A grand experiment in urban planning is under way in the capital of the Southeast. Telecommunications giant BellSouth is implementing its $750 million Atlanta Metro Plan, which will consolidate 23 offices into three sites near transportation hubs.
The plan is a direct attack on the growing sprawl that has produced nightmarish commutes for so many Atlanta residents. It also is designed to attract the best talent in the city's competitive marketplace. The sites, totaling 3.1 million sq. ft., will be located next to Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) rail stations.
If the project proves successful, BellSouth hopes it will encourage other companies in Atlanta and across the nation to pursue transit-oriented, urban office developments. “I think what's needed is for BellSouth to be successful at this,” said Michael Pawlukiewicz, director of environment and policy education at the Urban Land Institute, Washington, D.C. “If it works for BellSouth, I'm sure you'll see it start to happen in other places too.”
All three sites — Lenox Park, Lindbergh and Midtown — are inside the city's “perimeter,” an interstate highway that circles downtown Atlanta. “The closer you can get to the middle of where everybody lives, the better opportunity you have to compete for that next employee, and that's important to us,” said Richard Gilbert, director of the Atlanta Metro Plan. “We think having buildings that do what employees want, and giving them amenities that go beyond the norm, is important.”
The project is being developed by Carter & Associates, a locally based commercial real estate services company that built two BellSouth buildings on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta. The 618,000 sq. ft. 1100 Peachtree building was built in 1991, and Campanile, a 475,000 sq. ft. building, was constructed in 1987.
To foster a close working relationship, BellSouth's development team moved into Carter & Associates' building at 1275 Peachtree St. in August 1999. “This is such a visionary idea,” said Bill Millkey, vice president of Carter & Associates. “It's such a mammoth undertaking to consolidate all these people.”
Driven by looming lease expirations, BellSouth is in the process of consolidating 23 offices in the metro area into three sites, or nine total buildings. Accessibility to other BellSouth sites, employee demographics and transportation were critical factors in choosing locations for this plan.
“If you look at the city and its expressway system, these are ideal locations because you can access them from all points,” said Diana Marshman, strategic planner for the Metro Plan. The company entered its employee demographics into a database to find the geographical center, which is the Lindbergh site.
Scheduled to be completed in March 2003, the Lindbergh site will consist of two 14-story towers located near MARTA's headquarters. The buildings will total 980,000 sq. ft. and be connected by a 12,000 sq. ft. atrium. The Lindbergh MARTA station, which is across the street from these towers, is MARTA's second busiest station. BellSouth is creating an old-town, Main Street look at Lindbergh, with retail shops and a community atmosphere. BellSouth plans to include a grocery store on the site in the future.
The five-building Lenox Park site is scheduled for completion in November 2001. A 364,000 sq. ft. building, known as 2180 Lake Blvd., is already fully operational. Construction on the second building of 357,000 sq. ft. is under way, and three other office buildings on the site totaling 380,000 sq. ft. were purchased for BellSouth's use. The company leases several floors of those buildings, and also shares the site with the American Cancer Society, a Marriott Residence Inn and several apartment complexes, two of which are owned by Atlanta-based Post Properties.
The Midtown site, which will be the largest and the last to be completed in April 2003, will feature two new office towers: the 535,000 sq. ft., 17-story Building One and the 522,000 sq. ft., 15-story Building Two. A total of 46,500 sq. ft. of retail space will be available for lease once the project is completed.
Midtown, which is near the historic Fox Theatre, will highlight retail areas to create a vintage downtown environment. “We're trying to redefine Cyprus Street, which is little more than an alley now,” Gilbert said. “We're trying to bring back a nightlife.”
Lenox Park will house the customer operations unit for small and large businesses, consumer-services department and Georgia operations. BellSouth long-distance and international services will be located at Lindbergh, and the Midtown site will primarily house network services.
Each site is stocked with employee amenities, including a health club, a cafeteria and a meditation room. The cafeteria at Lenox will seat 325 people and be open to the public, and an independent vendor will operate the building's 18,000 sq. ft. health club. Lindbergh's health club will be on-site but located in retail space.
Proximity to public transportation has been one of the project's criteria ever since BellSouth gave birth to the idea in 1997. “Being able to offer employees an option on how they get to work is very important,” Gilbert said. “There are days in Atlanta when getting to work is very difficult, if you only have one way to get there.”
Thanks to a decision by the Federal Transit Administration board four years ago, MARTA now is able to develop unused land around its transit stations in partnership with other developers. These mixed-use projects have been dubbed “transit-oriented developments,” or TODs.
“Our vision is to take pieces of land to generate revenue and create more density, to make it a destination where people can work, live and play, and also to generate additional ridership,” said Nathaniel Ford, CEO and general manager of MARTA. Atlanta companies are excited about new land that can be developed for offices, retail, parking and multifamily spaces, Ford added.
BellSouth entered into a partnership with MARTA at the Lindbergh station, where BellSouth has a ground lease for its two towers and right of first refusal for two future locations on the site. “Lindbergh was a good fit for them,” Ford said. “The key is a hassle-free commute for employees that is quicker and easier.” BellSouth's Lindbergh project is part of a mixed-use development that will total $800 million.
MARTA has prepared for the increased load of BellSouth employees by investing in 100 additional railcars, a 33% increase. After the project is completed, the company expects 40% of employees at Lindbergh to use MARTA, and 30% participation at the other two sites.
As part of its partnership with MARTA, BellSouth is subsidizing transit passes for its employees. BellSouth buys the 24-hour, monthly passes at a 15% discount, and then sells them to employees for $12. Unsubsidized passes cost $52.50 per month, which is why large companies in Atlanta, including CNN and Georgia Power, subsidize 100% of the cost for their employees.
BellSouth already has three offices near MARTA stations — BellSouth Center, 1100 Peachtree and Campanile. At BellSouth Center, which is next to the Midtown site, nearly 30% of employees use MARTA, partly due to the discounted passes the company offers.
Zoning regulations allow BellSouth to build an additional 20,000 parking spaces at its downtown sites. However, the company has decided to construct a fraction of that amount at four suburban MARTA stations to encourage transit use. There isn't room for all BellSouth employees to park downtown, and those who do will pay $60 or more per month. At BellSouth's multiple former offices, employee parking was free.
“Employees have to determine if getting out there in the traffic is really worthwhile,” Gilbert said. “They have to make an economic choice.”
BellSouth is constructing parking decks at North Springs (900 spaces), Doraville (900 spaces) and College Park (600 spaces). A 500-space deck will be built later at Indian Creek when MARTA's patrons fill up the existing parking. The company is digging deep into its wallet for this extra parking — the 2,900 spaces cost about $10,000 each to build.
Each remote parking area will be like an office away from the office. “We're going to put a small mini-business center there so our telecommuters can connect to our big network, do what they need with their laptops, and go home or go downtown for a meeting if they like,” Gilbert said. MARTA stations also will serve as meeting places for BellSouth employees because of their geographic convenience.
Representatives from seven Atlanta design firms locked themselves away for three days to sketch the interior decorating dreams of the Metro Plan. “We had the best and the brightest come together, and they came up with some wonderful things,” said Donna Minix, BellSouth's senior project manager. Large carpet squares of green, blue and teal are reminiscent of the ocean, and curving lines give the halls character that the typical straight hallway lacks.
Employees were able to choose one of three color schemes — blue, teal or green — that they preferred for their floor. “We've done an innovative thing [with the interiors] to try to appeal to the younger generation, which we're trying to attract, and yet it's very appealing to our older employees too,” Gilbert said.
Deepa 360, a subsidiary of San Francisco-based Deepa Textiles, was selected to create textile products specifically for BellSouth. Each of the seven signature fabrics — which were used for cubicles, walls, furniture and floors — incorporates a BellSouth theme, including flexibility, people and networks. The fabric dubbed “face to face” is a collage of brightly colored faces that represents the teamwork and collaboration of BellSouth's employees.
Abby Herget, vice president and director of design at Deepa 360, discussed the culture and direction of the company with a team of 12 BellSouth employees, ranging from new hires to veteran employees in all departments. “There was a lot of involvement by the actual employees who were going to sit in the spaces,” Herget said.
Lovely Lenox, a modern marvel
Nestled among apartments and homes, the first completed Lenox Park building, Building 2180, is a marvel of modern design, collaboration and decor. The 12-story, Class-A office building matches the sky with its light-blue façade so as not to overpower the park below. The 26-acre park features a lake with a large duck population, picnic tables and two tree swings on the lawn. “BellSouth has no other property like this,” Gilbert said. Residents nearby use the park for recreation and a huge annual Easter egg hunt, while BellSouth employees stroll the grounds during lunch.
A football-shaped room, a large open area in the center of each floor, encourages impromptu meetings and greets employees with comfortable chairs in reds and blues. “We find that the more opportunities people have to interact with each other, the more likely they are to do some immediate problem-solving. This became what we consider the town center,” Minix said.
A private alcove provides a spot for personal phone calls, and chairs have small side desks for laptops. “We see an awful lot of laptops in BellSouth,” Minix noted. “BellSouth's corporate real estate organization [alone] has about 275 people, and 90% of them have laptops.” Employees can connect to the company network while in the community area. A diagonally-shaped coffee bar beckons employees to relax and drink a fresh cup or two.
Above, a fluorescent fiber-optic cable, also in the familiar football shape, changes colors by means of a color wheel. The cable represents BellSouth's fiber-optic operations while simultaneously creating a downtown cafe atmosphere. The shiny background tiles in yellow, turquoise and lime bring to mind city sights and sounds. Bright splashes of color are everywhere — on the walls, floor, furniture and even the cubicles. “The colors are very vibrant, contemporary and uplifting, and the color gets more vibrant as you get to the teaming areas,” Herget said.
Natural light enters all four sides of the building because, in an unusual design decision, executive offices were placed in the center of the building, while employee workstations were set up along the windows. “We had some resistance [from executives who would be without window views], but we wanted everybody to have a view of the outside,” Minix said.
The U-shaped desks, which offer more workspace than typical desks, help increase efficiency. And instead of offering one break room for every three or four floors, the building features small, well-equipped break rooms on each floor to promote the community ambiance. Two conference rooms are located at opposite ends of each floor. On the penthouse executive floor, each executive has a large corner office and a personal conference room. Stairwells are wide and well lit to encourage employees to walk up and down the staircase for exercise, Minix said.
“We've really gotten a lot of very positive feedback,” Minix said. “People say that the rooms are fun. That's what we wanted to accomplish.”
Employees may be happy with their new workplace, but some community groups surrounding Metro Plan sites have fought the project from the beginning. The Garden Hills Civic Association, a local neighborhood group, has been concerned about additional automobile traffic near their homes. “BellSouth started out saying the sites would be developed into suburban offices, and showed us pictures of 2-story, Georgian-type buildings,” said Bill Bozarth, a member of the association who is leading the group's opposition. “Then somewhere in the process they came back with these plans for 2 million sq. ft. of office space for BellSouth with 10,500 parking spaces.”
Bozarth contends there is no plan in place to disperse the cars from so many parking spaces. He believes it's a recipe for disaster, especially in the Piedmont Road area.
“We don't mind the density, but we do mind the traffic,” Bozarth said. “That many cars will have a major, major impact, especially with no clear plan on how the traffic will be handled.”
However, companies have to make decisions for the benefit of the entire region, not just a single neighborhood, counters Sam A. Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. “This project may impact a specific neighborhood, and that's the dilemma that we get into as a big city,” Williams said. “Do you make decisions for the best regional impact, or do you do it for a neighborhood? That's the trade-off.”
Building a legacy
BellSouth is earning praise for its urban-based plan, which environmentalists and planners call a welcome departure from suburban office parks that have contributed to sprawl in Atlanta and other cities.
“I think [the Atlanta Metro Plan] is really the exact kind of thing that Corporate America needs to do to take responsibility for the contribution that they've made to the excessive sprawl and traffic problems across the country, not just in Atlanta,” said the Urban Land Institute's Pawlukiewicz. Smart growth is not just about government regulations, but about citizen responsibility, he added.
Developments like the Metro Plan are successful only when the community becomes involved and forms a partnership, he continued. Already, Post Properties has built multifamily housing around Metro Plan sites, and the American Cancer Society and Marriott Residence Inn are just two companies that also will occupy Metro Plan sites.
“BellSouth cares about the success of Atlanta, and Atlanta should care about the success of BellSouth,” Pawlukiewicz said.
According to Williams of the Chamber of Commerce, positive repercussions from BellSouth's smart growth plan already are evident in Atlanta.
Other developers have acquired property in the vicinity of transit stations, including Cousins Properties and Holder Properties, both based in Atlanta, and Houston-based Hines. The new Federal Reserve Bank is within 400 feet of the Midtown MARTA station. “Companies want to get a skilled workforce, and they want to make it convenient. Public transit is an equalizer in that regard,” Williams said. Other cities such as Toronto, New York and Boston have already accepted transit-oriented developments, but the idea is new for Atlanta.
“I think [this project] will happen all over the country,” said Ford of MARTA. “It's bricks, mortar and steel right now, but it eventually will be about people getting to work in a timely fashion.”
The creators of the Atlanta Metro Plan believe that it will impact the community first, and then the nation, with its environmental benefits, answer to Atlanta's traffic woes and employee-friendly office designs. BellSouth decided to take the road less traveled with its metro plan. “When you make a real estate decision,” Marshman concluded, “you really need to look not just at the business needs, but also the needs of your employees and the community.”
Rachel Smith, who was an editorial intern at NREI this summer, is a student at the University of Georgia.
A glimpse at BellSouth's portfolio
A Fortune 100 company, Atlanta-based BellSouth's extensive real estate portfolio contains 54.6 million sq. ft. of property nationwide, which includes 5,608 offices.
The company, which owns 72% of its properties and leases the remaining 28%, has 107,000 employees and annual revenues of $27 billion.
Atlanta alone is home to 190 offices, work centers and switching offices. BellSouth provides telecommunications services for a range of customers, from residential telephone users to large corporations. The company serves more than 45 million customers in the United States and 16 other countries. BellSouth capabilities include fiber-optic cable installation as well as data and Internet services such as BellSouth.net.
Out of a potential group of 75 offices considered for consolidation, BellSouth has combined 23 offices into the three sites as part of the Atlanta Metro Plan, affecting 10,500 employees. With a combined 2.8 million sq. ft., the Metro Plan sites ranked as the top three projects in Atlanta's Top 10 Office Build-to-Suits in 2000, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle. And, despite the current economic downturn, officials plan to continue the company's ambitious consolidation plans.
“The metro plan was designed to reduce the cost of our portfolio through lease consolidations,” said John Vinson, director of corporate real estate and services for BellSouth. “It's not just a typical construction project. To plan and develop it to fit in with the community takes a great deal of coordination. You have to be a good employer and a good neighbor at the same time.”
— Rachel Smith
Putting energy efficiency on hold isn't an option in the Atlanta Metro Plan
BellSouth traveled to Europe and California to find energy-saving techniques for the Atlanta Metro Plan. Energy efficiency has been a driving force for the company since the oil embargo in the 1970s. The company focuses on energy efficiency to reduce operating costs. “We believe that our buildings will operate about 65 cents less expensively per square foot than standard office buildings,” said Richard Gilbert, director of the Metro Plan. By implementing energy-efficient equipment, the company plans to do its part to alleviate Atlanta's smog problems and prevent potential electricity shortages.
To save money and reduce pollution, BellSouth used innovative European technology to create generators for its new buildings. Although the generators will cost $450,000 each, they will pay for themselves in an estimated three to four years. BellSouth will use the generators during peak electricity time, when Georgia Power energy prices are the highest.
In addition to saving the company money, the generators will benefit the environment, “To my knowledge, these generators are the first in this country that meet the rather stringent Georgia pollution standards,” Gilbert said. The generators adhere to Georgia Department of Natural Resources rules by limiting nitrous oxide emissions.
BellSouth visited California to check out a new type of elevator, and the Metro Plan became the first project in the Southeast to embrace the concept of destination elevators. “You'll never get on a local that stops at every floor,” Gilbert said. Riders select a floor by pressing a keypad before entering the elevators, which group riders by destination. Because the system is more efficient, fewer elevators are needed in the buildings, thereby saving energy and money.
By lowering the temperature of distributed air, the new buildings minimize energy usage because fans use less horsepower to blow the cooler air. As a result, the buildings are cooled to a comfortable temperature, but less energy is used than in many other office buildings. BellSouth now cools its buildings to 77 degrees Fahrenheit, which is slightly higher than normal office temperatures.
In addition to energy-efficient glass, the buildings are equipped with a control system that is timed to automatically turns lights on and off. “This feature will pay for itself in an estimated four to five years by reducing energy consumption and cutting costs,” Gilbert said. “The Atlanta Metro Plan buildings will be the most energy efficient buildings we've ever built.”
— Rachel Smith