Written: November 22, 2017

National class action lawsuit filed in Atlanta against Equifax

A national class action lawsuit filed against Equifax Inc. (NYSE: EFX) claims that criminals have started using the information gleaned from July’s massive consumer data breach.

The Washington Post reports that a lawsuit, Allen et al v. Equifax, filed in Atlanta pulls together dozens of individual complaints from consumers in all 50 states plus Washington D.C., and “suggests that cybercriminals aren’t wasting time using the Social Security numbers, credit card accounts, driver’s license numbers and other sensitive personal information they siphoned out of the credit bureau’s reputedly secure databases on 145.5 million Americans,” writes columnist Kenneth R. Harney.

Harney reports that the suit intends to create a single giant class-action suit against the Atlanta-based credit reporting agency. Georgia resident Robert Huntis among the individuals reportedly apart of the lawsuit, claiming that multiple “unauthorized mortgages” have been applied for using his stolen information.

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National retailer claims top Atlanta broker ran massive fraud scheme

A lawsuit by the nation’s largest specialty bedding retailer claims a top Atlanta commercial real estate broker stuffed his mattress in a long-running fraud and bribery scheme.

Houston, Texas-based Mattress Firm Holding Corp. alleges prominent retail dealmaker Alexander Deitch was at the center of a “massive, multi-year fraud, bribery, and kickback scheme involving the senior management of a national retailing company.”

Mattress Firm is the nation’s top specialty bedding retailer with more than 3,400 company-operated and franchised stores across the country. At the time of the alleged scheme, Deitch was a senior vice president and principal at Colliers International Atlanta, one of the city’s largest commercial real estate brokerages. This year, Deitch was named No. 4 retail producer by the Atlanta Commercial Board of Realtors and is a lifetime member of its Million Dollar Club.

Deitch is no longer employed by Colliers.

The lawsuit filed Oct. 30 in the District Court of Harris County, Texas, claims Deitch worked alongside top Mattress Firm real estate executives Bruce Levyand Ryan Vinson (among the 17 defendants named in the case) to defraud the retailer out of potentially millions of dollars.

“Mr. Deitch denies the allegations made in the petition filed by Mattress Firm,” his attorney, Kevin Ward with Atlanta-based Schulten Ward Turner & Weiss LLP, said in a statement to Atlanta Business Chronicle. “All of his business dealings were conducted in good faith and in the best interests of Mattress Firm. He intends to defend the lawsuit in court.”

Among the allegations, the 47-page lawsuit claims Deitch inflated rents and elongated lease terms for Mattress Firm stores, thus earning higher commissions. He also allegedly set up shell companies including an entity called Chase Ventures LLC to clandestinely purchase properties that Mattress Firm was to lease, placing him “secretly on the opposite side of the transactions,” says the lawsuit.

Mattress Firm also accuses Deitch of charging bogus developer fees in excess of $50,000 per store. The lawsuit alleges he worked with a preferred group of developers who made “millions of dollars in profits” flipping Mattress Firm stores with above-market rents. Those developers in turn gave kickbacks to Deitch, and Mattress Firm’s Levy and Vinson in the form of “lucrative business opportunities and extravagant gifts,” says the lawsuit, such as free hotel stays, expensive dinners and exotic trips.

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Atlanta’s high-rise apartment market faces cooldown

After an unprecedented high-rise apartment boom, Atlanta is poised for a slowdown in new projects and a return to a renters’ market.

Several trends are merging to slow both construction and rent growth.

First, construction was started on 6,500 high-rise units in Buckhead and Midtown between 2015 an 2017, according to the Reid Report, a publication that tracks apartment development across the region. That is a historic level of apartment towers in the city’s development pipeline. Another 4,500 high-rise units remain under construction, according to real estate consulting firm Haddow & Co. It’s going to take some time for those apartments to fill up.

In fact, Atlanta didn’t have a high-rise rental market until this real estate cycle. Before that, almost all new residential towers were built as condominiums.

Another reason for the projected slowdown in apartment high-rises is the cost to develop them. Construction costs have soared more than 30 percent since 2010, when the first wave of projects started to form, according to market data.

And, now rents are struggling to keep pace with those costs. In fact, for some towers that opened between 2012-2015, effective rents are down as much as 10 percent, according to Haddow & Co.

Concessions are also being closely watched. In Buckhead, landlords are offering tenants up to two months of free rent if they will sign new leases, according to the Reid Report.

The fundamentals suggest next year Buckhead and Midtown may see the fewest number of new towers start construction since 2014.

“We are expecting a dramatic decline,” said Harvey Wadsworth, a development executive with Mill Creek Residential, which has a new high-rise under construction on Peachtree Road next to ritzy mixed-use development The Shops Buckhead Atlanta.

Apartment deliveries, or new units that come onto the market, is peaking in Midtown now and peaked in Buckhead two years ago, according to Mill Creek.

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It would have been difficult to keep up the pace. Consider that in 2015, Buckhead saw almost 3,000 new apartment units delivered to the market (the majority of those were high-rise). This year, deliveries are down 40 percent, says Mill Creek.

Midtown high-rise construction is peaking now. The neighborhood is expected to deliver 2,300 units in 2017, but could see that number fall to as few as 300 units in two years.

The spate of high-rise apartments over the past seven years was new for Atlanta. It was fueled by forces in the real estate industry that emerged in the wake of the Great Recession, including barriers to first-time home-buyers such as student debt, tighter mortgage requirements and a lack of affordable single-family housing supply.

Former Novare Group and Carter executive Conor McNally was in the middle of the condo boom more than a decade ago. McNally, who now is principal at Shelton McNally Real Estate Partners, isn’t buying the projected slowdown in new apartment towers quite yet, and he is joined by analysts such as Reis.

In its latest quarterly report, Reis observed, “The apartment market continues to withstand pressure from added supply. With so much construction underway, vacancy rates were thought to grow higher.”

But, “healthy job growth provided steady demand for apartments.”

McNally believes more companies moving into the urban core will continue to spur more apartment towers, but he also believes rents, at least for the moment, have peaked.

“Anyone with new towers under construction cannot reasonably expect the significant high-rise rent growth we’ve seen to continue, at least for now,” he said. “I think we are entering a period of rent stagnation.”

Asked whether Atlanta could see a renters’ market emerge, which is often marked by declining rents and bigger concessions, McNally said, “At least we are closer to one than we have been in the last several years.”

Ladson Haddow, vice president with Haddow & Co., said how the market shakes out comes down to supply and demand.

“Supply is outpacing demand, which is resulting in a competitive leasing environment,” Haddow said. “However, the urban core is experiencing superb job growth and is increasingly becoming a more desirable place to live. It is still too soon to determine how deep the demand pool is for the surge of high-rise units delivering to the market, but it does appear that we have generally reached a ceiling on how high rents can be pushed.”

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Luxury Buckhead residential community breaks ground

Shovels for the long-expected luxury residential community in Peachtree Hills have finally hit dirt.

More than a decade after first being announced, a 216-unit senior living project in Peachtree Hills has broken ground, its developer says.

The entire development will cover about 20 acres in the historic south Buckhead neighborhood known for its dense tree canopy and Peachtree Creek.

Site development on the project, officially called Peachtree Hills Place, is underway. Construction on the first units could start later this fall.

It has more than $117 million in financing from SunTrust Bank, Atlantic Capital Bank, Iberia Bank and Capital Bank.

Peachtree Hills Place is geared to the high-end homebuyer. It will include 204 condos in six, four-story buildings. The condos will range from $730,000 to $1.8 million. Twelve custom-built single-family homes will start at $1.8 million.

The project was first pitched in 2005 on the cusp of the historic recession, with plans for more than 260 luxury apartments.

Asked about changes to the project’s overall plan and the more-than decade long process to get to groundbreaking, Isakson said, “We were patient.” An important step included getting feedback from the project’s first homebuyers, who suggested a few tweaks. “We worked through a myriad of things,” he said.

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Atlanta City Council to consider density bonuses for affordable housing

Developers willing to add affordable housing units to apartment projects or build near transit could receive density bonuses under legislation introduced into the Atlanta City Council this week.

The ordinance, sponsored by Councilwoman Carla Smith, would let developers willing to commit to affordable housing construct taller buildings, thus allowing more apartments. Apartment projects built near transit also would qualify for density bonuses.

Unlike two “inclusionary zoning” ordinances currently circulating among local neighborhood planning units (NPUs), Smith’s ordinance would be voluntary for developers rather than mandatory. It also would apply to the entire city, rather than specific communities.

“Affordable housing needs to be everywhere,” Smith said.

Smith said she plans to send the ordinance to the NPUs for input before putting it through the city council’s committee review process.

“I want to hear everyone’s ideas,” she said. “Then, maybe we can write a [new] paper or amend this paper.”

While Smith is lead sponsor of the ordinance, most of the other council members also have signed on as co-sponsors.

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South downtown’s Norfolk Southern building sells for $25 million

The former Norfolk Southern headquarters, an abandoned landmark on Spring Street eyed for years as a major south downtown redevelopment, has sold for $25 million.

The buyer, 99-125 Spring Street Atlanta Owner LLC, is said to be affiliated with Los Angeles-based real estate company CIM Group, according to sources familiar with the deal.

At nearly 406,000 square feet, the Norfolk Southern property is one of downtown’s largest and most complicated redevelopment opportunities. Under new ownership, it may be woven into a sweeping south downtown project that Newport U.S. is RE planning. It could create a walkable mix of residences, shops and restaurants stretching all the way to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The sale of the Norfolk Southern building was completed on Sept. 27, according to Fulton County property records. The LLC paid about $62 a foot.

Earlier this year, Atlanta Business Chronicle reported CIM Group planned to develop a $1 billion mixed-use project around a renovated Philips Arena. One of the principals of CIM is Richard Ressler, the brother of Tony Ressler, the majority owner of the Atlanta Hawks.

An email to CIM principals was not immediately returned. Norfolk Southern declined comment on the sale.

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First look at 220-unit Chamblee project

A 220-unit apartment project could speed up plans to make a stretch of Clairmont Road in Chamblee at least a bit more walkable.

The Bainbridge Cos., which is expanding for the first time into the Atlanta market, is proposing the nearly three-acre project at Interstate 85 and Clairmont Road.

The company, based in Wellington, Fla., is primarily known for developments in East Coast markets such as Florida, North Carolina, Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

It declined comment about the new project. But, it released images to the Chamblee Architectural Review Board, which meets October 3.

Bainbridge is seeking approval for variances allowing it to develop just under three acres at Clairmont Road near the Century Center Office Park and Interstate 85, according to the proposal submitted to Chamblee.

The property currently includes two vacant commercial buildings. Some of the land is owned by Highwoods Realty Limited Partnership, an affiliate of the real estate company Highwoods, which owns Century Center.

Long-term, the office park could be transformed into a higher-density

mixed-use node that’s a strong, regional employment center, according to Chamblee’s future development plan.

The Bainbridge Cos. project would also rise within walking distance of the Peachtree Creek Greenway Trail, a linear multi-use path that will one day connect Chamblee, Doraville, Brookhaven and the Atlanta Beltline.

Atlanta’s Niles Bolton Associates is designing the apartment project.

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Darden looks to grow Cheddar’s brand in Georgia

Darden Restaurants Inc. wants to grow one of its newly-acquired brands in Georgia.

Darden (NYSE: DRI) earlier this year acquired Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen for $780 million.

Now, it sees growth potential in the Southeast.

Darden CEO Gene Lee said in a Sept. 26 call with analysts that the company acquired the 11 franchisee-owned Cheddar’s restaurants in Georgia, along with the development rights in Georgia and Alabama.

“This transaction, which closed on August 28, gives us the opportunity to enhance our presence in two states that we believe will have strong growth opportunities for the Cheddar’s brand,” Lee said.

Cheddar’s was founded in 1979 in Arlington, Texas. Today, it has around 165 locations in 28 states. Its restaurants see average sales volume of $4.4 million, says Darden.

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Grady Memorial Hospital plans $13 million diagnostic center off Camp Creek Parkway

Grady Memorial Hospital Corp. plans to open a $13 million diagnostic center off Camp Creek Parkway inside its new medical office building.

The hospital on Sept. 22 filed plans with the Georgia Department of Community Health (DCH) to establish a multimodality diagnostic center. The project would require 32,000 square feet of interior build-out.

As Atlanta Business Chronicle reported in April 2017, Grady is opening an ambulatory care center, called Comprehensive Care Center of Camp Creek, on Princeton Lakes Way.

To build the new center, Grady partnered with Ackerman & Co., which has developed three other medical office buildings in the Camp Creek area.

Ackerman Medical founder John Willig in April estimated the building would cost $8 million to $8.5 million.

Grady will need to file a Certificate of Need and gain approval from DCH before beginning work on the diagnostic center.

The new MOB is slated to open in early 2018.

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