City's Ugliest Lots? These Pioneers Will Take Them. ; with High Land Costs and Rising Housing Demand, Industrial Areas Are Becoming New Outposts for Affluent Urban Dwellers

Article excerpt

When developer Bob Silverman wanted to turn an abandoned lumberyard near a noisy Atlanta rail switchyard into a Provence- style neighborhood four years ago, it wasn't just bankers who snickered.

Nearly everyone had the same thought at first: "People thought I was crazy," he says.

The final product - dubbed M West - turned out to be more German Bauhaus than rustic France. But the 183 homes on 12 acres sold out in nine months when it opened last year with units starting at $200,000. The buyers were seemingly oblivious to the concrete plant across the street and the exotic dance club advertising "Blue Collar Lunch" next door.

It's all part of the changing landscape of urban centers. With high land costs and rising housing demand in US cities, it's old concrete plants, back lots of steel mills, and other ugly lots that are becoming the new outposts for affluent urban dwellers.

"Reuse [of industrial properties] is definitely a big trend in cities that may no longer be industrial hubs, but are becoming social centers that require housing," says Trish Riggs, of the Urban Land Institute, a think tank in New York.

The Euro-fication of housing has been driven by high fuel costs and denser development since about 2001. Now, ugly lot development is taking place from Salt Lake City to Baltimore, Md., often along withering industrial corridors, experts say.

* In Pittsburgh, SouthSide Works is a former steel mill site recently reimagined as a "mixed-use" development with homes, shops, and offices along the riverfront, anchored by the turrets-and- minarets profile of The Cheesecake Factory restaurant.

* In Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania is redeveloping 40 acres of industrial riverfront on the Schuylkill River into a sprawling neighborhood that would meld together Center City and West Philadelphia.

* Here in Atlanta, developer Jim Jacoby is finishing Atlantic Station, a megasize residential and shopping center built on top of the old Atlantic Steel grounds. IKEA, the Swedish furniture store, is the cornerstone tenant.

Wayne Mason, an Atlanta land prospector, calls it "the train- track strategy." A few years ago, he spotted an abandoned concrete plant next to a gas station that doubled as a drug den: They sold no gas and the milk at the minimart had expired months ago.

"It was the sorriest piece of property I ever saw," Mr. Mason says. He toppled the plant and crushed tons of spilt concrete into fill. After he sold the land to a developer, densely built townhouses spread across the lot during the past three years. And the gas station is gone now.

Greasing the gears for industrial redevelopment are "brownfield" laws that allow the reuse of industrial property. …

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