Partners (Summer 1999)

PERSPECTIVE

As a teenager in the 1970s, I remember visiting a family member who had moved into the Cabbagetown neighborhood, a low-income community on the eastern edge of Atlanta's central business district. The neighborhood was obviously distressed, with substandard housing surrounding a series of nine industrial buildings. The people I met who lived there - an eclectic collection of long-term residents, artists, musicians, and hippies -mostly fascinated me.

I suppose I knew it was a poor neighborhood, but at that age, it did not bother me because I was not old enough to fully grasp the implications of poverty. All I could think of at the time was how fun and funky a place this was. For example, I recall a popular house in the neighborhood dubbed "The Patch," which was easily recognized by the huge hand made flag designating the name and creating a sense of identity for the people who lived there.

As time has passed, I recognized that many of the social and economic issues of the 1970s were concentrated in the Cabbagetown neighborhood. I remember a man known by his nickname "Snuffy Smith," but it was years later before I realized he was a conscientious objector of the Vietnam war. And I recall the story of a neighbor's home that was raided by undercover police officers (wearing bell bottom jeans and fringe leather vests) for selling marijuana. That same evening, after the police had left, neighbors brought food over to the home because they knew "something bad had happened."

Cabbagetown, like most distressed communities, had a dark side. I recall the newspaper and television stories that captured various issues, including crime, prostitution, education, health care, and housing. My perceptions, however, often went far beyond the coverage itself. I couldn't help but think about the people and the sense of community that formed the foundation of the neighborhood. And I remember the Mill that served as the focal point for the neighborhood. At one time, the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill was a thriving business. The nine-building complex was built over a 40-year period beginning in 1881, and the Mill operated continuously until 1977. Employing as many as 2,600 workers, the Mill primarily produced cotton bags used to package agricultural products.

The Mill owners provided housing and basic health care to its employees. Attracted by this and by mill wages, workers and their families were drawn to the city from Appalachia and from smaller southern rural communities. The community of mill-houses became known as Cabbagetown reportedly because the prominent smell of cabbage cooking on stove-tops created an unusual identity. The six square block area adjacent to the Mill is characterized by narrow streets, shade trees, simple one and two story "shotguns," and cottages with Victorian styling in their porch, door, and window designs.

Many of today's Cabbagetown residents are descendants of the millworkers, and the neighborhood is currently contending with Page 4 gentrification issues as middle income residents begin to move into the area.

The Mill and Village have been added to the National Register of Historic Places, and the strong sense of community continues to serve as the foundation of the neighborhood. But changes are apparent, with artists, musicians, and long-term residents now joined by young professionals and entrepreneurs.

At the center of it all is the Fulton Cotton Mill, filled with a great sense of history but empty for over 20 years. On occasion, it was used to make music videos or movies, but mostly it served as a reminder of what once was. Fortunately, that has now changed.

Fulton Cotton Mill Associates, formed in 1996 to redevelop the Mill, has begun transforming the 12.5 acre site into the largest loft development in the country. Although no project is perfect, this particular undertaking has great promise because it has remained sensitive to the historic integrity of the buildings as well as the need to minimize the impact of gentrification on low-income families who want to remain in the neighborhood.

Financing the $19.2 million first phase of the project (206 units) has required a great deal of creativity. The Atlanta Empowerment Zone provided a low interest $1 million loan that got the project started. The developer and the general partner provided $3.4 million in equity and deferred developers fees. SunTrust Banks, Inc., provided equity investments of $4.5 million (in return for some historic tax credits and low-income housing tax credits), and the Urban Residential Finance Authority provided $9.9 million in tax exempt bonds ("AAA" rated with FHA Mortgage Insurance). And the city government provided $400,000 to complete the financing package.

The apartments in Phase I are uniquely designed, with 20 studios, 99 one-bedroom lofts, and 87 two-bedroom lofts that all have open floor plans, large windows, exposed bricks, and separate utilities. Some have 18-foot ceilings and impressive skyline views. The complex has a long waiting list for new residents, which speaks for itself in terms of attractiveness. Rents range from $525 to $900 for studios and one-bedroom lofts, and from $625 to $1,400 for two-bedroom lofts. To be eligible for low-income housing tax credits, 40 percent of the units are set aside for low-income residents.

Ask anyone involved, and they will tell you it has not been easy to put this deal together. Experience counts, and the developer, the lender, the government, and others have all had to work long hours and address countless issues. That is why a fire as severe as the April blaze affecting Phase II is so distressing. But the setback is simply that: a setback, especially since the damage was not irreparable.

Thanks to the dedication and determination of so many people who work tirelessly behind the scenes, this project will get done. And the pride that the people in this community have maintained for over 100 years will be spread to the rest of the city as we all celebrate the success of this neighborhood revitalization.

 
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