Perimeter Area: Vibrant Cities

Corporate headquarters, amenities and trails
May23 Perimeter Os

Creating Opportunities: Eden Freeman, Sandy Springs city manager Photo by Daemon Baizan

Of the 11 cities along the 60-plus mile route of Interstate 285 that circles Atlanta, only three collectively have the distinction of being referred to by the name of the iconic loop, better known as the Perimeter. The top-end cities of Sandy Springs in Fulton County, and Dunwoody and Brookhaven in DeKalb County, are collectively called the Perimeter area. The designation reflects their relationship as neighboring cities but also their combined status as the largest corporate-office market in the Southeast and proximity to the epicenter of Georgia’s best-known healthcare providers. “In fact,” says Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst, “if all three of us were together, we would be the second- or third-largest city in the state.”

Among the most visible parts of the three-city landscape are the towering and sprawling corporate campuses and office and shopping centers that straddle I-285’s top end, which Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul calls Perimeter marketplace. Don’t look for many new buildings to rise in the immediate future, though, advises Paul. Perimeter area C-suites, he says, are dealing with a lingering pandemic hangover.

“CEOs we are talking to are trying to figure out how to balance the new employee attitude about working remotely with their need to have people physically in place. There is just not a lot of investment going on in office construction because of uncertainty about how people will work moving forward.” He doesn’t expect a resolution this year.

The remote working challenge, however, hasn’t totally dampened the area’s appeal to corporate executives or caused office construction to grind to a halt. Ironically, what Michael Starling, Dunwoody economic development director, believes is the Perimeter area’s first corporate headquarters is being extensively refurbished.

“It was actually two headquarters,” says Starling. “It was built for Goldkist and Cotton States Insurance company in the early 1970s.” After they moved out, the building stood vacant for 10 years. Now, with two floors being added to the original three, it looks like a new building.

“You couldn’t see it before from I-285 because of trees now removed during the massive top-end rebuild,” says Eric Linton, Dunwoody city manager. “Today it has great visibility.”

Sitting just south of the State Farm complex and renamed Campus 244, the building will have 380,000 square feet of office space. It is expected to open in 2024, but already has two corporate tenants. One is Insight Global, a staffing company headquartered in the nearby Twelve24 building. The other is logistics provider Transportation Insight, which is consolidating three Atlanta offices and 800 jobs. Only one 60,000-square-foot floor is not leased. Hilton will build a 145-room boutique hotel next to the refurbished building, and a multiuse trail will eventually connect the development to the Dunwoody MARTA station. The project, including a parking deck, is valued at $340 million.

Almost directly south of Campus 244 and across I-285, Zaxby’s is moving its Athens headquarters to Brookhaven’s 83-acre, four-tower Perimeter Summit, says Ernst, adding this is another indication of the Perimeter market’s traction. “I believe they may be the first or one of the first renters in the newest building.”

Twelve tenants representing 11 industries are leasing Perimeter Summit, including Fortune 1000 company Beazer Homes USA, Rooms To Go and In January, Spear Street Capital, an office properties owner and operator, purchased three Class A buildings in Perimeter Summit for $248 million.

Walkability, Dining, Entertainment

While elected officials and business leaders work through what Ernst calls a down office market, each of the cities is moving forward with new or ongoing mixed-used public and private projects that will enhance walkability, entertainment and dining. “One of the things we have learned, particularly with young technology-world workers, is they figure out where they want to live and then come and find a job,” says Paul. “If you want to be a vibrant business environment, you have to focus on the quality of life you are creating.” The most visible part of that quality of life in Sandy Springs is City Springs, the downtown area around City Hall and the performing arts center.

“To create more opportunities, especially for young families and young professionals to come into the downtown, we are launching a Thursday music series,” says Sandy Springs City Manager Eden Freeman. The series doesn’t have a name yet, but it will have food trucks and easy access to many popular restaurants. “The additional foot traffic will have people out enjoying what the mayor likes to call the connective tissue of the community.” Next winter, there will even be an ice skating rink.

The City Springs area is seeing a lot of revitalization. “There are four or five big projects that will be coming on board during the next 12 months or so that are going to have a big impact on the walkability and the look of downtown,” says Paul. Those include a plan to extend the City Springs campus several blocks to the south and a 125-key hotel right across from City Hall. A 10-acre plot will be redeveloped by the end of this year or in 2024. A new green space in a formerly rundown triangle that includes Veterans Park across from City Springs and a state-of-the-art Holocaust memorial are also on tap.

“Why are we doing these things?” the mayor asks, and then answers his own question: “Because the Perimeter market is so crucial to our economic well-being and our tax base that we want to make sure it remains a vibrant, healthy place for people who want to come and live here.”

Outside of City Springs, construction of a $50 million police headquarters on Morgan Falls Road is about to begin and several older shopping centers are on the cusp of being repurposed into mixed-use developments. The city is working with nearby hospitals – Children’s Scottish Rite Hospital, Northside and Saint Joseph’s at what is known as Pill Hill – on what Paul calls medical tourism for family members visiting hospitalized relatives. Included are places visitors can go and things they can do while staying in the area.

Dunwoody also is focusing on quality-of-life amenities, with a strong emphasis on increasing the number of restaurants near the Perimeter. “That’s one of the bigger changes here in Dunwoody,” says Starling. “We are moving away from the car-oriented suburban destination. The first 50 years of Perimeter Mall, that’s what we were. Now developments are coming in that are a little more dense, mixed use and a lot more walkable.” Key among those is High Street, a massive retail, office and residential development that will open in three phases. “They are a little ahead of schedule,” says Linton, “and plan to open Phase 1 in spring 2024. It will include 600 apartments, 150,000 square feet of retail and 90,000 square feet of new offices.”

High Street forms the northern border of what Linton calls Dunwoody’s second downtown for the corporate portion of the city, which includes State Farm, the Twelve24 Hammond building and Campus 244. A just-completed Edge City 2.0 report offers a 20-year vision for this area that supports a more walkable community with connected greenspace, mobility enhancements and new entertainment. It also emphasizes future development opportunities in proximity to MARTA’s Dunwoody Station, which has already attracted a core of activity.

In Brookhaven, “what we want to achieve as a city hinges around striking that balance between quality of life and development,” says Economic Development Director Michael Johnson. “Brookhaven is unique to the Atlanta Metro because it is a kind of reprieve from [Atlanta] and the skyscrapers and the really heavy inner-city traffic,” says Explore Brookhaven President and CEO Renée Areng. She adds that the Perimeter area’s newest city, all of which lies south of the I-285 border, is known for welcoming diverse cultures, popular chef-owned restaurants, a significant tree canopy and being a city of five neighborhoods: Murphey Candler, Blackburn, Dresden, Buford Highway and Town Brookhaven.

Explore Brookhaven, the city’s marketing arm, is also working with its two neighboring Perimeter area cities and Cobb County to put on a workshop to encourage family reunions in the North Perimeter. “The idea is that visiting family members may stay in a Sandy Springs hotel but gather in Brookhaven amenities such as the lake house at Murphey Candler Park,” says Areng.

In terms of economic development, “We overpunch our weight in actual land use,” says Ernst. “Brookhaven is only 5% of the land in the Perimeter CIDs [community improvement districts], but we are 20% of the CID revenue.” Most of the city’s near-term economic development is focused in and around the Buford Highway corridor and transit-oriented development at the planned City Hall near the Brookhaven MARTA station, says Johnson. “We have two of the premier healthcare facilities in the Southeast within walking distance of each other in that corridor.” One is the new 70-acre Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta campus where construction of Children’s Arthur M. Blank Hospital has reached its full height of 19 stories. The attached South Tower topped out in March. Two other campus buildings, the outpatient Center for Advanced Pediatrics and Children’s Support Center, have already opened.

The other is the Emory Healthcare section of Executive Park, which is directly across from the Children’s campus. It includes Emory’s Musculoskeletal Institute and Brain Health Center, and the training and medical facilities of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, where a new hotel and conference center are planned. “When finished, this will rival Pill Hill,” says Ernst.

Also in that corridor, groundbreaking is expected this year on the $260 million Druid Hills Manor project, which will feature 382 Class A housing units, 55,000 square feet of office space and a 140-key hotel. Groundbreaking is also expected this year on the new City Hall with completion anticipated in 2025.

“This will not be just a city hall but an engaging public area to bring the community together for celebrations and dialogue,” says Ernst.

Highway System of the Future

Another type of public area development is taking place that is far less obvious than highly visible mixed-use areas but is equally important in connecting the three Perimeter-area cities. It is the continuing expansion of a trail network that will eventually connect the cities to the Atlanta BeltLine to the south and the 61.5-mile Silver Comet Trail that travels through Cobb, Paulding and Polk counties to the north. The top-end mayors are also working on an east-west trail system that will offer an option for people in the Perimeter area to bicycle or e-bike to Braves games in Cobb County, says Ernst.

“The BeltLine has had a huge impact on everybody’s thinking,” says Paul. “We are just in the infant stages, but we’ve got some pieces in place.” Work is ongoing on a trail that is part of the PATH400/I-285 redevelopment that will eventually connect to the BeltLine and on a loop that ultimately will tie into the trail system across the Chattahoochee River in Roswell. Parts of PATH400, which runs along Georgia 400, are still under construction. When complete, it will connect Buckhead to the three Perimeter-area cities.

Dunwoody has contracted with the Path Foundation to help design a trail system that will ultimately connect to the BeltLine and PATH400. Perimeter Mall has just given permission for the city to build a multiuse path the length of the front of the mall that will be a huge portion of a current and future system. It will tie together neighborhoods and parks and eventually cross I-285 on separate bridges leading to Chamblee and Brookhaven. “Our goal with this trail system,” says Linton, “is for it to come back to the restaurants and businesses in the new corporate downtown.”

The model mile of Brookhaven’s three-mile Peachtree Creek Greenway opened in 2019, with Phase 2 scheduled for construction in 2024. The city of Atlanta is building a link that will connect that segment of the greenway to PATH400 and the Atlanta BeltLine. Plans call for the greenway to also link directly to Chamblee and the greater DeKalb trail system to the northeast.

“If you think about it in macro terms, we are basically building a path system like the highway network the federal government built 40 to 50 years ago,” says Ernst. “We are building all that right now so you can get anywhere by bike or ebike outside the road system. Forty or 50 years from now,” he adds, “people will think the trails we are building today will have been here forever.

Whether it’s trails, entertainment or economics, city leaders have always talked with each other, says Ernst. Now, he says, he sees sub-groups such as chambers talking to each other. Looking forward, he predicts, “I could see more branding and cohesiveness across the whole group.”

Categories: Metro Atlanta, Our State