About 113 years after his grandfather originally purchased the property in 1899, Bryan Patten, of investment management firm Patten and Patten, Inc., sold the buildings at Vine Street and Georgia Avenue to the Universal Joint owners in late 2012.
The lot now holds an old gas station and brick building. The gas station dates back to the 1930s, Patten said, and the much older brick garage was built as a carriage house to hold the horses and wagons associated with a nearby funeral parlor.
At one point, the corner may have included a drug store, Patten added.
A new restaurant and bar is planning to move into the old Farrow's Service Station at the corner of Vine Street and Georgia Avenue and open by June.
Downtown backers said the project should help make the area more pedestrian-friendly and connect downtown with UTC.
Universal Joint, as the new eatery is called, serves a variety of lunch and dinner dishes, including sandwiches, burgers, salads, tacos and bar snacks. Co-owners Tracy Crowley, Gordon Ricker and Marc Brennan have already opened other Universal Joints in Atlanta, Asheville, N.C., and Clayton, Ga.
The men will invest about $1 million to renovate the old gas station and add an outdoor patio at the corner across from Fountain Square.
"Part of what we do is find old gas stations with a lot of character and try to renovate them into some new use," Crowley said. "We came across this one and liked that it was downtown with Unum next door, the proximity to the school -- and we're not down on the touristy area on the strip near the aquarium; that isn't really our niche. We are much more of a neighborhood place."
The restaurant has been successful in the Atlanta area -- where the owners live -- and they want to branch out to other markets, Crowley said. He hopes to eventually start between six and eight more Universal Joints within a two-hour radius of Atlanta, but isn't opening franchised locations.
Crowley said he'll put new wiring and plumbing into the building, and hopes to add landscaping to make the corner "a little cozier." He expects to hire about 30 people.
A group of city developers, engineers and designers presented big plans for the area around Fountain Square during River City Co.'s Urban Design Challenge last spring. The design team envisioned tripling the size of the park, putting a signature multi-use building where Universal Joint is now slotted to go and rerouting the short section of 6th Street that cuts from Lookout Street to Vine Street.
"Our vision was to see Fountain Square as more of a pedestrian area, as opposed to this three-road convergence that's not pedestrian friendly at all," said Eric Cummings, a developer with Paper Street Associates who was part of the team that studied the area.
And while Universal Joint is not the landmark, multi-use building with a restaurant on the first floor that the plan suggests, Cummings said he thinks it will still be good for the neighborhood.
"Our vision was a little bit different than that, but our vision was meant to encourage different types of businesses," he said. "To me, this can sort of still be that kind of thing. It's going to bring the right type of life to that building."
The presentation for the Urban Design Challenge considered Vine Street an important corridor that could be used to connect UTC to downtown. The team suggested building a 900-car parking garage with a soccer stadium built on the roof and adding high-density residential housing to the area.
Kim White, president of River City Co., said the new restaurant could start to establish that pathway.
"We've been trying to find ways to pull students across the street and into downtown, and this could be an important start to making that whole area a more vibrant corridor," White said.
While the Urban Design Challenge team called for major changes to the area, the team's May 2012 presentation recognized that change could be slow.
"The future of Vine Street does not depend on a building, or a massive capital investment to put a soccer stadium on top of a mixed-use housing building with 900 parking spaces," it reads. "Far from it. It's the little things, the incremental changes, that are just as valuable for building a strong city."
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at email@example.com or 423-757-6525.