During each morning commute for many years, Toni Morrison-McBride would load into her car, drive about two blocks to University Avenue, and wince. A City of Atlanta clerk and doting grandmother, Morrison-McBride has lived nearly all of her 60 years in Pittsburgh, a neighborhood two miles south of downtown wedged up against the Connector. Her drive to the interstate entailed a glimpse at something both unavoidable and painful: the ruins of a sprawling trucking facility that symbolized the area’s economic hardships.
Morrison-McBride had watched the thriving, vibrant Pittsburgh of her 1960s youth—the locally owned restaurants, shoe shop, laundromat, convenience store, dry cleaners, juke joints, and well-maintained houses—replaced by vacant storefronts and dilapidated properties, as many former neighbors were scared off by the “dope boys” of a 1980s drug epidemic. Then the shipping hub at 352 University Avenue—once thought to be the largest trucking operation of its kind in the world—had hemorrhaged all of the jobs so many locals depended on. Aside from the occasional flea market on the 31-acre site, where Morrison-McBride would sell the baked goods and crafts she makes, there was no life.
“You couldn’t help but see it, and it was just dead, depressing,” she says. “For years, talk, and talk, and talk, but you never did see any progress.”
As of six months ago, that’s all changed. Construction launched in March on Pittsburgh Yards, a multifaceted adaptive-reuse venture spearheaded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a philanthropic organization that aims to better the lives of American children, alongside partners Core Ventures and Columbia Ventures, a company with local expertise in affordable housing. The site is several blocks east of the Atlanta Beltline’s Westside Trail; even more crucially, its southern border will one day be the Southside Trail, which engineers indicate will swoop down to Pittsburgh Yards’s back porch, so to speak, leaving an elevated former railroad for future transit.
Project leaders use familiar Beltline-centric terms such as “economic catalyst” in describing its future impact, but the goal is more ambitious and unique. Pittsburgh Yards could change the definition of what Beltline development is—and not only whom it’s directed toward, but who’s directing it.
The core mission of Pittsburgh Yards, as project heads and observers stress, is to bolster existing neighborhoods in the periphery—including Pittsburgh, Adair Park, Capitol View, Mechanicsville, Summerhill, and Peoplestown—that have been largely isolated from Atlanta’s economic growth. Unlike bustling, Beltline-connected retail and jobs hubs Ponce City Market and Krog Street Market, or a brews-and-bites warehouse district such as West End’s Lee+White, Pittsburgh Yards is designed to be as welcoming to welders and carpenters as Beltline bikers and pram-pushers. The goal is that the majority of visitors won’t come to spend, but to earn. A history of unemployment or criminal records won’t necessarily be barriers.
“It’s going to be a unique destination point,” says Atlanta City Councilwoman Joyce Shepherd, whose District 12 encompasses Pittsburgh. “But also, economically, it will lift up the community and keep the culture of the community in the community.”
One hot day in September, amid the site’s orange dust and a flurry of construction activity, Natallie Keiser, an Annie E. Casey Foundation senior associate, explains the objective another way.
“We’re trying to steward this so it’s different than what we see the market doing to the rest of the Beltline,” she says. “We’re really careful about managing expectations—under-promise and over-deliver—because these neighborhoods have been over-promised and under-delivered for way too long.”
Elsewhere on the site, James Harris, a partner with Core Ventures, was calling the Beltline frontage “a blessing” and stressing how Atlantans beyond the Southside have yet to fully grasp how different the objective is. Since early 2017, Harris’s company has led community engagement and entrepreneurial development work at Pittsburgh Yards, which has included open-door neighborhood meetings every other Thursday at a nearby rec center, and Harris has emerged as the property’s resident historian and docent.
Pittsburgh, as he notes, joins Reynoldstown as the two Atlanta communities founded by freed slaves. As the Civil War ended, Bishop Davis Wasgatt Clark, a white minister who sought to educate liberated African-Americans, petitioned the federal government for $80,000 and used the funding to create nearby Clark College (today’s Carver High School). South of Atlanta proper, Clark owned 8,000 acres of what was then farmland, and students at his college grew crops to feed themselves and learned trades in blacksmith shops on land where Pittsburgh Yards is being built today. Clark’s land was sold in the 1940s, and as interstates were being carved through the city, the Great Southern Trucking Terminal was built in 1951, claiming to be the world’s largest.
“Once the shipping facility came in, now there’s more money here,” says Harris. “This was a very prosperous community.”
A Reagan-era recession took its toll on the shipping hub in the 1980s, and by the late ’90s, the site’s only tenant was Renewal Atlanta, a recycling firm. Records show a UPS subsidiary bought the property in 2001, but the Sandy Springs-based global logistics giant never moved in. Instead, the Annie E. Casey Foundation—established in 1948 and named for the mother of UPS founder Jim Casey—purchased the site for $4.2 million in 2006, eager to maximize its potential to help bolster families in the area. Environmental studies, community engagement, and design work launched—until the Great Recession slammed the brakes on progress.
“With the recession, things really collapsed for Pittsburgh,” says Harris. “It was ground-zero for mortgage fraud. The community was devastated.”
A decade later, data suggest the area lags other intown districts that have surged out of the recession. That’s despite the ballyhooed $43 million investment in the Beltline’s Westside Trail next door, and the city’s $26 million purchase in March of the Southside Trail corridor and subsequent work to make it a reality.
The most recent demographic profile available, broken down to include Pittsburgh and neighboring Adair Park, shows the sheer number of residents in blocks north and west of Pittsburgh Yards slightly shrank between 2000 and 2015 to 5,328.
Among that population, just 15.4 percent of adult residents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, and the median household income has been stagnant for years at less than $21,000, according to Atlanta Regional Commission and Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta data.
Since 2000, the number of residents deemed to be living in poverty has actually climbed by 10 percent, and one-third of all housing units remain vacant.
While Morrison-McBride, the longtime resident, says the ubiquitous drug-pushers have mostly been eradicated, those vacancies still irk her. However, she has seen a steady in-migration of professionals attracted by Beltline proximity and intown convenience.
Among them is Michelle Jones, an empty-nester telecommunications specialist who uprooted from South Fulton 10 months ago to buy a refurbished 2007 two-story in Pittsburgh, and who now walks the Westside Trail with her grandchildren on weekends. Like hundreds of her neighbors, Jones has dedicated free time to helping steer the future of Pittsburgh Yards.
“When I went to the first meeting,” says Joes, “I could tell immediately that [developers were] engaging feedback and ideas for what what’s working, what’s not, what the neighborhood would like to see.”
The project’s very name is a result of community brainstorming and legwork.
Harris and company spent six months working through exercises to comprise a list of 100 possible names, which they printed in 600 booklets. Those were then handed out in churches and stuffed in mailboxes. About 300 votes streamed in, and “Pittsburgh Yards” won.
Now, neighbors have established subcommittees tasked with overseeing specific facets of the project: history, public art, green space, branding, the naming of new streets, et cetera.
“I’m sitting in those meetings where the room is full of folks, and you couldn’t ask for better,” says Sheperd, the councilwoman. “This isn’t just development that’s happening in isolation of the community—it’s truly the vision of the community.”
So what’s that vision entail?
With the name finalized and partnership with development team Columbia Core Partners secured, demo work, asphalt removal, and the construction of an enormous storm-water detention vault has occurred since the March groundbreaking. A steel superstructure is being erected over what’s colloquially called the “whale-skeleton building”—the only old structure left standing—which is planned to be the initial activity hub of the project’s $26 million first phase.
Within about a year, that building should come to life with five different components: a soundproof section where welders, carpenters, and other tradespeople will work in 22 units; an artisan wing with studios for quieter trades, such as sewing and jewelry-making; a front section for more typical office occupants (think: graphic designers) with an indoor amphitheater that can be reserved for product showcases or community meetings; five residential units available at 60 percent of the area’s median income; and a small commercial kitchen where bakers and cooks working from home now might “take their product up a level,” as Harris puts it.
Additionally, a large versatile green space is planned for phase one, suited for anything from farmers markets to soccer matches and neighborhood festivals. Two green “pads” near University Avenue will be left as blank slates for employers who might want to build offices or light-industrial hubs on site. A village of shipping containers, housing up to 24 businesses that might sell wares to Beltline patrons, is also in the works.
At least 50 percent of permanent jobs are being reserved for local residents who can walk or bike to work, and Harris says minority-led businesses within a radius of one to three miles are being recruited.
“Our hope is that it becomes a place where people make things, and you know it’s made in Southwest Atlanta, in Pittsburgh Yards,” says Harris. “If you’re in Chosewood Park, you’ll want to bring your friends from out-of-town over here on the Beltline, to see [a product] being made and taste some of it. That would be a nice experience.”
Over the next decade or more, the vision calls for a million square feet of space to rise at Pittsburgh Yards. “We’re nervous about predicting the number of jobs, for obvious reasons,” says Keiser of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which will claim phase one space for its own offices. “Come back next summer, and we might be able to [forecast] jobs for phase one.”
Whatever the numbers, Morrison-McBride is hopeful the investment will go a long way toward erasing stigma associate with Pittsburgh’s recent past—if not putting her neighborhood, as she says, back on the map.
“I’ve always said I’m proud to live in Pittsburgh, but now it’s like, hey, I can shout it out,” says Morrison-McBride. “To ride past that every day and see those trucks and some dirt—we haven’t seen dirt in a long time. When they get some grass over there, I’m going to be doing flips.”