Is Virginia-Highland's restaurant and retail scene being overtaken by corporate monsters?

Expert examines shift from local to corporate as real estate costs increase

Virginia-Highland, one of the few pedestrian friendly districts in Atlanta, is clearly one of the best retail sub-markets.

With commercial real estate rental prices at the top of the market for any sub-market in Atlanta, the area now boasts rents that greater than Downtown, Midtown and West Midtown,  and most of Buckhead for commercial spaces. The real estate taxes and operating expenses (pass through charges) are at more than $8 dollars per square foot. Keep in mind, that's in addition to a hefty cost of $36 to $40 gross per square foot!

In the VirginiaHighland area, a 2,000-square-foot shop would cost around $80,000 per year ($6,500 per month). That's not exactly chump change, especially for  start ups or local one-off businesses.

So I took to the computer and found there are five retail spaces available (for sale and rent) in the immediate area: 1. Site for sale at $420 per square foot (sounds like Streets of Buckhead land prices in 2007),  2. Retail site for sale at $368 per square foot (also very high for a non-occupied space), 3. For rent at $32 per square foot, 4. For rent at $28.50 per square foot, 5. For rent at $30 per square foot.

As the area becomes too expensive for locally established ma-and-pa shops to succeed, can chains and corporate businesses be blamed for taking over? Perhaps the building and land owners should be blamed for charging premium rents-- the heavy rental obligations are sinking the local one-off businesses and are scaring away potential start-ups.

I went to brunch at Murphy’s last weekend with my aunt, an animal and environmental activist, business owner and Virginia-Highland resident for 30 years. I found it interesting to hear her perspective on the recent restaurant and retail additions to Virginia-Highland and her growing irritation of how the community is slowly evolving into “mainstream” and losing its fundamentalist beginnings and character.

Across from Murphy's, the newly opened YEAH! Burger in a former service station space, brought my aunt disgust as we talked. When I told her it must be better than having the service station, she looked at me as if I just ordered a three patty burger with extra bacon.

Yogli Mogli, which recently opened in the area as well,  is looked on as another sign of a  trend or fad coming to an original area, according to my aunt. Despite kids pouring out the front door with laughter, her argument is that there's one in Sandy Springs which is "so suburban." The replacement of Everybody's Pizza with the Atlanta Chain, based Genki Sushi, makes her even more upset. To her, Virginia-Highland represents a selective lifestyle and mind set, a variation of social conformation and corporations. The community has always been loyal and supportive of the local based businesses.

She is more than thankful that “THE MIX” development got struck down by the real estate Gods when the market turned. That development alone (condos, commercial, and retail space) would have tarnished Highland Avenue for her and the thought of a massive parking deck shadowing the street, sickens her stomach.

I’ve been a regular in Virginia-Highland for the last ten years and the recent changes don't bother me. More retail makes the area stronger, new concepts keep the streets busy, friendly and vibrant, and the atmosphere positive and upbeat. And to be frank,  I am the guy who does eat at Genki and YEAH! Burger.

The area still has plenty of charm. It’s not a mall, but rather unique and full of character. There's a good balance of the old movement and the new. Ten years from now, when you walk Highland Avenue and read the signage above each space, will it still be like that?

Do you side with my aunt's thinking of the neighborhood? Share your thoughts on the evolving Virginia-Highland community over the last two years-- what would you like to see fill those five empty spaces?