Many of Atlanta's historic real estate projects bear the mark of Gene Kansas.
Kansas, founder of Gene Kansas Commercial Real Estate, has acted as seller representation for the 1920s Clermont Hotel, turning it into a boutique hotel. He also has a particular interest in Sweet Auburn, a historic African-American neighborhood that is the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr. Kansas worked on preserving the Atlanta Daily World building, which housed the longest publishing African-American daily newspaper in the U.S. The Atlanta Daily World has since moved, and the building was turned into apartments.
Now Kansas has founded Constellations, a shared workspace on the top floor of the Southern Schoolbook Building, built in Sweet Auburn in 1910. Georgia State University, Georgia Tech and companies from around the city have already signed up for space.
Kansas spoke with Crain’s Atlanta about why he likes developing in Sweet Auburn and how he chooses historic preservation projects.
Q: Why are you focusing on Sweet Auburn?
A: It’s just a personal passion of mine to be involved with economic and community development and cultural development. Sweet Auburn not only has an incredible and rich history in our city but in the entire world … I just feel like there’s not a better place to have a civic and social shared workspace than in the heart of the civil rights district. There’s only one of these in the world, and Atlanta has it. To have that as a framework and a structure not only lends an authenticity, but I think it also lends credibility.
Beyond that, Sweet Auburn is very much still a place in peril. You can take a drive around and see buildings that are crumbling and in complete disrepair. And I have a personal concern about the effect on our individual and civic identity if we lose historic places because our built environment, the context of our lives in a lot of ways, helps us to gain that identity. If we lose it, then it’s really hard to know where we are but also where we’ve been, and if you don’t have that, it’s very difficult to chart a path forward. Fortunately or unfortunately, I think that this time in the life of our nation, it’s important to learn and try to move forward in a positive way. So that’s why it’s important to be here.
Q: How do you choose projects to undertake?
A: Let’s take the Daily World as an example, which is a historic preservation we were fortunate to work on and lead. I’m OK doing just about any type of development in any part of the city as long as it can contribute in a positive way to community and hopefully to building up community. I like to say that we should be building up our history, not over it. But it almost doesn’t matter to me what type it is…
[The Daily World] had been hit by the tornado in 2008. I was in there summer of 2013. It was a total disaster. It looked like I was walking into a war zone – broken glass, rotting wood, plaster all over the floor, homeless people and drug addicts had been living in there. There were thousands of empty baggies of heroin on the floor. This was a place for planning and discourse and communication during the Civil Rights movement, and I realized how fragile this history was. If this building fell down or was demolished, we’d lose it. So that became something led by passion that I wanted to work on and do a historic preservation.
But I also want to and need to mention that for these projects, it’s vitally important that they make money, not only to buy my 3-year-old shoes or whatever, but if they’re not successful on the whole spectrum of success, then others won’t do them. If you show that you can be profitable doing historic preservation, as a good example, then other developers will do it, and that’s the only way to really be operating on scale or improving on scale because I can’t do it all, nor would I want to.
Q: What has been your favorite project that you’ve worked on?
A: There are components of different projects that have been really fun. The Clermont is a good example. That was part of the brokerage component of our business where we help people buy, sell or lease. I knew because of the time and timing of the sale of the Clermont that the Clermont Lounge and the building itself could be in real jeopardy. I knew that we needed to do something to activate more than just a prospective purchaser because there was this threat. So we launched this design competition, and we had like 600 entrees. That was just a ton of fun. I think it was really cool that the winning entry, Gamble & Gamble, actually became the architect of record. That was fun.
The Daily World is great because I’m into history and was able to play a part in helping to preserve it. The partners who we worked with were incredible. Everyone from the Atlanta Urban Design Commission to the National Trust for Historic Preservation to local talent in architecture and just community partners and beyond – that project really was very successful because we all worked together, and I learned something from that, which is [that] projects have a much better chance of success when you do work together.