The new Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta attracted more than 1 million visitors in its first four months of operation. The popular tourist destination also is playing a much more vital role as a catalyst in the downtown fishbowl by sparking office, multifamily and hotel projects.

In fact, Georgia State University professor Bruce Seaman estimates that the aquarium will boost the local economy by $200 million annually. The aquarium is the centerpiece of a group of attractions that downtown boosters — and now developers — are touting.

“The lift that the aquarium has provided is very helpful in justifying additional development,” says David Marvin, president of Legacy Property Group, which has several projects underway downtown, including the $86 million Park Pavillion, which will feature a Hilton Garden Inn, 40,000 sq. ft. of retail and 600 parking spaces.

Office space absorption in downtown and Midtown Atlanta totaled 1 million sq. ft. in 2005, a whopping 223% increase over the previous year, according to real estate brokerage Colliers International. The firm attributes the rise in tenant activity to projects such as the aquarium and Atlantic Station, a 138-acre mixed-use development regarded as a national model for brownfield development.

The most significant project under way downtown is Allen Plaza, Barry Real Estate Co.'s own ambitious mixed-use development, which calls for three office buildings and a hotel at a cost of $530 million. The project will encompass up to 1.9 million sq. ft.

“We'd love to stand here and say we had this amazing, terrific vision from the beginning, but it really evolved over time,” says Chris Schoen, CEO of Barry, noting that his company initially looked at a site in another part of Atlanta.

Located a few blocks east of the aquarium, Allen Plaza began as a 15-story office building for Southern Co., but the project soon grew far bigger. A second building, a 16-story office tower that Ernst & Young will anchor, is now under construction. Plans call for a third building, a 34-story office tower, and a W Hotel with 237 rooms and luxury condos on top.

And that's not all. Plans for Allen Plaza call for at least two other towers that Barry is developing in partnership with Atlanta-based apartment and condo developer Post Properties. Construction on the Post component will begin at the end of 2006 and include apartments, condominiums and a hotel.

Schoen says the location emerged as the right spot because of its “existing urban fabric,” including sports venues, the park, rapid transit and other features. When Marcus announced plans for the aquarium, he says, it was a big positive.

The projects mark a rebirth for the once-rundown section of downtown. Central Atlanta Progress, a non-profit economic development corporation, projects the district around the aquarium alone will attract 4,550 new residents during the next several years.

Next door to Allen Plaza, Novare Group is developing Twelve at Centennial Park, which comprises two 39-story residential towers, a 16-story hotel, 12,900 sq. ft. of retail and 12,500 sq. ft. of office space.The $120 million first phase is scheduled for completion in 2007.

Novare's developer, John Akin, says the aquarium “was one of the factors in making the decision to buy downtown.”