Remind me not to play Monopoly with Ben Carter. He owns the streets, and has a hotel on every street.
— Atlanta City Councilman Howard Shook in 2007
FORGIVE US for making this week's Connect nearly a Ben Carter special issue. In addition to this column, I've written a longer-form piece about the Atlanta developer's blockbuster proposal for Broughton Street, and we also have John Bennett's News Cycle column addressing parking solutions.
Forgive us, but it's a really big deal. Carter's press conference last week brought movers and shakers from all walks of Savannah business, cultural, and political life, all spending a cold, blustery lunch hour just to get a glimpse of him in person and get a closer look at his property deals and what they might mean to them.
One thing that's amazed me is that, with all the bullet-point lists of Carter's previous projects, the local media has made virtually no mention of his activity in Buckhead.
It's amazed me because literally for years I've driven through Buckhead during trips to Atlanta and seen Carter's chief legacy there: A nearly nine-acre hole in the ground with a few inactive cranes sticking up, like sleeping flamingos.
That's part of Carter's story too, and it's worth talking about. First the backstory:
In the '80s and '90s, Buckhead was a very different place. Not only ground zero for the Atlanta party scene, it was nearly ground zero for the American party scene. Think South Beach with khakis.
The so-called Buckhead Village entertainment district had over 50 bars and clubs in eight acres-plus, with their own special closing time of 4 a.m. On any given weekend night the bars, streets, and sidewalks were packed from dusk 'til dawn with young attractive revelers with money to burn.
By the time of the '96 Olympics in Atlanta, Buckhead was described as being like New Orleans' annual Mardi Gras celebration — every weekend.
It was a crazy scene. It kept getting crazier. Things changed. There was cruising. There was crime. There were guns.
The neighborhood associations got scared. The politicians got nervous. There was pressure to close the bars.
Then Ray Lewis happened. In 2000, the NFL star was arrested for murder at a Buckhead club the night after the Super Bowl was played at the Georgia Dome. It became the nation's leading news story.
Lewis was exonerated, said he found Jesus, went on to win two Super Bowl rings and retire as a hero. But the damage to Buckhead was done.
The neighborhood and the city finally had enough. One by one the clubs were all closed, either by not renewing leases or by purchase. Offers they couldn't refuse.
Ben Carter ended up with just about every square foot of that desolate land with the boarded-up businesses, ironically set on some of America's most valuable real estate. His plan was to transform Buckhead Village into the "Streets of Buckhead," an upscale residential/retail community built from scratch at a cost of over a billion dollars.
Invoking comparisons to L.A.'s Rodeo Drive, Carter bragged that the Hermes store was moving from nearby Lenox Mall to his development because they'd have twice the space. (They did, and regretted it for years.)
The bulldozers came. The last of the old Buckhead watering holes, C.J.'s Landing, was demolished in August 2007, in a media event with Carter and Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin in attendance.
A year later, the global economic collapse stopped "Streets of Buckhead" cold. The nine acres lay fallow for three years.
In 2011, Carter — who'd already put $400 million into it — sold his interest to San Diego-based OliverMcMillan, who renamed it "Buckhead Atlanta." Construction began last year on this less-ambitious version, "not seeking a Rodeo-Drive type development," in their words. (However, Hermes is staying, and in a new building.)
Quickly moving on, Carter soon drummed up interest in the "Outlet Mall of Georgia" in Pooler, his first foray into the world of outlets. Ground broke in September 2013.
Last month, Tanger Outlets, which runs outlet malls in Atlanta, Bluffton, Charleston, and dozens of other locations, announced an agreement to develop and run the Pooler project 50/50 with Carter, with an initial investment of $10 million. When it opens next year, the Outlet Mall of Pooler will be known instead as Tanger Savannah.
So that's how Ben Carter came to set his sights on Broughton. Some of it has no bearing at all on Savannah. Some of it might.
We see that Broughton Street is far from Carter's first big idea. We see that Carter has made game-changing bulk purchases before, with big political support to back up his big ideas. We see that sometimes those purchases don't work out as planned. And we see that some of them require deep-pocket help later — by need or by design?
More to the point, downtown Savannah already has a history of being hugely influenced by a single landlord, in this case Michael Brown. (Note to newbies: Not the same person as the former city manager of the same name.)
The Brown legacy, among other things, includes very high commercial rents even at the worst point of the economic downturn, and commercial leases which are sometimes so one-sided in his favor that I've heard them referred to colloquially by their own nickname, a "Michael Brown lease."
I'm sure they're out there, but so far I haven't met a single person in the Savannah business community who mourns the possibility of Michael Brown having decreased influence on local real estate. But many of those same people seem to be pretty eager to welcome another, different mega-landlord.
Just know that Ben Carter plays a game that's new around here: high-risk, high-reward. And Savannah just became a player in it. I hope downtown has its game-face on.