Institute expansion seeks to avoid gentrification

Science Square is located at Northside Drive and North Ave, an area of West Midtown — a once abandoned industrial hub of Atlanta that is now experiencing large amounts of gentrification. // Photo by Alex Dubé Student Publications

The Institute’s Comprehensive Campus Plan (CCP) is an ongoing initiative to expand Tech’s footprint in order to accommodate the needs of its growing student body. 

The CCP aligns with the Institute’s strategic plan and relates to areas of growth relating to people, research and teaching as a means to best utilize existing campus space, along with new construction projects. 

Despite Tech’s campus being positioned as an urban oasis nestled within Midtown Atlanta, there are neighborhoods and communities that have inhabited the outskirts of campus for decades. 

As the Institute expands its borders, Tech’s relationship with the Atlanta community creates pause for reflection, with the guiding question being how can campus growth be directed in a way that holds the best interests of the internal campus community while preserving off-campus relationships with community partners and stakeholders? 

In order to learn more about campus expansion initiatives and their impact on neighboring communities, the Technique had the opportunity to interview Tony Zivalich, Tech’s Associate Vice President for the real estate office. 

According to their website, the Institute’s real estate team’s main responsibilities include “the acquisition, sale, leasing, development, encumbrance and strategic planning of Georgia Tech’s real property assets, and the management, construction and financing of non-academic real estate.” 

Currently, the Institute has a few big construction projects in the works. Zivalich expressed Tech’s desire to create a life sciences cluster, which led to the development of Science Square. 

The city of Atlanta has never traditionally had a concentration of commercial space available relating to the life sciences and related startups. Rather, higher education institutions like Emory and Tech have been bound by the property lines of their existing academic facilities. 

With the opening of the approximately 360,000 square-foot tower in the first phase opening of Science Square in April  2024, Tech hopes to change the narrative regarding the importance of fostering innovation within the life sciences on campus. 

The residential building in Science Square will be named after Grace Hamilton, the first Black female legislator in the state of Georgia, who used to live on the Westside of Atlanta. It will feature 280 multi-family units.

Science Square is being built on what is regarded as a Federal Opportunity Zone, and this distinction came about due to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act as a means to incite economic growth within low-income communities. This distinction allows investors to receive preferential tax treatment as a means to incentivize investors to bring economic growth to low-income neighborhoods. 

Additionally, another major construction project relates to the Georgia AI Manufacturing (GA-AIM) coalition that received $65 million from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration. 

In order to support AI manufacturing in Georgia, Zivalich’s team is responsible for updating the property on the corner of 14th St and Northside Drive to allow the faculty heading the project to execute on the federal grant. 

Another major construction project under the supervision of the real estate team is the third phase of Tech Square, which will feature a tower dedicated to executive education programs for the Scheller College of Business and another tower dedicated to the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering. 

In terms of what community engagement the real estate office does in order to interact with existing neighborhoods to ensure they have a positive relationship with Tech in light of new expansion projects, Zivalich explained the process through which his team approaches campus expansion. 

“As an example, right now, we’re working through the potential redevelopment of the Randall Brothers site, otherwise known as the new Art Square. And so as a part of the rezoning process, we are actually required to engage with the communities. We have met with neighborhood planning units (NPUs). So as a part of the rezoning process, we actually are in active engagement with the neighborhood planning units for units L, M, and E. So as a part of that, we meet with their land use committees,” Zivalich said. 

In those meetings, the real estate team presents the types of projects that are under development and that leads to an approval process. As part of the CCP’s guidelines, Zivalich’s team conducts outreach to all communities in and around Tech. 

He sits on several land use committees including the Midtown Alliance, where he is a part of the Design Review Committee which includes Midtown residents, architects, engineers and interested stakeholders as a means to understand the pulse of the communities around campus. Other committees Tech engages with include the Home Park Neighborhood Association, the Marietta Street Artery Association and the Upper Westside Community Improvement District. 

As for whether Tech’s neighboring communities are being impacted positively or negatively by campus expansion initiatives, Zivalich said, “So if you look at the Westside communities of Vine City, English Avenue and Grove Park, they’re being impacted positively by Science Square. The demographics — that is one of the actually poorest parts of Atlanta. We are purposely doing a lot in terms of outreach in a few areas. One is the Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing (CEISMC) program, and we do a lot with the Washington School District on the Westside, in terms of helping them with their STEM programming.” 

Another form of outreach, particularly as part of the Science Square redevelopment is the assembly of a fund for awarding scholarships to different students within the neighboring communities who want to focus on life sciences, whether that be at Tech or at a technical college. The goal of that initiative is to support and create job opportunities that can excel within the new life sciences cluster. 

Zivalich mentioned that one of his biggest challenges with community engagement is that oftentimes, “communities may not have a single spokesperson. What we have is a lot of voices in the room. Some of those voices agree and some of them disagree. So the challenge is to maintain multiple touch points within the communities, and recognize that you’re dealing with communities of individuals, rather than an individual that runs a community.” 

Another individual working closely with local communities in relation to campus expansion is Chris Burke, Executive Director for Community Relations. He elaborated on the importance of creating opportunities for Tech’s neighboring communities as the campus continues to grow. 

One such program that Burke chairs is Westside Works, a long-term initiative focused on employment growth and opportunities for members of the Westside community through a partnership between the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia (CEFGA), Integrity Community Development Corporation (Integrity CDC), Per Scholas, Invest Atlanta, Metro Atlanta YMCA, Arthur M. Blank Foundation and Atlanta Workforce Development Agency. 

In terms of his interactions with the local communities in his capacity as a representation of the Institute and their perception of Tech’s expansion, Burke expressed the presence of mixed responses depending on the demographics of the neighborhoods. 

“In Midtown, there’s high rises and it’s really expensive to live there. That’s more of a business corridor. So their reaction to our expansion is very positive. It’s great because we do all this great research, and we have really smart people that [tech companies] could tap into for jobs. It’s a little more challenging when you move to the west, which is a historic low-income Black community. We don’t get a lot of students from those areas, so big projects like Science Square become gentrifying engines. So you see the research part brings in high paying jobs. So developers build expensive housing to accommodate that,” Burke said. 

High paying jobs, such as the one Science Square hopes to generate, drives up housing prices. Developers build housing and apartments to cater to people with higher salaries, even when the demographics of the same zip code has historically included those who qualify as low-income households. Gentrification then leads to displacement for the local communities, which creates a level of mistrust of new construction projects within the local communities. 

One avenue through which Tech is trying to combat the issue of gentrification due to new construction is through the Westside Futures Fund, a tax program focused on areas where property values are increasing so that people do not become displaced. 

The fund first came about during the development of the Mercedes Benz Stadium in Downtown Atlanta, when local community members were concerned about how the construction was going to create wholesale
gentrification in the area. 

The fund is a way through which affordable housing opportunities can be explored, along with ensuring that local communities aren’t priced out of their homes. 

“So as you can imagine, [for those communities] the feeling is not as warm and fuzzy. So it’s challenging, right. And so we show a good faith effort by showing up, by instituting different programs, by trying to make a positive difference, but it’s not without its challenges and that creates some tension. And the best thing you can do in those situations is to keep showing up. Don’t just write anybody off. Don’t just stop having conversations, keep showing up, keep talking and being authentic. We’re not just putting up a building and walking away – we’re staying engaged. And we’re trying to make sure that people have chances to get training and opportunities for upward mobility. That’s the goal,” Burke said.