Artist-pioneers discover old Atlanta

Gary Super doesn't mind the abandoned commercial buildings near the one he just bought for his home and photography studio. Nor does he mind the view out the back - an old railroad spur, a junked car, and a weedy vacant lot.

For what is now clearly a rundown area, just a few blocks from the heart of downtown Atlanta, offers what he and many other artists, among others need: space at a reasonable price.

And the old, narrow buildings look like potential row houses to Mr. Super. As for the vacant lot: a great place for a little park, says a real estate developer who also has his eye on the area.

Within the past several months, four other buildings have been sold to people planning to live and work in them. And several developers have been looking at the area, only a few square blocks, including one from the Soho district of New York.

On a much smaller scale, but in the same spirit that created the SoHo district, where artists once found cheap living and working space in commercial buildings, Atlanta may be on the verge of an urban pioneering spree by artists and others.

Such a spree is needed, says Atlanta planning director Panke Bradley. City officials and others here hope to attract more people to live in and near downtown and to have more areas of small shops for convention visitors to go to near downtown hotels.

Thanks to a zoning change allowing living in areas once zoned only commercial development, it will be easier.

Pumping new life into old commercial buildings has, over the years, rejuvenated San Francisco and Boston waterfronts, and turned old cotton warehouses in Savannah, Ga., and Memphis into condominiums.

But often the changes make things too expensive for the artists and others who first try the area out. The SoHo district, for example, has now far exceeded the price most artists can afford.

''There's been so much publicity about reuse of old areas that the prices have escalated beyond what artists and dancers can afford,'' says Tom Black, director of research of the Urban Land Institute in Washington.

But for the moment, Atlanta still has some bargain pockets, like the Castleberry Square area Super and a few others are moving into.

''It's kind of the pioneer spirit'' that got Carl Trimble, an architect, to buy a building just up the street from Super, he says.

And $30,000 for 6,800 square feet (three stories) suited him fine, he says. He estimates it will cost at least $10,000 to make the place livable. He also plans to have his studio in his new home. Already workmen are putting up interior walls on the top floor.

Castelberry Hill, as the area was originally called, began as a residential area in the late 1860s, according to Warren Drury, an architectural graduate student at Georgia Institute of Technology here. He is studying the area as a school project. Gradually it became a mix of saloons, barbershops, and other commercial buildings, he says.

Most of the current buildings date back to the early 1900s.

In spite of only a handful of urban ''pioneers'' currently living in the area , one of them, a waitress, says she does not feel unsafe and has had no security problems.

The potential for the area is ''fantastic,'' says Georgia Tech Prof. Arnall T. Connell. But it is a ''high risk'' investment, he says.

Atlanta realtor W. Bruce Gallman, whose company manages some of the area's key properties, says his efforts to get City Hall help in developing the area has been very positive. He would like to take out the old railroad spur and make it a pedestrian walkway, with the row of narrow commercial buildings using their ground levels as shop fronts.

Across town, a group of Atlanta-area dancers has recently renovated an abandoned theater. Nearby, a renovated school, turned into artists studios, has a long waiting list.

''People are looking . . . for space,'' says Super. But, he adds: ''The artist moves into an area no one will touch. It becomes a little safe, then the values go up and artists can't touch it.''

In Castelberry Square, prices have already started climbing.

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