Neighborhood Guide: Tech Square brings together innovation, student life

It was the 1996 Olympics that started the wheels turning in Wayne Clough’s head. Road closures for the games forced the Georgia Tech president to find a new route to work in the morning, one that took him through a blighted section of Midtown separated from Tech by the Downtown Connector. Clough had been thinking about a place that could become the heart of Atlanta’s technology community, akin to Kendall Square in Boston. And suddenly, he had it.

A quarter-century later, Technology Square — more commonly known as Tech Square — is a bustling, vibrant 13-acre neighborhood populated by students, entrepreneurs and locals alike. A pedestrian bridge landscaped with grass and shrubbery to soften the highway noise crosses the 14 lanes of interstate traffic that once divided this area of Midtown and hemmed in Georgia Tech’s growth. Academic buildings, offices of tech companies, hotels and apartment complexes, restaurants and other businesses have replaced what was once an expanse of vacant lots.

What a change from the days when current Georgia Tech president Angel Cabrera attended graduate school at Tech from 1991 to 1995. “We rarely ventured into the Midtown neighborhood across the connector,” he wrote in a 2019 blog on the school’s website. “There were no reasons to go there — no classes, no internships, no cool restaurants, no conferences — and good reasons not to go there.”

From startups to corporate headquarters

Now, Tech Square is an area that absolutely brims with well-known names and smart people. The Starbucks in the Barnes and Noble Bookstore in Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business is an ideal place to sip a latte and people watch, perhaps spotting the next tech billionaire rushing by. It’s hard to find any place that’s more densely packed with startups, incubators, corporate innovation centers and students than this little corner of Midtown.

From the beginning, Tech Square was envisioned as a place where the technology industry could benefit from the immense talent base at Georgia Tech, and companies big and small have taken advantage. Tech Square is now home to more than 200 startups, five startup accelerators, 10 investor offices and innovation centers at which the likes of AT&T, Delta Air Lines, Home Depot, Panasonic and Coca-Cola have used to build valuable partnerships with the school and its students.

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And some companies have gone a step further than that. In 2017, financial technology company NCR moved its global headquarters to Tech Square, bringing 4,000 jobs along with it. In October, the networking hardware company Cisco opened an office in Tech Square. And in November railroad giant Norfolk Southern opened its new headquarters in Tech Square, a 750,000-square-foot building which will employ more than 3,000 people. The move merged operations which had previously been split between Atlanta and the company’s former headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia.

A supercomputer and a Waffle House

At the heart of Tech Square is, of course, Georgia Tech, which has grown beyond the leafy confines of its main campus across the interstate. In 2001, Tech broke ground on the Scheller College of Business, which remains the area’s cornerstone. A variety of academic and research buildings have followed, including the country’s oldest technology incubator, an economic development lab which works with municipalities to support business expansion, as well as the $5.3 million Hive Supercomputer supporting countless research projects.

But Tech Square is more than just research buildings and industry giants. The Biltmore, long an icon in Midtown, was purchased by Georgia Tech in 2016 and converted into apartments, offices and retail spaces. The Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center hosts everything from corporate meetings to wedding receptions.

Waffle House vice president of people Will Mizell with Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins at the Georgia Tech Waffle House on December 19, 2018. (Courtesy Waffle House)

Of course, there’s the Waffle House that’s among the favorite stops of Yellow Jackets football coach Geoff Collins, the Collective Food Hall offering dishes from some of Atlanta’s top chefs, and of course Ray’s New York Pizza, which remains a favorite of students and coders alike.

Tech Square is more than just an extension of the Georgia Tech campus — it’s a place that better connects the school with both the technology industry and Atlanta at large. Vacant lots have given way to structures like the magnificent Coda Building, home to the world’s tallest spiral staircase. The square even recently flipped the switch on its own power grid.

At Tech Square, the innovations promise to keep coming — benefiting Georgia Tech, greater Atlanta and the world.