Equity Development Group, said Atlanta has become a more friendly and a more profitable place to work.

"It's a better environment politically and there is more opportunity," said Harris, who develops subdivisions in east Gwinnett, but has added a high-rise condo project in Midtown Atlanta to his resume.

"There's a lot of growth there and it's revitalization versus sprawl development."