Editor’s note: Charles Davidson covers the Atlanta high-tech scene for Local Tech Wire. His column appears each Monday. Charles Brewer has always stood out in Atlanta.
The founder of the ISP MindSpring Enterprises, he was among the first entrepreneurs here to embrace the hippie business ethic and get rich. MindSpring’s legendary “core values and beliefs” were long on things like respect for co-workers and customers.
A tall, lanky, whimsical fellow, Brewer actually seemed to abide by those beliefs. He has a Stanford MBA but was always better known for his three-legged dog, wacky patio furniture in his office and fondness for kayaking and bicycling.
After EarthLink Networks bought MindSpring, which Brewer had started in his condo in 1994, it quickly became clear that Brewer was a Birkenstock being overtaken by wingtips. EarthLink’s chief executive officer, Garry Betty, is known as a hard-as-nails boss. The cultures clashed. Brewer resigned as chairman in 2000 and immediately sold all his stock — about $50 million worth.
He set about learning all he could about “new urbanism,” the notion that people should live in communities that don’t force them to drive everywhere. Today, he’s putting that know how to use. Brewer’s running Green Street Properties, a real estate firm that aims to create environmentally sensitive developments where people can live, work, shop and play without much using a car.
That’s no trifling goal in Atlanta.
In a town where real estate developers are about as likely to sport a nose ring as to join the Sierra Club, Brewer once again is trying to chart a new path. He did it in the tech business, but it might not be so easy in the real estate game.
Techie real estate mogul?
Metro Atlanta has been and largely remains a real estate developer’s playground. It’s one of the few places in the country where regional malls are still opening — two in the second half of 2001. Traffic congestion consistently rates among the nation’s worst. A book on city planning published last year labeled Atlanta “a giant misbegotten organism.” Bicycling magazine named Atlanta the worst city for biking – not just in America, but in North America.
Undeterred, Brewer is planning a 28-acre “new urban” development with homes, shops, a school and offices. It’ll have bike lanes, parking spaces for scooters, lots of sidewalks and shade trees and no big parking lots. Green Street would like to install charging stations for electric cars — Brewer owns one — and aims to do the whole project without hauling anything to a landfill, said Walter Brown, one of Brewer’s two lieutenants at Green Street.
That last part might be tough. The site used to be a concrete recycling plant, so there’s concrete underground throughout most of the site, and all sorts of nasty liquids in ditches and puddles.
Weighing ‘environmental and social consequences’
Green Street’s been courting the surrounding neighborhoods of Ormewood Park and Grant Park. It’s a diverse, in-town area just southeast of downtown with lots of trees, old houses and left-leaning political views. Green Street seems to be listening: Originally, plans didn’t include a bike lane along the main street bordering the property. After hard-core cyclists complained, Brewer added a bike lane.
On the day the final plans for Glenwood Park were disclosed in The Atlanta Journal Constitution, the paper also published an opinion piece by Brewer in which he made the case “that people should weigh the environmental and social consequences of their decisions about where and how to live.”
Coming from an Atlanta real estate developer, that’s like Bill O’Reilly penning an ode to Hillary Clinton. But Brewer is no normal Atlanta developer. He was no normal tech entrepreneur, either, but there are other techies kind of like him.
There are fewer real estate guys like him. And unless Glenwood Park, with its scooter spaces and electric car chargers, makes Brewer as much money as MindSpring did, there probably won’t be any time soon.