ATLANTA (AP) — Bank of America Plaza is Atlanta's tallest skyscraper — and these days one of its loneliest.
Though the 55-story tower's soaring gold-leaf spire still glitters from afar, the building is nearly half empty. Two thousand workers, perhaps more, have left in recent years as tenants downsized or moved, emptying whole floors.
Those who remain enjoy quick elevator rides, short cafeteria lines and ample parking. But a building that once symbolized Atlanta's business vitality now stands as a 1,023-foot-tall monument to the real estate bust, and a measure of the region's halting recovery.
A year ago the tower at the border of downtown and Midtown suffered the ignominy of becoming the tallest U.S. building foreclosed since the recession. Occupancy is down since then, and at least two more major tenants could walk.
"That tower lined up with the ascension of Atlanta as being seen as a Southern city to one with global recognition," Mercer University economist Roger Tutterow said. The problem is that the region's commercial center has marched steadily north since the tower opened in 1992, he added, and in the wake of the recession metro Atlanta isn't growing jobs fast enough to fill its glut of offices.
"The dynamics changed," Tutterow said.
Since the foreclosure, a new company has come in to stabilize and revamp the skyscraper, giving real estate observers hope. Yet the iconic tower at Peachtree Street and North Avenue still stands at a crossroads.
Metro Atlanta's office market was ravaged by the implosion of the building and investment boom that followed the economic crash. Companies cut workers and office space.
Now there appear to be fewer big-fish tenants seeking large blocks of office space, and fewer prospects for out-of-state relocations, said Henry Lorber, a distressed real estate expert with Hays Financial Consulting in Atlanta.
Bank of America Plaza doesn't have the amenities of newer competitors, he said, and apparently rental rates haven't been cut to a point that will lure companies from other sites.
Competition for tenants is cutthroat. The empty top-tier — or Class A — office space in metro Atlanta would equal 14 Bank of America Plazas. That doesn't include the lower-grade space that's available.
The tower's 48.6 percent vacancy rate far exceeds the region's nearly 20 percent rate, which remains about 7 or 8 points above what is considered normal. The former owners, who paid a record price for the building at the very top of the market in 2006, couldn't compete when the economy cratered and rival building owners coaxed tenants away with sweetheart deals.
The office market is a barometer of the broader economy. Companies typically rent what they need or expect to need in the near future.
One report last month offered good news. The metro region has filled more space than was vacated for five straight quarters, a winning streak not seen since 2007. The region is growing jobs again, though its jobless rate still exceeds the nation's. Other landmark Class A towers such as Downtown's 191 Peachtree or Buckhead's 3344 Peachtree have far healthier occupancy rates.
Those rates matter. Office towers feed business to nearby retailers and restaurants. When rents and property values rise, so do tax rolls.
The challenge of returning the Bank of America building to health is enormous.
The tallest U.S. building that's not in New York or Chicago, it boasts nearly 1.3 million square feet of floor space, as much as many large malls. The tower's empty space alone — more than 600,000 square feet — is the size of three Super Walmarts, or downtown's Equitable building.
Two key tenants, law firm Troutman Sanders, which holds 14 floors, and accounting firm Frazier & Deeter, which leases two, are eyeing other buildings or could reduce their current space, according to people with direct knowledge of the building.
A spokesman for Troutman Sanders said the firm "is constantly exploring ways" to make operations "more space-efficient." A Frazier & Deeter spokeswoman said the company is considering options.
CW Capital Asset Management, which now controls the building, declined to comment. But the company is said to be weighing a renovation of lobby and common areas as it tries to fill as much space as possible before putting the tower on the market.
There are other issues, said Lorber, the expert in distressed real estate. The building sits back from Peachtree and lacks a retail or restaurant presence to attract people from nearby offices. It is in a lightly developed area — a bit beyond downtown but on the southern fringe of Midtown, Lorber said.
"I still don't know how to attract tenants to this building," Lorber said. "Their choice appears to be to either gut prices or turn it into a Taj Mahal."
A large real estate investment trust like Atlanta-based Cousins Properties, the original developer of Bank of America Plaza, might be a candidate to buy it. Other developers, life insurance companies or pension funds are possible candidates. Cousins declined to comment.
Originally designed for C&S Bank and renamed for successor institutions, the tower prospered for years and fetched a then-record $436 million in 2006 when Cousins sold the nearly full building to California real estate firm Bentley-Forbes. Soon after, office vacancies soared and property values and rents plummeted.
BentleyForbes was hamstrung by the terms of its debt, and accounting giant Ernst & Young, Boston Consulting and law firm Paul Hastings left in recent years. Namesake tenant Bank of America cut its space from 500,000 square feet in 2010 to less than 200,000 square feet today.
BentleyForbes lost the building in last February's foreclosure.
On a recent Friday, lunch business was light at restaurants on the tower's block. Leaves waltzed on the sidewalk with nary a person to intrude. A pub in a former firehouse across North Avenue used to be a boistrous watering hole for lawyers and bankers, but it closed recently, reportedly because of a lease dispute.
Workers in the tower told a reporter that broken gym equipment in the health club often goes months without being replaced.
In commercial real estate, a foreclosure can often mean new vitality for a property by bringing in new owners with cash to upgrade a building and woo new tenants, said Gene Kansas, a commercial real estate broker.
Kansas hopes for both. He is the broker for the old firehouse across the street, and also a partner in the PocketBar coffee shop inside Bank of America Plaza.
Both the street and tower need new life, he said, which means controlling interests need to rethink, reprice and reinvigorate the building.
"It is one of the largest examples of what's happening in commercial real estate," he said.