Canopy Atlanta asked over 50 Lakewood Heights residents about the journalism they needed. This story emerged from that feedback.
Canopy Atlanta also pays and trains community members, our Fellows, to learn reporting skills to better serve the community. Pristine Parr, a Canopy Atlanta Fellow, wrote this story.
Several years ago, developer Omar Ali invested into a thorough study of the Lakewood Heights area and why it has been neglected for so long. His research team examined deeds, knocked on doors, and completed a survey of every structure within a half-mile radius of what became Ali at Lakewood.
Ali’s business center, next to the dilapidated, abandoned Lakewood Elementary building, used to be a church. After $12 million in renovations, Ali at Lakewood is now a hub for small Black-owned businesses that features a coffee shop, massage and yoga center, therapy services, an adjacent garden, and a 3600-square-foot event center as the centerpiece. For many, Ali at Lakewood is a symbol of the new Lakewood Heights.
Canopy Atlanta asked Ali about the need for development he has seen in Lakewood Heights over the years. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Canopy Atlanta: What drew you into building, construction, and government contracting?
Omar Ali: I own a structural steel fabrication facility. That facility was American Institute of Steel Construction-certified, and we were part of the NAFTA agreement. Our plant was in Tecate, Mexico, and the headquarters was here in Atlanta. It was working in over 18 different countries for the U.S. government and American embassies from Tajikistan, Pakistan, London, Frankfurt, Germany, China, Haiti, Swaziland [now Eswatini], you name it. But when Trump [increased] the steel tariffs and canceled the NAFTA [North American Free Trade] Agreement, that was the nail that ended it right there. We had close to 150 employees.
I had a conversation with my wife: “Look, we got to move the company to real estate,” something I’ve talked about for years. One of the areas that we hit before Lakewood was actually East Point. Our customer was a little different; we did an industrial building there and brought jobs. But in Lakewood I wanted to have retail. . . . somewhere that people can work, live, and play.
CA: What made you decide to go with Lakewood Heights?
Omar Ali: We did a study, and Lakewood Heights was identified as a good area for us to try to turn the neighborhood around. If you focus on economics first, meaning if you bring in jobs and businesses to the area, you give people a reason to want to move to the particular area. . . . The Lakewood area, within a two-mile radius of our building, actually had a 67 percent vacancy rate. That was quite significant, and we finally understood why crime was in the area.
CA: When it came down to the study that you were able to perform, did it give you the reason why the area had been hollowed out so badly?
Omar Ali: It did. What happened over the years, early ‘90s, is when people started to move out the neighborhood, investors started buying up the properties. They owned a significant amount of the properties, and they held onto the properties, from the commercial down to the residential. The majority of those homes in the area had tax issues, to where no taxes were paid on it. We did a thorough interview with a lot of people where you may have the grandmother or grandfather who left the home to the grandkids with no will, and they got tied up in probate court. A combination of that and the LLCs spelled a recipe for disaster.
We reached out to the majority of the LLCs and tried convincing them to do something with their properties. Nobody wanted to do anything, but we couldn’t let that deter us. We knew that we had to be the first people to catapult this area back into where it needs to be.
“We need more residential homes—and we’re not talking about where investors come in and flip them and put anyone in them. No, we need some for middle income families.”Omar Ali, real estate developer
CA: A lot of housing development is out of the price range for the current residents who live in the area. Do you know why they would be building $600,000 and $700,000 homes right next to dilapidated homes and streets?
Omar Ali: When we built our first home in 2002, we had a partnership with the City of Atlanta to build  affordable homes. Our first home was 2000 square feet, and we sold it for $270,000. At that particular time the home was valued at $300,000. . . . We would have been comfortable with selling the home for around $350,000, but we couldn’t do that due to the partnership. We lost money due to the construction costs. Developers are greedy, but you do need mixed income housing. You can’t have all low income housing in an area.
CA: Did you build all 20 homes in Lakewood Heights?
Omar Ali: We have not completed them. We couldn’t stay at area median income within the affordability rates due to the construction costs. We don’t get grants. This is our personal money in our bank, money from traditional banks. We can’t lose money. . . .
Our construction material prices may have dropped a little, but now the labor force—the framers, the carpenters, concrete guys—are charging extraordinary work rates. That, and the combination of interest rate, is very difficult, unless the city under Mayor Dickens puts in place different grants and stuff to help developers. We are going to re-approach that relationship with the city. This particular mayor is extremely aggressive on affordability, which is good. They’re putting certain programs in place that will help developers that want to do the right thing. But you still have those developers who don’t care. If they can sell for several hundred thousand dollars, that is what they’re going to do.
CA: What other types of establishments and organizations need to be in the area in order for it to come into its full potential again?
Omar Ali: First thing we need is a grocery store. More restaurants. We have, of course, a restaurant in the building [Love at First Bite Brunch], but the next closest restaurant to her was the Wendy’s that burned down. We need more residential homes—and we’re not talking about where investors come in and flip them and put anyone in them. No, we need some for middle income families.
We’ve talked to many different stores: Publix, Kroger, the Lidls . . . We can’t convince them to do it, because there’s not enough homes in the area, or even foot traffic, they said. There’s other ways to do it. If you go to Smyrna, they have a lot of mom and pop grocery stores in that area that do exceptionally well.
CA: When it comes to the funding, because that’s a lot of the reasons behind us not really being able to sustain a business, what are good sources of funding?
Omar Ali: That is an age-old thing that we’re still trying to figure out. We don’t control the banking system. As good as the City of Atlanta is, a lot of the money that they give out is such a small amount that doesn’t make an impact. They may have $20,000 grants, $50,000 grants, but the majority are $5,000. They do have loan programs, but the criteria for the loan programs is no different than regular banks. . . .
We do invest quite a bit in other people’s businesses. It’s going to come down to entrepreneurs that have the means to invest in other people. Let’s take Peter Thiel, when he invested $500,000 in Facebook. Look what that turned to. They didn’t go out to any bank. I know $500,000 seems a lot, but I know four or five guys we can go to easily and do it individually or combined. We need the Facebook, we need the Instagram.
CA: How would someone approach you with a business idea or even with an existing business that they may want to get funded?
Omar Ali: Have them reach out to me. It’s no different than how they know how to reach out to Peter Thiel—connections. I set up a meeting to hear what their idea is. If I think it’s a good idea, we’ll invest in it. If I don’t think it is a good idea, I won’t. But I will still encourage them because a lot of people do have good ideas, it just may not be the investment that we’re looking for. We don’t want to discourage them.
CA: What do you see as Lakewood Heights’ fullest potential?
Omar Ali: Lakewood Heights is conveniently located in so many different places. I picture a thriving neighborhood based on healthy living, a lifestyle, mixed income [households]—very similar to, say, Grant Park, but different, of course. We want that in Lakewood, and I think that we’re on the path to do it. If I continue my efforts, within two to three years it’s gonna look totally different. The people in Lakewood are such great people, and they’ve been fighting for so damn long. That’s why people have been trying to convince me to tell more people about our story. What we’ve done in the Lakewood Heights area is remarkable. People don’t know that we have a Black developer . . . That’s something significant.
Editor: Christina Lee
Canopy Atlanta Reader: Heather Buckner
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