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Atlanta’s site of November Democratic debate has seen recent highs, lows

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Tyler Perry Studios, where 10 Dems will face off on a primary stage, has been lauded, as controversy brewed next door

A drone’s view of massive soundstages for making movies and TV shows.
Soundstages at Tyler Perry Studios, with downtown and Midtown Atlanta beyond.
Tyler Perry Studios

About four miles southwest of downtown Atlanta, roughly a 10-minute drive or three stops on the airport-bound MARTA transit line, U.S. Army base Fort McPherson operated for more than a century across nearly 500 acres, claiming the site between Reconstruction and 2011.

Today, the name of the main road leading into the former Fort McPherson—the site of Atlanta’s November Democratic primary debate, the fifth such meeting so far—is emblematic of major changes within: One Tyler Perry Studios Way.

National viewers tuning in to the face-off between 10 Democratic presidential hopefuls might be familiar with Perry’s recently unveiled studios, widely lauded on national news and talks show with an opening gala attended by a galaxy of stars.

But Perry’s 330-acre lot is only part of the historic military site—yes, a very large part—while the portion that’s actually supposed to be accessible to the public, potentially lifting up the underserved neighborhoods around it with walkable options and jobs, has been stalled by political head-butting and claims of racial friction, a rarity in proudly diverse Atlanta.

In a color-coded rendering, we see a breakdown of Tyler Perry’s portion of the former U.S. Army base and what remains for redevelopment.
A breakdown of Tyler Perry’s portion of the former U.S. Army base near downtown Atlanta and what remains for redevelopment.
Fort Mac LRA

The fifth Democratic debate, hosted by MSNBC and the Washington Post, will see the 10 candidates who’ve secured at least 165,000 individual donors and scored well in polls and surveys squaring off on a stage, behind imposing gates, that Perry has named for Oprah Winfrey.

Perry, who also built Georgia’s most expensive home for himself, acquired his 330 acres in 2015 from the City of Atlanta for $30 million. The studios he’s built since are marketed as one of the country’s largest production facilities, with 12 large sound stages, a flexible backlot, 200 acres of manicured green space for future growth, and 40 former U.S. Army buildings on the National Register of Historic Places—all ready for filming.

It’s been used for production in The Walking Dead, Black Panther, and many Perry creations, among others, while establishing Perry as the only African-American to own a major film studio. The site includes a replica White House, a commercial jet, a faux airport terminal, and rows of new brownstones and houses, all used as sets, as Architectural Digest discovered on a tour this month.

A photo of movie mogul and Atlanta resident Tyler Perry.
Once homeless, Tyler Perry is now a movie mogul and major Atlanta real estate developer.
Paras Griffin/Getty Images

The rest of the former base is now branded Fort Mac. It’s envisioned as a public-private redevelopment of 145 acres that will create a mixed-use venture with “a broad spectrum of jobs, capital investment, and interest to our community,” situated between two MARTA stations.

That’s the vision of the Fort Mac Local Redevelopment Authority, a government agency formed by the State of Georgia to oversee the revamp of what Perry doesn’t own.

As LRA officials explained during a site tour for Curbed Atlanta early this year, the potentially $600 million project had qualified for tax allocation district funding expected to accelerate redevelopment—and create an economic rebirth on a scale that Southwest Atlanta neighborhoods haven’t seen. (Roughly 2,000 Fort Mac residential units are planned, with the majority costing less than market-rate prices. “Affordable housing is our No. 1 priority,” as one official put it, during the tour.)

Like Perry’s, the LRA’s ambitions are big. But ground has yet to break, as headline-grabbing squabbles have snagged progress.

A field with a large green wall dividing it from a parking lot.
Tyler Perry’s section of the property is walled off behind this fencing. The backlot has more than 220 acres of “groomed green space” for creating multiple more sets, as studio heads note.
Curbed Atlanta

This summer, the planned redevelopment of Fort McPherson appeared to be in jeopardy altogether, due in large part to disagreements between the Fort Mac LRA and the project’s master developer, Macauley Investments.

What was reported as racially charged tension between the LRA—the agency was formerly headed by Brian Hooker, a black man—and Macauley Investments, run by Stephen Macauley, who is white—was problematic. But Hooker resigned from the post in late July and was replaced on an interim basis by Invest Atlanta executive Alan Ferguson.

Now, Macauley Investments has teamed up with David Moody, CEO of C.D. Moody Construction, to overhaul the 145 acres of Fort Mac that isn’t owned by the film mogul, as the Atlanta Business Chronicle recently reported. Moody is an alum of Morehouse College, a historic, private black men’s institution nearby.

The new joint venture, dubbed “Moody-Macauley,” could try to make up for lost time and get the massive mixed-use project back on track. (Macauley had tried to get the LRA to approve a master project area agreement back in February, to no avail.)

Macauley, who previously told Curbed Atlanta the team would break ground by this past August, recently predicted for the ABC that Phase 1 construction will break ground in 2020.

That potentially $25 million phase would span roughly 24 acres and include a mix of residences, retail, arts spaces, and more—a contrast to the Hollywood scenes next door.

A rendering of the Fort Mac plans with white buildings and many trees.
This rendering shows the northeastern corner of the Fort Mac plans, facing downtown.
Fort Mac LRA