Hartsfield 'Protection Zones' Encumber Half of Atlanta's Closing Ford Plant

Hapeville hopes the death of the 60-year-old Ford Motor Co. plant will breathe new life into the islandlike city of 6,500 residents, sandwiched between the world's busiest airport and two of the nation's major interstates.

But federally required "protection zones" extending far beyond two of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport's five runways could eat up nearly half the 128-acre Ford site and have complicated the city's plans to reinvent itself.

"You can't build an Atlantic Station here," said Alan Hallman, 44, Hapeville's mayor for the last four years. "But we still think the northwestern part of the property is suitable for development."

City officials think they can salvage about 60 acres of the Ford site for high-density "urban villages," retail outlets, hotels, research facilities and conference centers. Despite the problems presented by the protection zones, they say, Hapeville could over the next decade double its population by linking the redeveloped Ford site with the already underway 50-acre, $300 million mixed-use project known as Olde Towne, which is adjacent to the Ford property.

"Where else can you find 60 or so acres of developable land within seven miles of downtown Atlanta?" asked Robin Howarth, Hapeville's director of economic development.

So-called RPZs, or Runway Protection Zones, are mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration to protect people and structures on the ground in the areas directly in front of runways. The wedge-shaped areas extend over much of the southernmost portions of the Ford plant, which was built in the late 1940s --- decades before the runways were there.

The Ford plant, which was idled in 2006 and is slated to close for good this year, was grandfathered in, meaning it did not have to worry about FAA restrictions. However, any new user of the site will.

"In an RPZ, we recommend against congregating people," said Robert "Rusty" Chapman, manager of the airports division in the FAA's Atlanta office. "We would not want to see tall buildings or large congregations of people."

The FAA would have to carefully review and approve any new construction in the zones that cut across the Ford property. But city officials have already gotten the message.

"In the RPZ you can basically have nothing," Hallman said. "You can have green space, but it has to be passive. They don't even want people walking dogs in that area."

Hallman estimates the protection zones will eat up "40 to 50" acres of the Ford site. Noise restrictions could severely limit development of another 14 or so acres.

That 14-acre site could still be used for parking, light manufacturing or a distribution center, city officials contend.

That leaves a 20-acre triangle of land at the northwestern tip of the Ford site, the area bordered by Central Avenue, that could be used for residential development and a 42-acre piece of property below that suitable for commercial development.

A transplanted Brit who helped redevelop Liverpool's blighted waterfront in the 1980s, Howarth predicts "bulldozers will be on that site within 18 months." That, he said, would permit time for any environmental cleanup on the site, some of which could contain paint remnants, solvents and oil.

Within seven to 10 years, Howarth envisions a transformed urban environment, with high-end residences, retail shops and hotels that give residents access to the airport without getting on the interstates.

"The convenience for people who live here and work at the airport or who fly out regularly would be incredible," he said.

About 55,000 people work at Hartsfield-Jackson, and more than 85 million pass through it every year.

Howarth gestures enthusiastically as he drives by 260 soon-to-be constructed luxury residences --- part of the Olde Towne development --- across from the North Cargo terminal. The units will be in a five-story building overlooking the airport.

"Imagine," he said. "You open your window and suck down your champagne as you look out over the five runways. It'll be spectacular at night. It'll be Buckhead elegance, but not Buckhead prices."

Combine Olde Towne with development of the Ford site, Howarth said, and you end up with a site approaching the land size of Atlantic Station.

Hapeville ponied up more than $5 million for infrastructure to get Olde Towne off the ground. The city will be looking to private developers to fund the Ford site's development, Howarth said.

The city, which was halved by Hartsfield's expansion in the 1970s, has had its eyes on the Ford site for several years, ever since rumors began to circulate that the plant was destined to be shuttered.

Ford will not publicly discuss the site's future because of a national United Auto Workers' contract that keeps the facility idled and not available for sale until September.

However, there have already been preliminary discussions among officials about the future of the site, which Hapeville needs to bolster its tax base after Ford's departure.

"It's very important for us to revamp our tax base," Mayor Hallman said. "Ford is responsible for about 10 percent of our revenue."

Georgia Tech students have completed a preliminary mock-up of possibilities for the Ford site, which has been tentatively dubbed "Ford's Landing."

"Our selling point is the incredible access you have from this site to the airport and to two major interstate systems," Howarth said. "We can't fail with this project."

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